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The Unbinding

What is Walter Kirn up to in The Unbinding? Aside from having fun writing an Internet novel, that is.

Or did he? Write an Internet novel, I mean.

The Unbinding is a collection of various material and virtual documents, arranged in chronological order. The hyperlinks that appeared on the Slate pages for which The Unbinding was written have been replaced by bold-faced words that also appear, in proper order, at a Web site, Suffice it to say that, while some of the links are merely playful (and amusingly self-referential in one instance), others open up the novel to a significance that the mere text does not disclose.

The documents originate from several sources. The two most prominent strands are contributions by one Kent Selkirk to his space - some sort of online diary, but not a blog - at (there is such a site) and reports about Kent that filed with some head office "Via courier." Rob, the agent spying on Kent also interacts with him; the two men go out on a double-date of sorts, even though Rob is currently squeezing Kent's ex. A third strand contains communications between Sabrina Matilda Grant, Kent's current heartthrob, and her little sister.

All of these parties are engaged in information technology. Kent works for AidSat, a wizardly service that provides whatever assistance is needed to clients in a jam. Able to track clients' vital signs, AidSat may intervene without being asked to do so.  Rob, obviously, is a spy. Not only that: he's pretending to work for AidSat's competition. As for Sabrina, she's a facialist - but she hangs out with Colonel Geoff, a retired black military man whose purview, in active service, was Hollywood. Normalcy, tenuous from the beginning, cracks installment, with a very disturbed and disturbing letter from Kent to "Mom," in which he announces that he has joined the Masons. The text makes no explicitly Masonic references, but the links are full of them. Indeed, there's a link in the final chapter that takes the reader to, the official Web site of "The Temple of Set" and a haven of Satanism so open and calm-seeming that it's difficult to take seriously.

As in The Unbinding. In earlier fiction, such as Up in the Air and Mission to America, Walter Kirn writes about the instability of a certain kind of modern American psyche better than anyone; his characters are so untethered to the expected that they assume a certain science-fiction aura. But there are two pressures in The Unbinding that work against each other. First is the pissing contest between Kent and Rob. Second are the mounting suggestions that things are not what they seem to be, shadowed by a mounting sense that there's no reason to believe any of the suggestions (because there are probably further, unrevealed suggestions). The Unbinding is already unbound, loosened by a paranoia that, seeing connections everywhere, fails to make any.

Literary paranoia is not one of my interests. Whether from stupidity or lack of interest, I'm not very good with puzzles. I need to be shown how the trick works before I can appreciate that there even was a trick; I'm inclined to take things at face value. This isn't to say that I believe everything I'm told. But I have to have a few consistent clues before I'll reconsider appearances. What I found in The Unbinding was a lot of very convincing Internet static, a sort of narrative spam.

Kent, for example, is an avid paintballer. He's pretty kinky about it, too.

Occasionally, maybe twice a year, revved up after a hard-fought paintball match, I'll wash my face but leave my body spattered, concealing the "wounds" with a clean white business shirt that I button up tight about my flushed-pink neck. It's a ritual I've evolved, a private ceremony. I put on the tie and gray suit I bought for work and rarely wore after my training period, preferring looser outfits in lighter fabrics, and I head to the bar of the W Hotel, where the bands and athletes hang out when they're in town. There I order a neat manhattan, amber and cold, with a ghostly sunken cherry.

So he's a guy who has hit upon a masculine equivalent of lacy see-through underwear. There's quite a lot about Twist, Kent's paintball team's mascot, involving, long-story-short, contested custody. As the identity-melt of The Unbinging proceeds, it becomes less and less clear why we're being told about Twist and Kent's paintball hobby. I wasn't moved to try to find out.

I can well imagine how enthusiastic cybernauts felt about The Unbinding as it made its weekly appearance in Slate. Here was a group read in which no reader could speed ahead of any other. No one know better than anyone else where the story was going, or how it would end. The Internet setting must have been ripely congenial to the conspiracy theories that the unfolding story launches like rubber bands in a middle-school classroom. "Did you get that?" "Get what?" I expect there must have been an ongoing, collective deconstruction of the text even as it was produced. Mr Kirn enlisted the participation of a friend, the writer Amy Hempel, at once point - for the sheer fun of it, I thought, but who knows, perhaps there's a subterranean link between Ms Hempel and the Temple of Set (I do hope not). For sheer playfulness, The Unbinding must have taken its readers to a new level of entertainment.

Just how literary this entertainment might have been, though, will take time to tell. The book seems to me to be too fast and too short, while at the same time less amusingly long-winded than Mr Kirn's other novels. Nothing makes two men act and sound more alike than hostile competition, and then same drainage of individuality gurgles through The Unbinding. It doesn't take long for Kent to start accusing Rob - it ought to go without saying that they can read each other's submissions - of taking a homosexual interest in him. While this is both plausible and interesting, it's not followed up: Rob treats Kent's claims as mere taunting. Because we have no way of knowing what's really going on with either of these characters, and less and less reason to believe anything they tell us (and each other), their interaction becomes sheerly ludic. Maybe you have to be playing paintball to understand this novel. (April 2007)

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