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CHAT / CONNECT

Author: Nan McCarthy
Publisher: Grayslake, Illinois: Rainwater Press, 1995/1996
Review Published: December 1997

 REVIEW 1: Debra DeRuyver and David Silver

Date: Wed, 1 Oct 1997 14:04:13 -0400 (EDT)
From: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
To: david michael silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: Beginnings

david, it's been five days since my whirlwind read of CHAT and CONNECT but I'm finally ready to break out the cigars and give birth to this baby. I suppose the first thing we should talk about is what CHAT and CONNECT are. You know the field better than I do. Was CHAT the first example of an emergent cybernovel sub-genre, novels written completely in the form of email messages or other online communications?

debra

Date: Tue, 7 Oct 1997 22:42:08 -0400 (EDT)
From: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
To: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: Re: Beginnings

debra,

dang, it sure took me a long time to respond. I sort of feel like Bev in the middle of CONNECT, taking her sweet 'ol time to respond to Max.

but i'm a new (but sick -- cough, cough) man and will write more regularly than Max on speed.

was CHAT the first cybernovel? hmm, good question. i'm not sure but I'll email the author, Nan McCarthy, tonight to ask. maybe the readers of this review will have some ideas. readers?

let me ask you this: 15 pages into CHAT were you like "hmmm..." or "oh for god's sakes!"

david

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 1997 18:22:55 -0400 (EDT)
From: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
To: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: Max or Bev?

david,

> dang, it sure took me a long time to respond. I sort of feel like Bev
> in the middle of CONNECT, taking her sweet 'ol time to respond to Max.
>
> but i'm a new (but sick -- cough, cough) man and will write more
> regularly than Max on speed.
Did you have a hard time identifying with either Max or Bev? I immediately breathed a sigh of relief after reading your comparison between yourself and Bev. Thank god! I thought. I don't have to be cast in the role of Bev throughout this. Yech. 'Course I don't *like* Max either. Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, I think this lack of identification is germane to my response to your question:

> let me ask you this: 15 pages into CHAT were you like "hmmm..." or
> "oh for god's sake!"

"Oh, for god's sake!" I was like, P-Leeze. Can we get on with it? Max and Bev's initial gropings in cyberspace were torturous, awkward and... yet... surprisingly "realistic" and refreshing?! For while the genre these cybernovels most closely resemble is that of the romance, CHAT and CONNECT muddy that genre is some very interesting ways. First, the lack of identification with either character does turn the pleasures of reading these novels toward those of voyeurism. Second, romance novels revel in their portrayal of "bodiless sex." All of the bodily functions and day to day "humiliations" that accompany being human from bad breath to body odor to blemishes to venereal disease etc... melt away from the romance hero and heroine, until their bodies have virtually disappeared. Yet amazingly, in the virtual environment of these novels, the body-- the awkwardness of having bodies in a society which values bodiless perfection-- is vividly instantiated. Bev and Max are obsessively aware of their own bodies (not to mention each other's) from the very start of their correspondence with Bev's speculative portrait of Max as an overweight guy with his butt crack poking out of his sweatpants and Cheetos dribbling down his unkept beard as he feverishly types away on his sticky keyboard (CHAT, 5-6). In fact, the most disappointing aspect of the novels for me was Bev and Max's recollections of their physical, in-the-flesh, pornographically perfect, bodiless fuck.

> was CHAT the first cybernovel? hmm, good question. i'm not sure
> but I'll email the author, Nan McCarthy, tonight to ask.
Prior to McCarthy's email response that, to the best of her knowledge, CHAT is the first cybernovel, I decided to sift through the web a little and see if anything else shook out. While I didn't find anything else like CHAT out there, I did find a competing definition for cybernovel. According to this site, cybernovels are stories created on the web by multiple authors one paragraph or page at a time. Anyone may submit the next segment to a story but usually the host of the site decides which one to actually post as the next segment. If any of our readers frequent Amazon Books they probably recognize this format from a recent online writing contest they sponsored.

For various reasons I prefer this definition to McCarthy's. I'm curious, what did you think about CHAT's label of "cybernovel"?

Debra

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 18:54:58 -0500 (EST)
From: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
To: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: defining cybernovel

debra,

> For various reasons I prefer this definition to McCarthy's. I'm
> curious, what did you think about CHAT's label of "cybernovel"?

i'd like to defy time (um, and space) and return back to this month-old posting regarding the question "what is a cybernovel?"

first, i've given up entirely on trying to pin down the term "cyber." today, we have cybernews, cyberpets, cybercereal, cyberfilm, cyberbarbie, cyberbagels. second, i think we're dealing with a double meaning here.

the first meaning for cybernovel could be "a novel ABOUT cyberspace." ok, that works for CHAT and CONNECT. the second meaning could be a novel that is written IN cyberspace. using this definition, it would be difficult to characterize CHAT and CONNECT as "true" cybernovels.

the same meanings could be used for, say, cyberfilm. one could argue that a cyberfilm is a film about cyberspace, ala Johnny Mnemonic or The Net but one could also argue that cyberfilms are films made on the net and distributed throughout the net.

so let's return to the question. are CHAT and CONNECT cybernovels? yes...um...sorta. yes, they fit my first meaning -- they are novels about cyberspace -- but they hardly fit the second -- they blatantly lack the collaborative nature, randomness, and open-endedness found in more "inspired" cybernovels.

david

Date: Mon, 20 Oct 1997 23:28:14 -0400 (EDT)
From: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
To: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: max AND bev

debra,

I think it's interesting to note that unlike Bev and Max's postings which follow a very linear, almost-always-single topic avenue, our thread is bursting at the seams, exploding into multiple directions. at the expense of paving yet more, I'll proceed...

your comments about relating to the characters in an either/or way (or rather, to be more specific, NOT relating to them that way) are really interesting. I think the dynamics of relating are influenced heavily by the characters of Bev and Max working on two levels. first, Bev and Max fall snugly into the tradtional online (or is that IRL?) gender roles discussed by many cyber-theoriticians, including the contributors to the excellent collection Wired Women. You know the score -- the female, more interested in dialogue and community building, is The Nurturer of Threads, concerned primarily with developing, not ending discussions. The male, with one hand on the keyboard, the other down his pants, is The Answer Man, the guy with the snappy comebacks always tailored to reveal prowess, sometimes intellectual, always sexual. as generalized as it may be, it actually fits Bev and Max.

and yet it doesn't.

the second level of characterization directly challenges these roles. this level, based on technological know-how, flips the gender script. here, Bev is the veteran cybernaut, Max the clueless newbie. although at times contrived, this switch allows for role swapping, most apparently visible in Max's early, clueless questions and Bev's patient and somewhat pedantic explanations (CHAT, 6-10).

this strategy also allows mccarthy a clear yet all-too-obvious avenue to explain basic netiquette, online mannerisms, emoticons, and the like. and I think this is why you -- and I -- found the beginning a bit slow. do we *really* need to know what asterisks around a word mean? what do you think?

this also puts us dangerously close to another Big Question: if the author is explaining basic online etiquette that one learns within the first 10 free hours of AOL, who exactly is the audience for CHAT and CONNECT? but i digress...

sheesh, your last post brought up a ton of great points: CHAT and CONNECT as romance novels, the bodiless hero/ine, and the lingering obsession with the body.

to this list, I want to add another. to be fair, I think mccarthy is dealing directly with this idea of the bodiless cybernaut. as much as theoriticians like to say, "ahh, there is no there there in cyberspace" and "nobody has a body in cyberspace," so much of online interaction leads to very "real," quite physical interaction. but that is still missing the point. what I think mccarthy is trying to say, and again, I find our thread going in about 17 directions, is this: online interaction contains all that we associate with face to face ones: communication, trust, suspicion, shared ideas, lust, withdrawal, commitment, betrayal...in otherwords, i think one of THE fundamental points of CHAT and CONNECT parallels the points argued by Rheingold, Stone, and Turkle -- that online relationships are _very real_.

does Bev buy that? does Max?

do you?

david

Date: Wed, 5 Nov 1997 20:19:06 -0500 (EST)
From: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
To: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: Home sweet home?

David, it's hard to believe that two weeks have slipped away since I received your latest post! I think it's interesting, the role which these emails have taken in our face to face interactions. Our initial decision to not discuss Bev & Max in person has nurtured our online conversation's silent presence. The words we speak when we see each other seem secretly structured, in part, by this central absence. Likewise, the central silence in CONNECT-- that which Bev cannot speak until the final page-- draws the lines of Max and Bev's postings. I'm anxious to see how McCarthy explores this ruptured space in the third work of the trilogy, CRASH.

> I think it's interesting to note that unlike Bev and Max's postings which
> follow a very linear, almost-always-single topic avenue, our thread is
> bursting at the seams, exploding into multiple directions. at the expense
> of paving yet more, I'll proceed....

Yeah, what a disconcerting use of the medium! The pleasures of email seem to lie in its penchant for excess-- "bursting" "exploding" "multiple" excess-- the ability of the typer to reach into the narrative and pull apart the seams, inserting one's own stories, sometimes neatly where a pause is already inherent-- as is true with this paragraph-- othertimes more grotesquely loosening the skin, pulling apart the vertebrae-- letting fluids ooze.

Of course, the formality and order of Bev and Max's postings occur at even the most basic level of grammar and spelling. compared to the typical email exchange, ours included, there is little that is messy about Max & Bev's emails. The places of messiness occur largely outside of cyberspace, largely in Max's life. From Bev's original cheetos dribbling image of Max, to the plant girl's youthful exhuberance of writing on Max's body with magic marker or buying him musical condems for his birthday, to his martini and diet coke breakfasts, Max's chaotic life is waiting to be ordered by the right woman, by Bev. In other words, Bev and Max reenact a classic pattern of romantic fiction wherein a domestically inclined woman is set up to apply the brakes of social propriety to a disorderly man.

This parallels your comments regarding the

> traditional online (or is that IRL?)
> gender roles discussed by many cyber-theoriticians,

However, it is the added binary of excess and order to these traditional gender roles which explains what at first seems to be an illogical or "contrived" reversal of them. 'Cause you're right, what you've termed the second level of characterization does directly challenge traditional online gender roles. But, it doesn't directly challenge the framework of excess and order from which Max and Bev's characters hang. Bev, experienced cybernaut, as you point out, spends her first several emails to Max heading off potential messiness on any number of levels from basic netiquette to cybersex. In other words, the characters don't so much switch (Bev is still a force of order, Max a force of excess) as does our conception of cyberspace. And that, I think, is the larger cultural work at play in these novels.

The conception of cyberspace which supports the gender script of man as adventurous, technologically superb Cyber Cowboy is, of course, the conception of cyberspace as frontier. The role of the cyber cowboy is to impose order, through the force of his personality or his technological gadgets, on a disorderly space. But, in CHAT and CONNECT, cyberspace is *already* an orderly space. Like her domestically inclined romantic counterparts, Bev's job is to integrate the excessive man into a community which already exists in this stable space. I think this also ties into your question above: "online (or is that IRL?)." In mccarthy's work, the difference has collapsed. What we're witnessing in this book is, I think, what might be referred to (with a nod toward Ann Douglas) as the feminization of cyberspace.

> this also puts us dangerously close to another Big Question: if the author
> is explaining basic online etiquette that one learns within the first 10
> free hours of AOL, who exactly is the audience for CHAT and CONNECT?

heh. good question. Ideologically speaking, this novel will reassure anyone who's afraid to get on the net because of hypermediated tales of cults, cyberporn, and sexual predators lurking in every chatroom. I want to resist characterizing this audience as female... And you?

>
> but i digress...

not at all!

Debra

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 12:19:06 -0500 (EST)
From: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
To: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: I couldn't resist

hey, david, so, I feel compelled to add this one little blip to my previous discussion of bev as a force of order and max as a force of chaos. okay, so first, i shafted max by not pointing out the ways in which he disrupts bev's neat little ordered existence (though, again, this totally follows the genre pattern I've been discussing). There are several examples in the novels where bev admits that she feels a little out of control because of him. Secondly, is it perfect or what that they meet at a FRACTAL PARTY!! You know, fractals being the epitome of ordered chaos and all.... :)

Debra

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 19:26:43 -0500 (EST)
From: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
To: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: Re: Home sweet home?

hey debra, how's it going?

about the question, who is the audience for CHAT and CONNECT?

> heh. good question. Ideologically speaking, this novel will
> reassure anyone who's afraid to get on the net because of
> hypermediated tales of cults, cyberporn, and sexual predators
> lurking in every chatroom. I want to resist characterizing this
> audience as female... And you?

yeah, i agree. i think the novels, or rather mccarthy, do a pretty good job in getting non-users or newbies acclimated to the virtual environment. for the experienced, the novels' early lessons on netiquette undoubtedly come off as forced. but i think inclusion is the author's goal here. if the first 10 pages are to get everyone up to speed, the remaining few hundred are for exploration.

that said, it's difficult NOT to be a bit cynical about the audience. If, for example, CHAT and CONNECT are for the Net community, why not put the books online and let users download them? if money is the concern (which I'm sure it is) why not use this opportunity as a way to experiment with new paradigmns of data-for-duckets? as you mentioned about a month ago, wouldn't it be interesting if chapters of CHAT and CONNECT could be downloaded each month for free or, at worst, a small fee?

which leads us, I think, to the conclusion that the books are not MERELY for the Net community. CHAT and CONNECT are for readers on the Net, for those thinking about getting online, and for those who will never even sign up for 10 free hours of AOL.

david

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 11:36:26 -0500 (EST)
From: Debra DeRuyver (toad@wam.umd.edu)
To: David Silver (googie@wam.umd.edu)
Subject: All good things

david, since you're taking almost as long as I did to respond ;) albeit with help from me alternately begging you not to or saying, "Nah, go ahead," I'm gonna hi-jack this thread, rewind, and re-record. I'm fresh from re-reading CHAT and CONNECT, caffeinated, and ready to cruise the final lap.

> to this list, I want to add another. to be fair, I think mccarthy is
> dealing directly with this idea of the bodiless cybernaut. as much as
> theoriticians like to say, "ahh, there is no there there in cyberspace"
> and "nobody has a body in cyberspace," so much of online interaction leads
> to very "real," quite physical interaction. but that is still missing the
> point. what I think mccarthy is trying to say, and again, I find our
> thread going in about 17 directions, is this: online interaction contains
> all that we associate with face to face ones: communication, trust,
> suspicion, shared ideas, lust, withdrawal, commitment, betrayal...
>[...]
>
> does Bev buy that? does Max?

I think you're right; McCarthy does explicitly deal with questions surrounding the differences/similarities between online and offline relationships. But, I think her final word on this has yet to be spoken in CRASH. Throughout CHAT and CONNECT, max and bev frequently discuss *and* disagree on these similarities and differences: bev accuses max of trying to pick her up online; max defends himself by saying, "it's not as if I could jump through the modem and put my hand on your knee or anything" (CHAT, 75). Often, *they're* not even sure on where they stand on these issues. For example, bev's uncertain if talking to max online constitutes cheating on her husband gary (the faceless): "When I talk with you I feel like I *am* cheating on Gary, even though I'm not actually cheating on him. Not really. Sort of. Maybe. I think" (CONNECT, 69). While Max and Bev's online chat harmoniously connects with their one fleshly (or not so fleshly as I argue above) encounter, bev mentions other awkward, discordant, face to face meetings she's had with folks met online. So, who are we to believe, max or bev? And, at what time? Are max and bev the norm or the aberration? Since identifying with either character is problematic, I, for one, am uncertain as to where McCarthy might take this. Though, from the title of the upcoming third part of the trilogy, I think we could hazzard a guess.

> do you?

I think this is a great question 'cause I think it points out, again, the invitation to voyeurism (or interactivity as you said the other day) which this novel invites in the reader. The novels don't invite us to passionately argue from either Max or Bev's point of view; they ask us to think about our own relationship to cyberspace and our own relationship to our online chats and connections. And this is what I truly *love* about these novels. They're tools for thinking. And, this is perhaps the key difference between them and your typical romance novel. The typical romance novel tends to sew the reader back up into the same old tired ideologies. But, McCarthy has left the seams wide open-- thus far.

Debra

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 11:50:21 -0500 (EST)
From: Debra and david
To: our readers
Subject: et tu?

Like mccarthy, we leave the seams of our book review wide open. we eagerly await the final book in the trilogy. where will mccarthy take max and bev? where will bev and max take mccarthy and us? will these directions allow us to think in new and original ways about the nature of online relationships? still, we are all too aware that the threads we weave are our own.

readers?

Debra DeRuyver and David Silver:
Debra DeRuyver is a Ph.D candidate in American studies at the University of Maryland. At the time of this review, David Silver was a Ph.D. student in American studies at the University of Maryland. He is now an assistant professor in Communication at the University of Washington.  <toad@wam.umd.edu>

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