email story by Richard Powers

Screenshot from Richard Powers: 'They Come in a Steady Stream Now' - first

Richard Powers (one of whose novels I’ve been meaning to read) published a short email narrative, “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” in the latest edition of Ninth Letter, a journal out of the University of Illinois. Though it’s not really a narrative – it’s a short (as in five minutes to read it) essay on the annoyance of spam, with a couple of narrative fragments within it, about spams sent from random email addresses that happen to bear the name of your first love, or a boy you knew who drowned when you were in high school. You read the piece in a Flash-created simulation of an email client, as in Jerry Pinto’s Inbox Outbox. A few seconds after you start reading an email, a new email pops up in the inbox. Some of the emails are from “Richard Powers”, but more are spam, which you still have to click on and read because the work is entirely linear. Even the hordes of pop up ads (for the journal itself, annoyingly) relentlessly require you to click the X to shut them in an exact order or they will not close.

Screenshot from Richard Powers's 'They Come in a Steady Stream Now'

Finally, before the promised seventh and last email, you’re asked to register by giving your email address. I typed in a throwaway address, was told the page was loading, but it never finished loading, nor did any mail ever appear. I don’t know whether this was a bug or simply a clever simulation of the closest we ever get to closure in today’s bug-ridden information ecology.

I found “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” through Eric Rasmussen’s weblog, and I must say, I share his disappointment. The writing’s quite good, but not extraordinary, and the gimmick’s not much more than a gimmick. The idea of spam apparently from people once close but now lost to you is appealing, but isn’t taken very far (unless I really missed most of the piece and the registration thing wasn’t actually the end) and while the graphic design is groovy, the exaggerated advertising gets old and the linearity is unsophisticated.

Emails are certainly being explored as fields of narrative potential these days. That’s cool.

09. December 2004 by Jill

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