In the late 1950s JG Ballard worked on a novel that was to be posted in fragments, on advertising billboards. Although it never properly came to fruition, what Ballard managed to put together of “Project For A New Novel” takes the layout of advertising and makes it something else.
Squint at the Ballard’s page and it looks like an ad, but view it from the road, glimpsed in seconds, and there’s no way you’ll have time to comprehend the complex bundles of words. Even if you decide to park your car, step out and gawp up at the words, you’d be able to make little sense of the deliberately meaningless text. Plastered on a sign, it occupies the space of an advertisement, but look closer and it frustrates those expectations. It is an avant-garde text on a billboard – a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In many ways the billboards of the 21st century are no longer on the road but in our pockets and on our wrists, tangled into social media and our personal communications. A number of artists and writers are experimenting with our expectations of these new spaces, bringing fiction and emotional depth to areas where we expect fact and cursory engagement – with mixed results.
The most recent of these is the photographer and writer Rachel Hulin, who has gathered attention over the past week for her project ‘Hey Harry, Hey Matilda‘ – a story told through an Instagram account of the same name. Each post consists of a picture and a pinch of accompanying text. The words, pasted in the picture captions, relay a series of communications between two twins, Harry and Matilda; he a university English teacher, she a wedding photographer.
The pictures are glossy but haunting, the text clipped, laden with sexual tension and a few heavy-handed cultural references. As you scroll through the hi-res images of butter, broken watches and swimming pools you read the twin’s messages to each other as they talk about childhood, Alexander Rodchenko and the Large Hadron Collider. They attempt to perk each other up, whine, and share their fears of failure and death.
A number of websites have commented on how Hulin’s story could be read as updated version of the epistolary novel, or a serialised novel, or both. Hulin’s plan is indeed to release the entirety of the narrative over the course of nine months, which brings up certain parallels to the distribution methods of 19th-century serialised novels. And yet there’s something else going on. This serialisation isn’t a chapter of a book dressed as such, it’s a gamut of fictional fragments passed off as real-life interactions between siblings, tucked into the timelines of real Instagram users, between pictures of sunsets and gourmet burgers.
Is it a novel slipped into another form, supplemented by fake websites and expanded by comments from real users. While the writing itself can be a little irritating, it does present an interesting mode for storytelling – another wolf in sheep’s clothing, where the wool is the dressing of our daily digital browsing.
Working within new limitations
Hulin isn’t the first writer to tell a story through social media. The novelists Jennifer Egan and David Mitchell have both experimented with sputtering stories in 140-character outbursts. These limitations bring an Oulipian sensibility to the projects, with Mitchell referring to Twitter as a “diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket”.
Brevity certainly works best for the 80mph manner of reading we are accustomed to on our phones. There are several longer sections in Hey Harry, Hey Matilda, when the accompanying text goes on for longer than one or two paragraphs, and these are harder to care about.
In a physical book you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the length of these parts, but transfer that reading experience to Instagram and suddenly something 300 words-long becomes vast, especially with an array of updates, notifications and nudges nipping at your attention’s heels. If you sneak into the space of social media, you have to deal with its speed of reading. And like a billboard on the motorway, there’s only seconds to spare.
One project that embraces the way we read on smart devices is ‘Lifeline‘, an app developed by 3 Minute Games and written by Dave Justus. This iOS app tells the story of an astronaut that has crash-landed on an alien moon. Best played on an Apple Watch, the astronaut will intermittently send you messages throughout the day, informing you on his progress and asking you to help him decide what to do to survive.
It may not be told through Instagram or Twitter, but interspersed between messages and meeting reminders, the terse sentences of Lifeline’s narrative likewise intrude into real-world communications. When you’re sitting at your desk and your watch taps against your wrist with a message from an astronaut, the split between fiction and reality blurs.
Of course, Ballard’s reaction to slipping into the world of billboard advertising wasn’t to inject light entertainment into the world but to create something near-incomprehensible. Indeed, while their aims may be different, one thing all these pieces have in common is the power of the unexpected, drawing on the confusion that comes from encountering fiction in areas of “real” communication. At the moment this works in the favour of writers experimenting in the mode – Oh! I didn’t expect to see a story there! – yet there’s the feeling that as these infiltrations become more commonplace that initial element of surprise will fade.
It’s too soon to tell where ‘Hey Harry, Hey Matilda’ will go with its narrative, but it would be interesting to see a writer really push this mode of storytelling – sneaking a tale into social media that goes further than momentarily divert attention from the barrage of updates and images, and instead throws open the sheep’s skin to upset the comfortable relation those users have with the phones in their hands.