Joshua Cohen — who has already written what he considers his real, good novel about the Internet — is writing another novel this week. Except he’s doing it online, with the text appearing live on a public site, subject to the scrutiny and criticism of a small horde of anonymous commenters.
The book is called PCKWCK and it’s an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s early serialized success, “The Pickwick Papers.” The concept is also an anxiety nightmare come to life for anyone who writes.
“Uh-uh,” Cohen responded in a phone interview on Tuesday morning, before starting his second day of live writing, “try trying to do it.”
Every afternoon from 1 to 6 p.m., until the end of this week, Cohen will write at PCKWCK.com. The words appear as he types, like watching a group-edited Google doc. To the right of his writing, there’s an anonymous chat room. To the left, observers can watch a webcam image of Cohen’s face. And on the big wide frame where Cohen’s novel is being composed, anyone can, Periscope-like, click the text and make a heart appear right on screen.
“It’s very difficult — I’ve found out now — to write with all of these hearts going everywhere,” Cohen told us. “Did you see those hearts?”
While the hearts might have interrupted Cohen’s writing as it happened, the comments were a bit more invasive in substance. The first day’s running chat was pretty much what you’d expect from an anonymous Internet forum, focusing its attention on the worth of a single person and his work: chaotic, funny, hostile and personal.
“There’s only a certain amount of times that I can read about how small my penis is,” Cohen said, after reading through the first day of comments. “It’s what I expected, you know? It’s what I expected. It’s what happens when you give the world anonymity.”
Cohen, whose “Book of Numbers” examines the extent of surveillance and the permeable boundaries of technology, has his reasons (both personal and public), for agreeing to participate in this madness — including the fact that the novel won’t stay online past its completion on Friday, a kind of mercy killing to a piece of writing that Cohen doesn’t expect to be very good.
“I, as a writer, am firmly from the generation of the book. Of the fixed text, of the text that you pore over and fuss over and that needs to be perfect,” he said. “The attention to the aesthetic whole and the formalist presentation of your best self. Right?”
But he thinks his generation is the last to have this particular relationship with the book.
“The ways that communication is enframed has deeply changed. These most perfect products, perfect cultural products that we make, are put out into the world and enframed by these very messy communications,” Cohen added.
“The idea that these, that these careless and thoughtless utterances, seem to be the primary modes bothered me. It also bothered me that I clung in my vanity to this sort of perfectionism.”
The idea for this undertaking comes from Cohen’s collaboration with Useless Press, run by Alix Rule, Adrian Chen and Sam Lavigne. “People watch video games being played by others (Twitch), other people going to brunch (Periscope),” Rule explained in an e-mail. “Why not watch a novel being written?”
Cohen chose “The Pickwick Papers” to adapt in part because of the novel’s own chaotic birth: It began as a series of loosely connected stories about a group of rich, adventuring Englishmen, published in serialized installments. The book was originally written to accompany a series of illustrations by a popular artist.
PCKWCK, fittingly, is being illustrated as Cohen writes by Leon Chang, a reintroduction of some of the particular uncertainties that Dickens faced when he was writing.
Importantly for PCKWCK, Dickens’s work wasn’t planned as what it became. Cohen was drawn to the story in part because it’s an “energetic book” driven by a group of characters who set out to help us understand our own world better, but instead occupy many of their adventures by “getting drunk and getting into fights.” While “Pickwick” largely focuses on the lighter side of what happens when rich men seek adventure out of self-interest, PCKWCK will examine the darker side of the same, Cohen said.
Cohen isn’t reading the comments as they’re posted each afternoon, he said, but goes through them all overnight, preparing to incorporate them into the next day. Day one began without any such input, so Cohen set out alone to “establish some sort of narrative that would …. set up a story that would evolve through interrogation.”
PCKWCK began as a legal declaration written by a protagonist, Shamil Al-Waked, against PCKWCK, which — in this adaptation so far — is a mysterious, corporate-type entity. Cohen abandoned the form of the legal document after about 19 bullet points, instead abruptly placing the character into an interrogation and torture scene.
In some ways, Cohen isn’t being subtle at all in PCKWCK about what he wants to say: In the first chapter, Shamil, a writer, disappears from a public cafe while in the middle of carefully, slowly deliberating over a single sentence he’d written that wasn’t quite right. The resonances with Cohen’s own thoughts about the carefully chosen, perfect words and the volume and tone of today’s communicative realities are obvious.
There’s still a lot to process personally, Cohen said, about this entire experiment, and he hesitated to wade into too dark of a territory while speaking to a reporter on Tuesday morning. For day two, he had one concern he wanted to address: that he was being too subtle about what he thought of the commenters.
“I was actually shocked — I don’t mean to sound like an a**hole — that when I got to the middle of the story, that people didn’t seem to see or care where it was going and that, as my commentators, they were being cast in the role of my future torturers,” he said.
For day two, Cohen set out to be “the opposite of subtle” on this point. “I’m going to be plagiarizing them, you know?” True to his word, Chapter Two begins with a lengthy cut-and-paste of some of the worst comments thrown his way from the first day.
You can participate in PCKWCK here, and the chatroom seems to work even when Cohen isn’t writing. It’s probably best not to wait until the whole project is finished to take a look at what Cohen has written. The entire thing disappears from the Internet on Friday after Cohen finishes and will become a very limited-run printed novel later this year. All proceeds from the printed result will go to the ACLU.
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