Given the amount of time that we spend in online spaces, it’s not surprising that many writers have sought to replicate the experience of social networks, text messaging, and shitposting in their prose. Finding a way to do it without stumbling along the way is a little more of a challenge. (There’s an early-2000s novel by one of my favorite writers where the evocation of texting felt so dissonant it took me out of the narrative.) And while many of us have been online for years or decades, it feels like it’s taken literature a little bit of time to catch up.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been outliers; Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts is nearly 20 years old, and remains one of the best evocations of what it’s like to be online. But the last year has brought with it Elle Nash’s Gag Reflex and now Meghan Lamb’s Coward, both of which have managed the impressive feat of succeeding as both literature that evokes online spaces and as literature, period.
Coward exists in a stylized space, one where the world itself seems to be subtly distorting into something stranger. “Outside, among the shadows of the factories, the zombies gather,” Lamb writes early in the book. It’s a motif that she returns to again and again — the sense of a decaying figure making its way through a decaying post-industrial landscape. It’s probably worth mentioning here that this has Nine Inch Nails and Swans lyrics among its epigraphs; it’s also fair to say that either artist would be a fitting soundtrack for this book.
Lamb’s characters often exist in the peculiar isolation experienced by those in front of their computer, searching for some sort of connection. One of Lamb’s characters discovers her attraction to an old friend as they pretend to be a gay man in a chatroom. (The reason given? “Because straight guys are dumb and ugly.”) The prose here is pared-down, the pacing percussive, and the sense of both desire and obfuscation is pronounced.
One of the first things the reader encounters in Coward is of a man looking at a photo he’s been sent: “The picture that she sent him, that he knows he shouldn’t keep of her — of them — Kate McClane’s Perfect Breasts.” Throughout Coward, Lamb returns again and again to the divide between the digital self and the physical self, which is magnified by the constant presence of mortality. See also: the aforementioned zombies, as well as a character’s job picking up and transporting dead bodies.
Reading Coward, one of the things that gradually comes into focus is the increasing role of social media in a deindustrializing world. Writing this review at a time when Twitter’s current status quo has prompted many ruminations on the role of social media and online communities, it’s not hard to find unsettling echoes in Lamb’s own descriptions of zombies and zombie landscapes. “[T]he factories that used to make their own gray streams of sediment stand still and silent, gathering the drifts,” she writes. And it begs the question: what happens when their online alternatives do the same?
by Meghan Lamb
Spuyten Duyvil; 96 p.