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A Mere Novelty?

Penguin Books’ online novel delivers, somehow

By James M. Larkin, None

Among our most prominent romanticized notions about the probabilistic iron cage is the assertion that an infinite number of monkeys, given time and typewriters, will almost surely compose the works of William Shakespeare. Rather than hold to the comforts of that theory, in 2003, researchers put six Sulawesi crested macaques to the test for a month. They turned out just five pages of text, largely filled with the letter “S”.

Another of those modern comforts comes into view when one or another techie CEO implies that the Internet’s crawl around the globe has been to its unqualified great benefit and enlightenment. But few who have read through the hateful comments under YouTube videos could endorse this Panglossian perspective on the new media; the web has for many some evident kinks and tangles.

So the stakes were middling when, in February of last year, Penguin Books and De Montfort University kicked off their “A Million Penguins” project. It was a collaborative online novel—given a year to gestate in wiki form, without restrictions—a mirror walking down a series of tubes. Now the project is over, the novel published, and the verdict in: It’s terrible.

Last week, though, the coordinators made both a goodhearted attempt at spin and a genuine contribution to sociology when they published a research report about their investigation. The 36-page breakdown relies heavily on the insistence that the project was meant to have the aspect of Bakhtin’s ‘carnival,’ a subversive “lens for the analysis of culture, language and narrative.” Whether or not this allusion was worked in to apologize for the project’s flawed final product, it’s not off the mark: “A Million Penguins” has much to say about the Internet’s still-shrouded dynamics.

First, it supports to some extent previous attempts to label the Web the angriest medium ever, also shored up by the majority of comments below this paper’s editorials. Take the example of ‘Pabruce,’ the most active contributor to the novel and its ready diva. Among other things, Pabruce introduced a non-lethal drug called strychnine that would become a “code word for global warming”. When another user wrote his theatrical voice into the novel, however, this Ms. Ross figure deleted all his edits, nearly scuttling the nascent work. Days later, he returned, chastened, as ‘Lewis Oswald.’

This degree of anonymous strife and petulance would certainly threaten any great novel’s composition: Imagine if Melville and Hawthorne had been sniping at one another out in antebellum Western Massachusetts, instead of spending spring days together. There might be no Moby Dick, no Scarlet Letter. High-school reading lists would, frankly, become much more tolerable.

No, the old folks never had to deal with spiteful “trolls,” the progeny of a device that allows the dispatch of hateful, threatening messages to others without any spoken or visual contact—risk-free. But they also lived in an age bereft of the neurotic self-awareness of our own; this is drawn into stark relief by “A Million Penguins.” It’s not long before things become hopelessly meta, as in George’s mid-narrative musing: to Jim’s question, “So a community can write a novel?” he answers, “Yes, but only a humorous one…It is humor that is shared by a community.”

Tough going, but it seems of interest that this inward turn proves so pervasive, even inevitable, in every form of online expression. If the furious e-mail is the product of being concealed from other tangible humans, being nevertheless laid bare to them may induce this pathological self-consciousness. Consider Internet journals, a total inversion the dynamic of the private diary. The same goes for (another contributor) YellowBanana’s penchant for sprinkling the novel’s text with the word ‘banana’ (either vandalizing or improving it).

There is of course a limit to even the theoretical merit of “A Million Penguins”—it may only prove the adage that too many cooks spoil the broth—but we today are too slow to consider the tools and mechanics that proverbial broth-making implies. The collaborative novel, if nothing else, gives us an opportunity to reflect on our technological situation. After all, isn’t laughter “the panacea for the pain of the human experience…like apathy is the icing on the tractor”?

James M. Larkin ’10, an associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.

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