The cultural riches online are seemingly infinite - will they be there forever? Photogragh: Erik Söderström on Flickr via Creative Commons
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What’s the rush? Why the internet means we never get round to doing anything

Speed is of the essence in the online world but faced with the Aladdin’s cave of cultural riches, one’s response is invariably one of sluggishness, of planning for a putative future that will never come.

Returning to Dublin last Christmas I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in several years and who had moved into my old apartment when I upped sticks and went back to Paris almost a decade ago. I had left a few things “in storage” in the apartment, notably some couple of hundred vinyl records, most of them charting my various lurches and lapses in musical taste throughout the nineties and early noughties. I had intended coming back to collect them within a year or so. Of course, I left it for years and when I asked my friend Ivan if he had brought them with him on his last house move, he grimaced uncomfortably. Vincent, my former French flatmate, who also lived with Ivan, had claimed squatter’s rights on them and carted them off to the new home in the suburbs he had bought with his fiancée. They were gone but not quite.

After initially resolving to get them back – there were, after all, first pressings of The Who’s Magic Bus, By Numbers and Who’s Next, a gatefold White Album, copies of Blue Train, My Favorite Things, Sketches of Spain and Birth of the Cool, compilations of old Italian movie soundtracks, among numerous less exalted items – I desisted. Part of it might have been down to the embarrassment of calling, just to recover my property, an ex-flatmate I had never bothered contacting in the intervening years. Part of it had to do with my carelessness at what ought to have been precious cargo. In the main though it was because I was listening to practically all of those records in either mp3 form or on music streaming sites like Spotify or Grooveshark. So what if the sound quality is markedly inferior; so what if I had finally got hold of a turntable after years without one in Paris? I was able to listen to them and they weren’t taking up space in a small Paris apartment where the placing of every object entailed an ergonomic cost-benefit analysis before going ahead with it. Though I could well have reclaimed my records, I just didn’t see the point. For years I had figured there was no rush. And there still wasn’t.

Another friend, back in the late nineties, had remarked to me that buying a film on VHS or DVD signals the death knell for your interest in it. Freed of the impetus to watch a rental copy before you rack up a load of late fees, you never get around to watching the thing. It will sit on your shelf beside the TV for years, testament merely to your judgement, exquisite or wretched, when you have people round. The amount of films, music and books in circulation has exploded since the advent of Web 2.0 (I remember hauling home from the States NTSC copies of old films that were impossible to find on PAL as well as setting the VCR to record similarly elusive movies broadcast late-night on BBC2 or Channel 4). There is such an abundance of stuff out there, much of it hidden in plain sight of copyright lawyers on YouTube, that you don’t know where to start. I have discovered films by Chris Marker, Buñuel, and Fassbinder free to watch online, queued them up in a playlist for future viewing, forgotten about them and returned six months later to find them, not surprisingly gone, those copyright lawyers having caught up with them.

Speed is of the essence in the online world but faced with the Aladdin’s cave of cultural riches, one’s response is invariably one of sluggishness, of planning for a putative future that will never come. You become as dynamic as the Lotus Eaters blissfully wasted on the beach. Your attention span collapses alarmingly – you groan upon discovering that this interesting-looking online article goes on for five, six, seven, eight, nine pages; you look through your Twitter favourites to find links that you once starred and vowed to get around to reading but are already irrevocably dated; you clip articles you intend to use for work but never do, recipes you want to cook but that you will never taste; you download The Scarlet and the Black and The Brothers Karamazov from the Gutenberg Project, because, you know, they’re free. You have the best intentions but you think “what’s the rush?”

Years of moving between different countries have cured me of an earlier acquisitiveness for physical things, with only my book-buying being a residue of that habit (and, even then, I will gladly offload at least half of them next time I move). I’ve never felt the need to queue overnight for concert tickets (much less pay someone else to do it); it’s a long time since I went out and bought a new album on the day of its release; I was late getting to The Wire and Breaking Bad and have yet to watch any of Mad Men; though I watch many films on their cinema release (there’s no better city in the world than Paris for doing that), I rarely rush to watch advance previews during film festivals (and I really couldn’t be arsed subjecting myself to Cannes). I’m pretty sure this lack of urgency has been entrenched by exposure to the cultural bounties of the world wide web, though it may well be that the overwhelming array of choice has displaced any omnivorous cultural habits I might have into a harmless virtual space.

And then you wonder if it will be there forever? There are warnings that information stored online is subject to erosion, decay and physical obsolescence as much as anything in hard copy. There is already ample material that leads a lonesome existence out there in the online wilds – the web app, Forgotify will summon up at random one of the four million songs never before listened to on Spotify and play it for you. And what happens if the likes of YouTube, Dropbox, Evernote, iTunes or Spotify go tits up overnight? Will an entire generation of web users tell their children that they lost everything in the Great Cloud Computing Crash of 2031? Will we be left to go scuttling back to the handful of old CDs still knocking about in the attic, to the unwatched, undesired DVDs we received long ago as stocking fillers, to the last extant print editions of newspapers or magazines? I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s words, in his poem, “Advent”:

We have tested and tasted too much, lover
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.

I’m not exactly endorsing Kavanagh’s prescribed religious austerity but I do sometimes think that, given the abundance of online riches, I would be happy to settle for less. For a while anyway. It’d certainly make life easier getting round to watching it or reading it.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era