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10th of December 2018

Books



Megan Boyle’s “Liveblog” and the Limits of Autofiction

Early on in Megan Boyle’s experiment in live-blogging her life, she decides to take a bath. She’s trying to get it all down, but there are some difficulties:

12:22AM: bathwater is running. i’m just going ot do this until forever. ate half of some kind of pill, 1 mg Xanax ithink. ate other one […]

ookkk anoth athter xaanxn at some e oo==ibe, ijay sruffl is going to better e=vetter i know

1:12AM: woke in mostly empty bathtub. very cold. drain wouldn’t close so i just sat on it and refilled tub with hot water. when i woke felt obsessed with finding candy i had been eating but i guess i ate it all. flopped around trying to always be covered in hot water, thinking ‘sexy seal’ and ‘sprinkle princess’ and pictured someone tossing me a fish and this is what would get me into the maxim top 100 hottest women or whatever. because enough seals voted me in.

Falling asleep in the bathtub with her MacBook does not stop her from marinating for several more hours, dispensing thoughts of differing levels of coherence (“just realized wolf voices”). It’s Boyle at her least composed, a moment of deeply vulnerable self-exposure, broadcast to anyone who would care to read it. The obvious question follows: Why would anyone want to do this?

From March 17th to September 1st of 2013, Boyle detailed her life on Tumblr, updating every day, as often as possible, with no detail too small to leave out. The project, some years later, has been published as “Liveblog,” a seven-hundred-page doorstopper with possibly ironic comparisons to Karl Ove Knausgaard and David Foster Wallace on the back cover. Boyle begins with a disclaimer:

**THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE INTERESTING** ** I AM NOT GOING TO TRY TO MAKE THIS SOUND INTERESTING OR TRY TO MAKE YOU LIKE ME OR THINK ABOUT IF YOU ARE READING THIS OR ENJOYING READING THIS, IT’S JUST GOING TO BE WHAT IT IS: A FUNCTIONAL THING THAT WILL HOPEFULLY HELP ME FEEL MORE LIKE IMPROVING MYSELF**

The ensuing pages are a chronicle of good and (more often) poor decisions, sensitive disclosures, personal musings, Gchat logs, and highly detailed records of food and drugs consumed. In terms of plot, the events are ordinary: Boyle begins living with her parents, clears out her old apartment with her ex-boyfriend, moves to New York City, socializes, starts seeing someone new, and stops seeing him. But “event” is perhaps the wrong measurement: the focus is the cataloguing of her observations and shifting states of mind—all the granular things that a judicious editor might cut. Boyle is hardly the first to want to record life in its entirety, but her persistence, attention to strange detail, and humorous sense of her own abjection begin to feel like a radical act.

Boyle belongs to Alt-Lit, a movement that coalesced, in the late two-thousands, through blogs and social media, and whose aesthetic was expressed on sites like HTMLGIANT and Thought Catalog. (Boyle spends some time thinking of pitches for the latter.) Despite being very recent history, the Alt-Lit ethos can feel like something from a bygone era. Its material, “edgy” and unprocessed, drew largely on compulsive online activity, depression, urban boredom, and dysfunctional relationships—in other words, the pains of being in your teens and twenties, and the plight of being unable to keep those pains to yourself.

Much of this work was condescended to at the time, or dismissed as puerile navel-gazing. And some of it was. But its authors were also the first group of young writers grappling with the constant presence of the Internet. To borrow from Sherry Turkle’s “The Second Self,” their computers and phones were the “evocative objects” in their writing, devices that they struggled to reconcile with a more “literary” tradition. The movement’s biggest star was an N.Y.U. grad named Tao Lin, who published other writers and became known for his flat, affectless voice. Lin’s centrality also played a large role in Alt-Lit’s dispersion: in 2014, he was accused of sexual abuse, following other suggestions that the scene was exactly as dysfunctional as its writers had indicated in their thinly veiled fictions. (Lin denied the allegations.)

It seemed telling, if unsurprising, that writers who aspired to total disclosure still had much to conceal. In “Liveblog,” too, memories of unethical behavior by men keep recurring, though Boyle rarely makes this its own subject of inquiry. (At one point she tells an interviewer that she is not a feminist.) Boyle is deeply tied to Lin: the two were once married, and the central love interest in “Taipei,” Lin’s most developed work, is based on Boyle. That book’s moment of fame is in turn featured in “Liveblog,” when Boyle, with a mixture of pride and ambivalence, listens to her mom read passages from the book over the phone.

In “Taipei,” Lin often deploys abstract descriptions (mental states filtered through computer jargon) and sophisticated metaphors. (“Fran slowly turned her head away to rotate her face, like a moon orbiting behind its planet, interestingly out of view.”) Boyle’s work has more to do with recording life’s texture, pursuing the granular for its own sake. She writes about bowel movements, online rabbit holes, intimate flashes of anxiety. A strange dynamic emerges: the most personal experiences are the most titillating to share, but they lose their potency after becoming public. More life needs to be uploaded. The effort becomes a kind of “map and territory” problem: the more involved Boyle is with writing her life, the more blogging alone simply becomes her life. At a certain point, she compares herself to Tolkien’s Gollum; the blog, she writes, is her “precious.”

One might be tempted to call “Liveblog” autofiction, a category into which many critically praised novels have been uncritically thrown. Perhaps this is because the term passes off as new something—the use of intimate personal experiences—that is in the marrow of fiction. It was coined, in 1977, by the French writer Serge Doubrovsky, to denote a fiction “of facts and of events strictly real.” The word is still applied to this strong French tradition (Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernaux, or even Édouard Levé’s great “Autoportrait”) but it more often is used on contemporary authors—Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti, among others—whose “reality effects” create a strong sense of immediacy on the page, so that very little seems to separate the reader from the writer’s experience.

This is not a new project—one could trace it to the early twentieth-century Surrealist tradition of automatic writing, or perhaps even further. One early exponent was the surrealist and anthropologist Michel Leiris, whose works “Manhood” and the sprawling multi-volume autobiographical text “Rules of the Game” sought the nooks and crannies of experience—the things that “proper” literature couldn’t see, even if the details were embarrassing or just hard to understand. In “Rules of the Game,” when Leiris is writing about a song remembered from childhood, he wonders if its meaning might be too personal for a reader to understand

without the sort of preparation that forms a bridge between the author’s intimate emotion and the reader’s consciousness, or rather that creates between the two of them the indispensable conducting medium in which a current has some chance of being created, a series of waves some chance of being propagated by the apparently and cold and inert little pebble that lies hidden from everyone in a corner of the author’s head or heart.

It is precisely because we each have our own “pebble” of private significance that we become interested in the pebbles of others. But reading about them can be taxing. Susan Sontag, writing about Leiris’s “Manhood,” noted that the book was “formless,” “provides no consummation or climax,” and is “sometimes boring.” This, she believed, was deliberate, as Leiris sought to prove “not that he is heroic, but that he is at all . . . what he seems to wish is to convince himself that this unsatisfactory body—and this unseemly character—really exist.”

It’s hard not to see Boyle in this: the Liveblog is a method of proving she exists, regardless of feedback. As she writes in her disclaimer, the blog is “a functional thing”: writing her life out will, she hopes, encourage self-improvement. The desire to be productive haunts the book, with its frequent to-do lists (“pack one box,” “drink kale smoothie”) and recurring accounts of food or drug binges. And though the lists are almost never completed, they provide a surprising amount of structure to the book. When Boyle moves to New York City and becomes more social, her entries become less regular, and white pages of “did not update” begin to stud the narrative.

Another factor that hastens the Liveblog’s demise is Boyle’s new relationship with a man who does not want to be mentioned in the blog. (Boyle refers to him as “[omitted].”) It’s no surprise that the Liveblog can never achieve perfect transparency, and Boyle confesses early on that she’s leaving things out. But if the book has a kind of progression, it’s the slow discovery of necessary privacy—the need to protect oneself from the amassing and exchange of data. The quest to transform life into literature, Boyle realizes, can ruin the life.

This retreat sets “Liveblog” apart from most modern autofiction. In the novels of Lerner, Heti, and Knausgaard, immediacy is a kind of artifice, which works ingeniously toward a more convincing illusion. But for Boyle, spontaneity is not a device; it is the very premise of her project. “Liveblog” can, for precisely this reason, be thought of as a limit case for autofiction, or for the value of the truly immediate. When Boyle withdraws from her work, her absence has a certain power, but it also reminds one of how effective the shaping of fiction can be. Lerner, writing on Knausgaard in the London Review of Books, notes that he “appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).” It’s true that this appears to be so, but in “My Struggle” Knausgaard has, in fact, already done the mental work of constructing narrative—memory can’t help but form stories. Boyle’s is a more automatic disclosure, accelerated by her ability to post at any time. “Liveblog” ’s closest ancestor is really Andy Warhol’s novel “a.,” a series of transcriptions of conversations between Warhol’s Factory stars as they go about life in New York City. The book captures every mumble and interruption, as well as the amphetamines the stars take to keep the party going. In “Liveblog,” Boyle mentions her affinity for transcription, and briefly experiments with it, but finds it too exhausting to keep “live.”

Warhol—or, rather, his amphetamines—suggests another, perhaps more significant influence on “Liveblog”: the drug narrative. There’s hardly a day in the book when Boyle doesn’t consume Xanax, Adderall, MDMA, alcohol, heroin, weed, or some other kind of supplement, and the blog is very much a record of the resulting shifts in mood. Like autofiction, this habit places Boyle in a long and venerable tradition. As Oliver Sacks wrote, “to live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient”: we need “to transcend,” whether with “ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings.”

It makes some sense that the writers most devoted to detailing life’s mundanity would seek to escape from that same grinding everydayness. In fact, the drug narrative arises around the beginning of modern self-disclosure. Consider Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” which was published in the eighteen-twenties, and which frames a tell-all account as an instructive, morally edifying story. Today, de Quincey’s project endures, on the Internet, as the trip report, a form that was often incorporated by Alt-Lit writers in their work. Reading about the warped experiences of others, we reconsider whether our own perspective is natural or fixed. Old ideals of art suggest that we should work for such revelations—that there’s something too easy about a chemically induced heightening. The value of “Liveblog,” and books like it, is to help us view that judgment with suspicion.

If autofiction provides the thrills and little voyeurisms of immediacy, if the trip provides a possible guide to transcendence, then perhaps Boyle’s work is an attempt at synthesis. The result could be called a fiction of the Internet—a representation of an infinitely extending and seemingly available world. The idea that the private lives of others are accessible online, transparent and ready to be clicked into, is a commonplace in our culture. “Liveblog” is a new kind of story, about how we arrange those lives for public inspection. It pushes that inspection to an extreme, in the hopes that, by choosing to give over everything, it might be possible, for a moment, to regain a sliver of agency. Writing it all down isn’t a new consciousness, exactly, but it might allow you to see yourself in a new way. All you have to do is open a document and begin.

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