On one side: Matilda Goodman, a frustrated artist working as a wedding photographer.
On the other: Her brother Harry, an anxiously untenured English professor.
The story unfolds gradually as e-mails between the two, divided up into a series of Instagram photo captions. The photos themselves are largely taken from Hulin’s 15-year career, though she’s also cast models and made images specifically for the project. Sometimes they illustrate the text they accompany; sometimes — as is the case with all great Instagrams — they just evoke a place or a mood.
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HEY MATILDA, I might add to the Praise from the internet site: *There’s still time to do something wonderful with your life!* *You’ll definitely get tenure, don’t give it a moment’s thought!* HEY HARRY, Homefront malaise. I painted the hallway a delightful buttercup yellow this weekend, obscuring finally the strange wallpaper below, and Nate showed not the slightest interest in joining in the improvements. Haven’t you seen the paint commercials? The dads and boyfriends ALWAYS help. They LEAD, even. (PS. TIME'S 30 under 30 came out today. My friend's LITTLE SISTER is on the list. It is now Margarita o'clock.)
“I love Instagram,” Hulin said from Providence, R.I., where she lives. “I’m fascinated by this idea of everyone turning their lives into these daily visual narratives.”
(It’s a sunny view on social media that differs, sharply, from that of her characters; writes Matilda in the novel: “Technology has truly ruined all of our lives. All day we stare at computers, caress them, feel beholden.”)
Hulin has always been into narratives, visual and otherwise; before she landed in Rhode Island she worked as a photo editor and writer in New York, and has shot images for Martha Stewart Living and the New York Times. Six years ago, she began messing around with a blog that told the stories of two characters, Harry and Matilda. She played around with it for a while, showing a few friends, but eventually abandoned it to work on other projects. (You might’ve heard of “Flying Henry,” her very viral children’s book.)
Still, the characters stayed with her, as did the idea of using e-mails to tell their story. In 2014, Hulin began working on a novel, finishing it in the spring of 2015.
After finishing, however, Hulin realized that a whole host of digital artifacts could double as narrative techniques: photos, e-mail accounts, personal Web sites, even. She launched a newsletter and built Matilda a site for her wedding photography business. She also began going through her own photo archives and casting friends to play the principals for her Instagrams.
The result is an immersive digital narrative that makes Matilda and Harry feel eerily real. Not movie-real, necessarily — it’s a bit vaguer than that. But real enough that Hultin has begun getting very earnest messages at “Matilda’s” e-mail account.
“It’s like livestreaming a novel,” she said. “It’s like it became performance art.”
This is not, needless to say, the first or only such performance on social media: Plenty of artists and writers have attempted the medium before, with varying degrees of success. There have been several Twitter novels and novellas, including one by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell. Meanwhile, storytellers like Neil Shea and Jeff Sharlet have written striking narratives, fictional and otherwise, in their Instagram captions. But no one’s done something quite so committed as this.
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HEY MATILDA, I've been reading John Cage’s Rules for Students and Teachers: Rule #8: Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes. Do you know what rule #9 is? Rule #9: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is lighter than you think. I tell this one to my students all the time. HEY HARRY, #9 is a made-up lie. Do your students call you on it? I fell asleep with my headphones on last night. I woke up with my music still blaring, in a cold sweat. The lyrics, Harry. tell me what you know about dreams, dreams tell me what you know about night terrors, nothin’ you don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow rather lay awake in a bed full of sorrow HARRY, Do you ever feel like the universe is giving us hints about our future all the time but we’re unable to understand?
Hulin wasn’t setting out to reinvent the genre, she cautions: she spent a year crafting this novel, and that work matters more to her than the novelty of how she’s publishing it. (When the book finds an IRL publisher — which she expects it will soon — it might not even have a whole lot of pictures in it.) But it’s given her an audience that’s unusual for first-time literary fiction, and an experience that’s unheard of for a first-time novelist. Hulin says a couple “dicey” plot points are coming up soon; she doesn’t know how readers will react.
“I like waking up and seeing what people have said. It’s very fun,” Hulin said. “But that one I might post at 3 in the morning.”
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