The Unbinding by Walter Kirn

February 21, 2007 at 11:43 pm (essays, fiction, literary criticism, mystery & suspense, novels, walter kirn)

The UnbindingIn January 2006 acclaimed author Walter Kirn began writing a serial web novel for Slate.com. Almost a year later the complete work has finally been printed, bound in an eye catching orange cover with the title The Unbinding splashed across the front, and made available in hard copy.

When I ran across this slim volume in Borders several weeks ago I was rather surprised. Kirn is easily one of my top ten favorite authors in existence. How could I not have known he’d been writing a serial web novel? I had to give myself a slap on the wrist for being a bad fan girl. Even though I wasn’t particularly fond of Kirn’s last two novels he had yet to satisfy all the criteria necessary to make me stop purchasing his work all together. My criteria is entirely subjective; if an author I admire writes two novels in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I quit buying their books.  Since Kirn has only written 1 1/2 novels that fit the bill when I plucked The Unbinding down in front of the cash register I did so with the knowledge that this book would either make of break my relationship with Kirn. To my great relief Kirn managed to whip up a story of suspense and intrigue that renewed my faith in him.

It is told by three different characters: Kent Selkirk, the reclusive paintball enthusiast who works for Aidsat, a company described on the back cover as “an omnipresent subscriber service ready to answer, solve, and assist with the client’s every problem.” Kent tells his side of the story through personal blog entries. Sabrina Grant is the sweet and emotionally unstable young woman Kent has his eye on, whose story is heard through letters and telephone conversations. And Rob Robinson is the mysterious man who just shows up one day and begins acting all chummy with Kent and Sabrina. Soon after he starts sending reports on them back to his employers. His side of the story comes through a series of office memos. This format gives the reader the sense that he or she is spying on this trio of neighbors, perhaps even flipping through a top secret file of their questionably acquired communications.

The novel sets a lofty goal for itself by attempting to look at the ways national security, celebrity, consumerism, and information technology intersect. Kirn finds a perfect tool for such examination in the act of gazing. On page 4, Kent declares that “everyone is interesting enough to be watched.” This statement proves true as we observe the many ways Kent, Sabrina, and Rob watch one another.

As Kent and Sabrina prepare for their first date they each spend an enormous amount of time and energy gathering information about the other. Since Sabrina is an Aidsat subscriber Kent is able to access tons of personal information on her; everything from her work history, educational background,  and previous addresses to her vital signs which are constantly being monitored by Aidsat.  Though not as well connected as Kent, Sabrina is able to cull a load of information about Kent by calling in a favor from a friend, as well as tracking his electronic paper trail on the Internet. By the time they finally go out they both already know everything there is to know each other. So, when Sabrina tries to make herself sound more worldly by telling Kent she is divorced, Kent knows she was actually granted an annulment on the grounds of non-consummation. And when Kent tells Sabrina he went to college at Berkeley, she knows the school has no records that he ever attended.

With such extensive personal information available to anyone with a computer and a healthy amount of curiosity there is no reason for Sabrina and Kent to trust each other, not when they can run home and double check the accuracy of each assertion the other makes. And with no trust there is no reason to be honest since they both know the other will tease out the truth without them ever having to say it. As their relationship progresses the reader is forced to reflect on the necessity of trust in forming attachments, without which there can be no intimacy or depth.

The relationship between Kent and Sabrina illustrates a desire to both gaze and be gazed at. They both actively watch and monitor each others lives through their research, and they each continue to lie about their pasts knowing the falsehoods will ensure that the other continues to gaze at them. In this way they participate in each others lives without actually participating in each others lives.

On page 29, Kent muses about how great it is “to gaze ungazed upon.” He goes on to say “It sounds depressing, but when you think about it, it’s the same deal the creator gave himself, and the creator had all the deals to choose from.” It would sound good if the assumption weren’t so incorrect. As Kent himself observes, everyone is interesting enough to be watched, and God is perhaps the most scrutinized of all celebrities. Not even the creator can remove himself from the gaze of those he created.

The very act of gazing isn’t even as passive as it first seems. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “Gaze” as to fix the eyes in a steady intent look often with eagerness or studious attention. To gaze is to study with intent, and study requires undivided attention and focus. Such focus denotes intense involvement with the subject. On page 74 Rob Robinson states in one of his memos that “to observe is to disturb,” hinting at the way gazing can create change in the subject. We see this change everyday as the hot young starlet of the moment poses, dresses, and postures herself for the barrage of media observing her every move. People who are not subjected to such scrutiny aren’t as self-conscious. Furthermore, the act of gazing effects those who gaze. Rob also observes on page 20 that “[t]he more of yourself you show off to the wrong people, the more they eventually demand to see.” The more involved the gazer becomes in their subject, the more they want to know about them; the more they feel they have the right to know. And in this way the gazer and the subject of the gaze feed off of one another, both knowingly and unknowingly shaping the life of the person they hold in thrall. 

As the story unfolds the reader learns that none of the characters can escape being gazed at. Not only is gazing a predictable result of having eyes, it is an inescapable part of life. No one can avoid the gaze of family, friends, and with the explosion of user created Internet content, even total strangers. As they scrutinize our looks and behavior so do we manipulate the image we project in order to present ourselves in the best possible light. All three characters come to this realization in their own way.

The novel is fast paced and, thanks to Kirn’s engaging style of writing, a fast and easy read. I breezed through it in four days and spent the next several weeks analyzing it. It is thought provoking, and while I’ve only focused on a single aspect in this review/make shift essay there are enough threads running through this novel  to spawn dozens of essays.

In the introduction, Kirn mentions that because the story was written for the web it originally contained pictures and interactive content.  Sprinkled throughout the text are words and phrases printed in bold lettering. In the original online text these words were links to other web pages that Kirn used to enhance the text. Not wanting to completely throw out all the content that made this novel a web novel, readers can go to Walter Kirn’s website and find a chapter by chapter index of all the bold words leading to their original links. Kirn recommends “performing the labor” of looking at the links, and I must admit, doing so greatly enhances the text. There are alternate themes running through the articles, videos, and pictures Kirn links to that are not even hinted at in the text itself. I’m not saying you have to remain tied to your computer in order to enjoy this book, I certainly didn’t. I tend to do the bulk of my reading on the subway going to and from work. Unable to access the web content while I was actually reading, at the end of the day I would go to Kirn’s site and click all the links up to where I’d read. It was well worth the effort and I don’t think I would have entirely understood the final chapters of The Unbinding without the help of those links.

An ambitious work, The Unbinding shows off Kirn at his punchy, ruminative, quit-witted best as he engages the reader to actively unravel this intricately laced work.

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