Interview with Rodrigo Fresán (Part IV)
Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.
Will Vanderhyden: The narrator of The Invented Part has strong feelings about screen culture, about the prevalence of certain technologies—i.e. ebooks, smartphones, Facebook, twitter, etc.—and their implications for literature. To what extent do you share his feelings? How do you think technology is changing the way we read and write?
Rodrigo Fresán: A little. But not that much. It irritates and bothers me, but I can look the other way. In The Dreamed Part, the second book in the trilogy, the reason for and root of the protagonist’s luddite passion is clarified. But I don’t know if I should say or give anything away in that sense. Yes, maybe, it might be appropriate here to offer a fragment from the next book where the narrator, in the form of a list of questions, delves into a particular preoccupation of his (also mine) about how we have sold our souls and our eyes to certain gadgets. There I go, here it comes: “Think about it a little: not that long ago none of you were going around carrying those little devices with you everywhere and you lived lives that were more or less the same as the ones you live now and you were masters of the same intelligence quotient and the same powers of internal and external observation . . . Tell me, what is it that has changed so much in your lives and the lives of your acquaintances in recent years that has made you feel the obligation or need to share everything that happens to you and everything that you happen to think of, eh? Sure, if all of you had, courtesy of some fork in space-time, been in Dallas with your little phones that morning in 1963, we’d probably know exactly how many shooters there were and where they shot from and we’d be able to see JFK’s head explode from all possible angles. But seriously, I mean it, believe me: nobody is interested in that photo of what you’re eating or that sunset you’re seeing or your most recent deep thought that you just have to share with all of humanity unless you’re interested in their reflections and their sunsets and their meals too . . . Isn’t it true that not that long ago you liked many fewer things and that you took your time to think about whether something was or wasn’t worthy of a like? Isn’t it true that just a few years ago you didn’t read so much and definitely didn’t write so much? Isn’t it true that it used to make more to sense to go to the bathroom to read than to write? Isn’t it true that you used to live without wondering whether everything you did or thought was inspiring enough and worthy of being instantaneously and constantly sent out into the fullest emptiness in all of history? Isn’t it true that those lives were actually more interesting and that, every so often, it was fun to sit down with a friend, live and direct and in person, and say to them: ‘You have no idea what happened to me last week’ and then proceed to tell them with a full luxury of details, just as you had practiced in your heads, with authentic tears and laughter? Isn’t it true that it’s more appropriate to tell people about your pregnancies or tumors in private and one on one and in different ways depending on the person and not to tell everyone at the same time with the same words? Isn’t it true that there was a certain charm to coming home and—when it wasn’t bad news—finding a handwritten note on the ground beside the door or on a desk or stuck to the refrigerator door and opening it and under that cold light reading the warmth of that message? Isn’t it true that it’s disturbing to think that the activity you do most throughout the day is stare at your phone? Isn’t it true that it’s much more pleasant not to feel that already-diagnosed-by-neurologists ‘phantom vibration’ at the height of your pockets, as if it were the phone that we forgot and that isn’t even there calling and reminding us of its existence from far away, like the reflex and memory of some unforgettable amputated body part. Isn’t it true that you kind of miss that delectable torture of not being able to remember something—a name, a title, a song—and not find it and abort it immediately via Google so that, instead, you allow that forgotten thing to live and expand and, while you try to defeat it, you awaken other memories and other songs and titles and names? Isn’t it true that it used to be so gratifying to be the first to remember something in a gathering of the absent-minded? Isn’t it true that it was much easier to detect the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and to get ahead in its treatment without the use of instantaneous memory aids? Isn’t it true that it was exciting when every time you took a photo you were also making a choice? Isn’t it true that it was better to have memories that were far more precise than all those blurry photos where you can’t even tell who is in them? Isn’t it true that it was more exciting when every time you didn’t take a photo you were also making a choice? Isn’t it true that you used to film and photograph your kids less and you looked at them more and saw them better at home or at end-of-year performances or at birthdays? Isn’t it true that life was a little better when everyone who made fun of you in high school or at work could only do it from nine to five and not like now, on Facebook (‘Facebook friend’ was a great oxymoron, he thought) or Instagram or wherever, at all hours of the day and night, and you there promising and deceiving yourself that you won’t log back on to see how they hit you and insult you and laugh in your screen-face. Isn’t it true that it’s better to go out into the street and meet up with friends and not to capture virtual monsters that cost you less and less money, which takes more and more work to earn? Isn’t it true that it was better to go out walking in the street and randomly run into people instead of knowing where they are at all times but never seeing them in person? Isn’t it true that it was so nice to go out walking and be sure that nobody could call you on the phone? Isn’t it true that it was better to go out into the street when there were none of those new stoplights, on the ground, specially located to protect people who keep getting run over because they’re walking, head down, looking at the screen of their phone? Isn’t it true that it was nobler to immediately come to the aid of the unknown victim of an accident instead of making a video and “sharing it” first? Isn’t it true that it’s weird that doctors, when it comes time to let family members say goodbye to their loves ones—many of them dying because they were so concentrated on their phones they never saw what was coming at them until it was too late—have opted, I read about this the other day, to unplug the screens of the monitors that register the dying vital signs, because many people, reflexively, ignore the dying person and stare at those devices with the sound of videogames of game over? Isn’t it true that everything sounded better when all the phones sounded more or less the same, when their voice was more or less the same? Isn’t it true that you kind of miss those days when having a good memory was something to be proud of and not something we put in the hands of that device in our hands? Isn’t it true that it was exciting to memorize the phone number of a person you loved and to dial their digits one and a time, as if they were the letters of the person’s name, instead of just pressing a button without ever knowing what those numbers might add to or subtract from our hearts? Isn’t it true that we should be prouder of the memory of our soft brain than that of our hard disc? Isn’t it true that the world seemed better ordered and fairer when it wasn’t so easy to reach anybody via email, and certain levels of friendship and hierarchies of familiarity and rules of protocol were respected? Isn’t it true that things worked better when someone asked the legitimate owner first before casually giving away their phone number and email address to just anybody? Isn’t it true that it was a pleasure to unplug the phone or to think that you had achieved enough success in your life that you could dispense with it, that you had someone to deal with those ring-ring-rings or with those ringtones personalized—like those car horns that used to sing “La cucaracha”—with songs from TV shows or movies or famous speeches or, even worse, the wailing of your own baby? Isn’t it true that you made love more often or at least thought about making love more often or slept more and more deeply dreaming about making love and not about staring at and talking on your phone? Isn’t it true that it was much more enjoyable to go to the bathroom with a book and not a phone? Isn’t it true that spy thrillers and love stories were much better and more exciting when their moles and kitty cats had to search for and locate a phone on the street or in a bar and weren’t carrying it with them everywhere? Isn’t it true that the president of the United States still looks more elegant in the oval office with an old-school telephone and not holding one of those plastic and metal wafers? Isn’t it true that everything was more comfortable when you didn’t have to declare them at airports as if they were lethal weapons? Isn’t it true that it was easier to live a calmer life in a world where phones weren’t exploding and the new model of something wasn’t worse than previous models? Isn’t it true that your lives were better when you were people who thought something, and thought about it for a while before broadcasting it, and your face and name were out in the open and not the maniacal masks of avatars and aliases and anonymous and invasive body snatchers? Isn’t it true that everything was much nicer when phone calls were much less frequent and lasted much less time? Isn’t it true that life was more relaxed when you spent time reading absolutely nothing and maybe achieved some kind of Zen emptiness, unlike now when you read all the time, and all you read are brief stupidities that, in their accumulation, end up turning you into a big stupid nothing. Isn’t it true that what makes you check your social media profiles every minute isn’t the satisfaction of seeing yourselves there but of confronting the constant dissatisfaction of not really being seen by anyone? Isn’t it true that everything was much nicer when you didn’t have to take constant and interminable seminars to be able to use new applications, suspecting that soon everything would completely flip upside down and you’d have to start from mechanics’ ground zero and take classes to learn how to hold a spoon and slurp down your soup? Isn’t it true that everything seemed much grander and much more expressive when the world was much smaller and much more incommunicado? Isn’t it true that everything felt much more exciting and adventurous and proximal and close when the long-distance thing existed? Isn’t it true that it was easier to trust those foldable and uncomfortable and silent but oh so much more believable paper maps that, in addition to showing you where you were, pointed out where you had been and where you would be? Isn’t it true that the air felt lighter and the landscape shone much brighter when the only thing you knew about writers was what was in their books or in the occasional interview and when you knew absolutely nothing about the life and work of readers because readers didn’t write? . . .” And enough, for now, right?
The fifth and final part of this interview will go live on July 26th, just before the final podcast of the first “season” of the Two Month Review podcast. In the meantime, click here to check out earlier episodes and all other Two Month Review related posts!