Serial Fiction

The Right Sort

Mum doesn’t notice that I nick the odd pill. Valium’s like my power pill, from Pac-Man. I get nervous too. I took a pill before we left.

The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.

Valium or no Valium, when the dog barks I nearly shit myself and my lungs fill with dark and my blood fills with a scream—

Black Box

People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.

The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.

If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.

Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.

The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.

When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.

Jeff Noon

1/4) Somewhere my phone is ringing. I search my pockets, the sofa, the table, cupboards, under the sheets on the bed, inside the fridge…

2/4) Under floorboards, inside the wall cavities, the back of the stove. It’s still ringing. I look through filing cabinets, bookshelves…

3/4) In the oven, microwave, fireplace. The trash. I take the back off the television: nothing. But it’s still ringing. And then, finally…

4/4) After fifty minutes have passed, I find my phone in a plant pot, buried in the soil. And I answer it. “Yes? Hello?” It’s still ringing.

The first of these is from David Mitchell’s ‘The Right Sort’, the second, Jennifer Egan’s ‘Black Box’, the third from Jeff Noon. These works are not presented to suggest that Mitchell, Egan and Noon are the only writers working with forms of serial fiction (facilitated in these instances by Twitter). While we’re here, Joanne Harris is brilliant, Teju Cole evokes the specifics of place and time in 140 characters like nobody else. These three are there because they each have something to show about how reading and writing can be mediated by digital serial fiction.

First of all though, here’s a warning. If you’ve ever commented in the Guardian and pointed out how passé this is, or asked rhetorical questions online as to the point of writing in Twitter, then click here (next chapter). This bit isn’t for you. We think serial storytelling has something to offer, something to say, and so let’s not waste your time by asking you read it.

We read social media. Visually to textually. In combinations of media, and as a stream. We read it in situ, and out of context. We read storify-ed versions of events, in which we appear briefly, blinking in the headlights, before the record of the conversation moves on. We see things moderated, and as streams of data. We move through information and some of it, some of the aggregation of novelty, the consensual hallucination, strikes us as interesting.

Our attention lingers.

Each of the three examples above was chosen because it does something with the nature of serial storytelling and short, social media-stream updates. David Mitchell’s The Right Sort, conceived as a way to garner interest in Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, was serialised over a few days in July 2014. Comprising a short episode taking place over a few hours in the 1970s (but set in the same fictional universe as The Bone Clocks) and told over 280 tweets, the piece is constructed as a very short story broken into tiny pieces. At the time, Mitchell described writing in Twitter as a ‘diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket’, suggesting that the confines of 140 character bursts of content did not make for comfortable writing. Of interest in terms of form and content though, is the use Mitchell made of Twitter’s brevity. His narrator—Nathan—is in the habit of stealing his mother’s Valium for a quick high, and while in an altered state, is prone to short, abstracted descriptions of the world. As quoted above, ’Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one’ also displays a meta-awareness of the form in which it is read. An out of body experience commenting on the form of the tale’s telling. The Right Sort is too close to a short story in structure to tell us anything useful about serial fiction and twitter, but Mitchell’s use of the form does suggest a degree of native understanding. Black Box is the most formally ambitious of the three. Egan crafts something disturbing, complete.

Jeff Noon uses Twitter as most of the rest of us use air. He breathes it in, and exhales something utterly ‘other’ as a byproduct of his being in the world.