No writer’s work in the last year has inspired in me so much post-reading activity as Los Angeles author Jarett Kobek. His fictionalized, “psychedelic biography,” ATTA, the first book to attempt to get inside the head of 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, led me to order the salacious biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince that Kobek puts in the terrorist’s hands as he tries to learn more about U.S culture; his If You Don’t Read, Why Should I Write? led me to sit down with a reference librarian in search of English translations of Saddam Hussein’s execution (Kobek’s book features an excerpt, along with dialogue from celebrity sex tapes); and his excellent novel, BTW, inspired me to binge watch the 1994 BBC production of Middlemarch. (I craved a deeper understanding of Middlemarch in the moment, in relation to a recurring tangent in BTW. I hope to read Eliot’s 700+ page opus soon.) The writings of Jarett Kobek, though broad in their scope, all have one thing in common: the masterful tangent. Often it was the tangents in Kobek’s work that were inspiring so much of my activity.
It’s because of his tangents that Kobek is able to cover so much ground in his eviscerating new novel, I Hate the Internet. 2015 saw the release of Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World and Erick Lyle’s Streetopia, books that detailed the effects of the internet tech boom on poor and middle-income people living in San Francisco. I Hate the Internet adds Jarett Kobek’s distinct voice and storytelling style to this emerging canon of technological displacement.
It’s not just the demographic effects of the tech boom that Kobek highlights. It’s the disconnect inherent to online activism, and it’s rampaging half-sibling, online outrage. I Hate the Internet asks, “Why is activism in the 21st century nothing more than morality lectures typed into devices built by slaves?” A book about gentrification, it’s also about the often overlooked hypocrisy of calling out bad guys using products and platforms made by criminals.
But I Hate the Internet is about a lot of other things, too. Remember, Kobek is the master of the tangent. I think the evocative opening of the book may give you a better understanding of its full scope.
Capitalism, the awful stench of men, historical anachronisms,
death threats, violence, human bondage, faddish
popular culture, despair, unrestrained mockery of the rich,
threats of sexual violation, weak iterations of Epicurean
thought, the comic book industry, the death of intellectualism,
being a woman in a society that hates women, populism,
an appalling double entendre, the sex life of Thomas Jefferson,
genocide, celebrity, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn
Rand, discussions of race, Science Fiction, anarchism with
a weakness for democracy, the people who go to California
to die, millennial posturing, 276 pages of mansplaining,
Neo-Hellenic Paganism, interracial marriage, elaborately
named hippies practicing animal cruelty on goats, unjust
wars in the Middle East, 9/11, seeing the Facebook profile
of someone you knew when you were young and believed
that everyone would lead rewarding lives.
I told you, Kobek covers a lot of ground.
One of the primary plotlines of I Hate the Internet involves a successful comic book illustrator, a woman in her 40s, named Adeline. Adeline finds herself in the middle of an online controversy after giving a talk to the students of poet Kevin Killian (Kobek often weaves real people into his storylines, and real storylines onto his people). During the talk, Adeline is asked by a student if she thinks Facebook and Twitter can serve a role in the pursuit of social progress. It’s her response that causes her so much trouble:
“Social progress might have had meaning twenty years ago when I was but a young thing, but these days it’s become the product of corporations. But what do you people know anyway? You’re a lost generation. Even your drugs are corporate. You spend your lives pretending as if Beyoncé and Rihanna possess some inherent meaning and act as if their every professional success which only occur because of your money and your attention is a strike forward for women everywhere.”
What she says is videotaped by a student, and uploaded to the internet. The internet, in turn, responds in a way that is both ridiculous and realistic.
As Kobek writes:
A wide range of humanity believed that Beyoncé and Rihanna were inspirations rather than vultures. Adeline had spit on their gods.
This wide range of humanity responded by teaching Adeline about one of America’s favored pastimes, a tradition as time-honored as police brutality, baseball, race riots and genocide.
They were teaching Adeline about how powerless people demonstrated their supplication before their masters.
They were tweeting about Adeline.
As Adeline tries to adjust to her new role as an online villain and punching bag, her good friend J. Karacehennem (“the author of the recent novel, ZIAD, about 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah,” who readers of Kobek’s other works will recognize as a fictionalized stand-in for the author himself) finds that he and his neighbors being pushed from their homes when an upscale restaurant catering to the clientele of San Francisco’s tech industry makes plans to move in down the street. Once the restaurant (the ironically named “Local’s Corner”) opens, it alienates the community further. As Kobek writes:
Latino people were feeling squeezed by the forces of gentrification. Their neighborhood was being pulled apart by the whims of mega-capitalists, low interest rates, investors from out of town, and corporations located in Silicon Valley. And there was Local’s Corner, the most obvious and tone deaf symbol of the changes wrought on the neighborhood. It had denied a Latino family service. On Cesar Chavez Day.
Ellen, a young college student, attempts to adjust to her new life after a much more personal and invasive form of internet cruelty: an old boyfriend’s new girlfriend uploads sexually explicit photos of her to the web, looking for revenge that’s not even necessary.
Adeline and Ellen’s experiences are examples of what Kobek says are the very pointed and specialized forms of brutality women face online: Adeline’s real transgression, Kobek writes, is being “a woman in a culture who hated women,” and having the gall to be a woman who expressed unpopular opinions.
Kobek also writes of the cultural profiteering that happens to the very communities online platforms displace once they move in. Of Twitter, which set up shop in the notoriously low-income Tenderloin district, he writes, “The managers… were very interested in demonstrating a fluency with Black culture but had little-to-no interest in hiring the people who lived it. A fluency with Black culture would attract more advertisers. Actual Black people would scare advertisers.”
Where Kobek shines as a writer is in his skill at weaving these themes and plotlines together, the myriad “Kobekian digressions” he utilizes like glue: his signature tangents. I know of no other writer who can start a chapter on the subject of Marina Abramović (who Adeline is often mistaken for) then segue to the history of the name Lady Gaga fans have given themselves (“Little Monsters”), then explain the mathematical equation that determines one’s online influence (which Kobek names “the WaNKs Index”) before moving on to Judith Miller and The New York Times, and ultimately ending the chapter with a hilarious metaphor for a Google bus.
Besides Kevin Killian and his partner, writer Dodie Bellamy, recognizable people and recent events in online publishing are mentioned. Screengrabs show the ads that ran underneath an essay on the now defunct HTMLGIANT about “the negation of consent, rape culture, the Patriarchy, and the fracas consuming the Bay Area poetry scene”: clickbait articles targeting women’s insecurities, such as “The Top Ten Items You’re Too Old Wear” and “The Controversial Skinny Pills Sweeping the Nation.” The pictures reinforce what may be I Hate the Internet’s leitmotif: online, nothing is pure. Despite your best intentions, the internet will always be the abyss that stares back into you. When you use it, you have no choice but to let its agenda become a part of your own.
When asked what he meant by Naked Lunch, the title of one of his best known works, writer William S. Burroughs said, “A frozen moment when everyone sees what’s at the end of the fork.”
Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet is a naked lunch for the chasm the internet creates between principles and practices. What does it mean when the tools that we utilize to fix the problems of our day just cause more problems? Does it make us complicit? Is freedom of speech still free when it carries with it the vested interests of corporations and advertisers? It is a book that is savagely smart, and funny. It offers critiques that are hard to take, and asks questions that are hard to answer.
Though I think I Hate the Internet may have answered one very important question for me: why I often feel so sick after I’ve logged in.
I Hate the Internet
by Jarrett Kobek
We Heard You Like Books; 288 p.