In Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, the novel’s narrator visits a spot in New York that was once populated by Native Americans. There are arrowheads buried in the ground here, she is told, which makes her think of “a certain sensibility in the soil which slipped into the water that came out of the taps, tasting so different.”
This is a useful metaphor through which to view recent fiction set in a digital age. Some novels deal with the Internet and social media as arrowheads in our environment: external objects we brush up against. Others, such as the one by Sudjic, look at digital platforms as akin to the water we drink, an essential part of our lives.
Two debut novels take this second approach. Despite their differences, what Aravind Jayan’s Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors and Sheena Patel’s I’m A Fan have in common are characters whose lives are mediated by the Internet, and the uneasy confluence of attitudes this brings about.
In Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, the comfortable, circumscribed lives of the twenty-something narrator and his family in Trivandrum are thrown into disarray when a compromising video of his older brother and girlfriend starts to circulate online. This is the pebble that Jayan tosses into the narrative pond, with the novel tracing the ripples that ensue.
Jayan’s prose is distinctive for its irony and insouciance. When the narrator’s brother calls his father a homophobe, the latter “thought this was some kind of a musical instrument, though he took it as an insult just the same.” When the video accumulates an alarming number of online views, the narrator thinks: “Sex was one thing; a sex scandal was another thing altogether.”
There are also appealing moments of observation and description. Plastic covers are left on the seats of a new car, a worn doormat reads “Welco”, and a window is opened to give the air “a wet, sulky weight.”
The younger generation dreams of leading richer lives because of online access; the older lot have an uneasy yet resigned relationship with change, having to renegotiate notions of honour, dishonour, marriage, and redemption. At times, one is reminded of the world of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, with its middle-class hypocrisies and pretensions.
“I did nothing but angrily check WhatsApp,” says the listless narrator during a fraught moment. “Each time I saw zero notifications, I achieved a new level of depression.” It’s a universe of torrents, Facebook posts, Tinder hook-ups and applying for jobs online. These are Malgudi’s children, and technology is the catalyst that modifies and reveals motivations.
At one point, the narrator compulsively checks the Instagram page of a girl he is interested in. Such behaviour in its more extreme form is the starting point of Sheena Patel’s I’m A Fan, with its arresting opening line: “I stalk a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am.”
The narrator of this lacerating work is obsessed not just with the woman, but also the man. To complicate matters further, it isn’t a run-of-the-mill love triangle but a four-pointed star with the narrator at its heart and rays reaching out to the man, the woman, the man’s wife, and the narrator’s boyfriend.
I’m A Fan progresses in short sections fuelled by rage, revelation, and corrosive honesty. “I am not a main character in this ensemble romcom of betrayal,” we’re told. “I am a supporting act. I’m a fan and because of this, I can be cut out.”
The characters inhabit the rarefied world of London’s artistic set and as a second-generation immigrant, the narrator has a keen eye for the construction of Whiteness and structures of privilege. This is a trait she shares with the understated narrator of Natasha Brown’s Assembly.
“The onus is never on the system to adjust its hardness,” she asserts, “it’s on you to shape-shift and acquiesce.” Later, she feels that when “the man I want to be with tells me he likes being seen with me in public what he means is, he enjoys what my skin colour says about him to other people.”
She refreshes Instagram posts while Netflix plays in the background; caustically comments on strategies to attract followers; and uses online maps to guide her. At times, she watches her lover’s fingers “automatically check his email, his Instagram, his WhatsApp, back to his email again, his Instagram, the news.” They are creatures of the digital depths, manipulating and being manipulated by online dynamics.
This is “fragmented storytelling where we present ourselves as the protagonist of our own self-shot movies,” in the words of the narrator commenting on a video installation. Another parallel is with her thoughts on quilts created by enslaved women: “This making something useful and whole and healing out of fragments of fabric, out of what is left over and unwanted speaks to so much more than keeping warm.”
Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors and I’m A Fan, then, are very dissimilar in texture and temperament. Where the tone of the former is mostly wry and detached, the style of the latter is scalding and relentless. What’s similar is that the authors do not set out to show how the digital era has changed lives, but place their characters in situations where they are both empowered and enervated by it.It's a predicament that most of us share nowadays. As Patel’s narrator says, the narratives available to us in a digital age are those “based on our identities, as it is these stories which are market and social media approved.”