Reviewing a novel before you've finished reading seems to jump the gun a bit, but in the case of Walter Kirn's serial novel, The Unbinding, currently up on Slate, it's necessary. Today they posted the tenth of an apparent thirty-two installments, and I have to admit it's a gripping thriller. For those who don't enjoy reading on screen, the installments are short--"found" objects, including emails, letters, recorded phone conversations, journal entries. The idea behind the "fiction" (calling it a novel seems naive), as Sven Birkets points out, is that it taps into our "paranoid consciousness" and our worries over the thin boundary between our public and private lives.
Birkets also claims, "where the bound artifact--the novel--can only posit the narrative possibility, the Internet version makes it actual. The reader knows and feels, even if only at a semiconscious level, the implications of the online medium; he registers the suggestive power of the idea of surveillance, of being seen, investigated, and known." I actually have to disagree with Birkets. So far, Kirn's online fiction strikes me as conservative. According to Slate's own announcement of the serialization, The Unbinding "will make use of the Internet's unique capacity to respond to events as they happen, linking to documents and other Web sites. In other words, The Unbinding is conceived for the Web, rather than adapted to it." But so far, Kirn's fiction has done very little to justify its existence as a web fiction. (Though I certainly enjoy it as a fiction.)
First, the "found" documents reach back into a long narrative tradition--the epistolary form, the journal. The documents themselves could easily be presented as bound; the fact that they're online doesn't have the effect on me Birkets claims (let's not get started on how he posits "the reader" and has the reader act as Birkets likely did). Moreover, the ironies the chapters establish--the pretenses the characters enact to attract each other--reflect the kinds of ironies a reader could find in any number of fictions with omniscient point of view or found documents.
That's not necessarily a major criticism, that he relies on long-standing narrative traditions and practices. I'd be surprised if they weren't there, in fact. (One of the main characters' last names is Selkirk, which is the name of the sailor Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is based on.) However, the abundance of those traditions seems to outweigh the novelty of publishing such a text on the internet. Which leads me to my second point: through ten installments, he's included only three hyperlinks. What an internet fiction can do that a book in one's hands cannot is link to pages elsewhere on the internet. (Even including intertextuality, theory-heads.) And since the "found" documents are personal reflections in several cases, hyperlinks might lead to interesting point-0f-view questions--are the characters always aware of what the links lead out to? Can websites serve as a kind of unconsciousness? If the word "dare" leads to someone's personal myspace.com page, how might that implicate the character (and the reader) in the telling?
One good sign for Kirn--one of his three links is to Birkets' piece. (It's a long story--read it.) So if you read it and post your thoughts, you might impact the telling, which would lead to other questions about readership and the construction of meaning. (Are you listening, theory-heads?) And whether or not it's all that innovative, it's still a good read.