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Authors: Walter Kirn

The Unbinding

BOOK: The Unbinding
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In January 2006, Jacob Weisberg, the editor in chief of, asked me out of the blue if I’d be interested in publishing a novel in his magazine. With no idea what I was getting into, nor any prepared material in my desk drawer, I told him to sign me up. The result is the story before you,
The Unbinding—
a serial novel written for the Web week by week and a section at a time and powered by a surge of naive faith in the capacity of cyberspace to do for long-form fiction what it has done already for journalism, music, gaming, and the graphic arts.

I started telling the tale in early spring with the intention of ending it by summer. The lessons came almost as quickly as the deadlines. Because the project had been announced on Slate as an “Internet novel,” its readers seemed to have certain expectations. They were in the mood, I learned (largely from Googling the novel’s title and scrolling through various blogs that cited it), for a display of technical bravado: links to other Web sites, pictures, video, and a whole range of multimedia tricks that I too believed would be helpful to the enterprise. An Internet novel, I thought when I began, should look and feel—and even sound, perhaps—like something new, disorienting, wild. A buzzing, humming electronic circus teeming with hypertext lions and virtual clowns.

But reality surprised me.

Within a few days of sitting down to work, I realized that the greatest opportunity offered to a novelist by the Web is not the ability to dazzle an audience with unorthodox content, but the chance to address it in real time, in something like the way that live performers do. The speed and directness of the electron could vastly shorten the long delays between composition and consumption that conventional physical publication requires. I could write a section on a Wednesday, send it to my editor (the impeccable and incomparable Meghan O’Rourke) on Thursday, and visit it on the Web on Friday morning. What’s more, I could coordinate my tale (if I saw reason to) with current events. The week that a movie opened in the real world, it could also open in my made-up world. My characters could rush right out and see it, along with everybody else.

Of course, what’s possible isn’t always desirable. But sometimes it is. And this was one of those times, I felt, partly because the subject of my tale—the plight of what people used to call “the self” in an age of high-tech snooping, political paranoia, identity thievery, and Internet exhibitionism—had recently come to the forefront of the news, where it seemed destined to stay for quite a while.

Now, with some revisions, but not many,
The Unbinding
has been bound. It’s a book on paper, between two covers. Since a tale is not just its container, I believe, and can exist in several forms at once, I welcome this transition toward tangibility. Old-fashioned books remain more readable than computer screens (for now, at least), and they’re certainly more portable. They also give the illusion of finality.

What books have more trouble providing is connectivity. On Slate, my text was just a click away from the nearly infinite library of the Web, to which it could almost instantly attach itself as it moved along. To re-create this effect in print (somewhat crudely, I confess, in the manner of primitive motion pictures or very early, very slow computers) a Web site has been developed for
The Unbinding
on The site lists the bold-type “link words” in the novel and allows readers to click them as they proceed. I recommend performing this little labor, although I recognize that it’s disruptive. Fans of footnotes and appendices may not find it so, but people who relish the trancelike seamlessness of the traditional reading experience may retreat in frustration or disgust. That’s fine. Ignore the links. The world these days (and not just the World Wide Web) is a realm of forking paths, of endless choices and alternatives, and we all travel through it by different routes, much like the characters in
The Unbinding.
And also, for that matter, like their author.

Always lost, yet always on our way.

Walter Kirn

August 2006



They call at all hours with a thousand problems, and our satellites fix their locations to the square foot while our operators try to help them or put them in touch with specialists who can. They call because they’ve fallen and can’t stand up, because they’re alone and choking on their food, because they’ve been abandoned by their mates, because they smell gas, because their babies won’t nurse, because they’ve forgotten how many pills they’ve swallowed, and sometimes because they’re afraid that we’re not here and crave reassurance in case they need us later. It’s a costly service—sixty dollars a month for the Palladium Global Access package, not including the optional Active Angel Plan, which remotely coaches users through more than six hundred common Life Challenges, from administering infant CPR to negotiating the purchase of a home—and clients deserve to know we’re at our stations even when the skies are fair and blue.

“AidSat?” they ask us, and as we answer them we check our screens for their pulse rates and other vital signs, which are forwarded to us from sensors in their bracelets or, for Active Angel clients, in their ear jacks. If the numbers look bad we press a lighted red key that sends an ambulance from the nearest hospital. If the stats appear normal we stroke another key that records and stores the information, shielding the firm from legal liability should it turn out that the sensors have malfunctioned and the caller is, in fact, dying on the line.

Last Thursday around lunchtime this call came. Peculiar, but not as peculiar as they come. The only reason to write it down is that I decided this month to write it all down, everything, my mornings and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I’m an interesting person, I’ve come to see. We all are. We don’t deserve to disappear.

“I’m in my car. It’s rainy—really foggy. I think I see a coastline on my right.”

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m lost, I guess.”

“Humboldt County, ma’am, city of Eureka, heading south on
Wabash Avenue
. On your right you should see a Pentecostal church.”

“Which state is this, though?”


“That makes sense.”

“Do you need any further assistance?”


“You’re sure? All conversations with AidSat are strictly private. You sound a bit frazzled, frankly.”

“Time of month.”

I let out a laugh I’d practiced and said, “No kidding,” though what I meant by this I have no idea. Just trying to sound human, I suppose, which I’ll admit can be hard for me sometimes. It’s a skill like any other skill, and not the natural condition they make it out to be in the children’s books.

The woman terminated our connection. But I tracked her vehicle for the next ten minutes. It’s in the contract folks sign when they subscribe. If an operator has cause to be concerned, he’s authorized to continue passive coverage without the client’s spoken permission. I’ve made a habit of this practice. Three years ago, when I was new at AidSat, I took a call from the distraught head chef of a Kansas City country club who’d learned just moments earlier that he’d been fired. Since the man subscribed to Active Angel, I led him step-by-step through a scripted two-hour crisis-mitigation plan. I stood by in his ear as he ate a light, warm meal, obtained a pen and paper at a drugstore, and sought out a peaceful spot of natural beauty (a nearby city park I guided him to), where, in response to my whispered promptings, he sketched a series of detailed pictures depicting his hopes and desires for his future. He seemed composed after finishing the drawings, and, at his request, I let him go. I should have shadowed him. The man returned to his workplace with a handgun, randomly let off five shots in the main dining room (wounding no one but traumatizing many), then discharged the weapon into his own right ear.

Though AidSat provided me with intensive therapy beginning the next morning and lasting six months, the guilt still scratches, the regrets still bite, and sometimes my dreams light up with violet bursts from the bullets I might have prevented from being fired and never got to hear.

I followed the woman’s vehicle on my screen as it entered the town of Eureka and then stopped moving. That was when her breathing suddenly accelerated and her body temperature shot up. She wasn’t running, though. Slow, even steps, direction north-northwest, along a side street whose major landmark was a Salvation Army thrift store tagged on my screen as a high-crime locale. At AidSat we’re not merely counselors; we’re cartographers. Our trademarked multiaxis maps of America’s physical and social landscape are the envy of the industry. They can pinpoint the safest neighborhoods for children, the highest concentrations of single black millionaires, and the most likely spots to contract a tick-borne illness. Location is destiny, is how we see it.

I fingered a key to buzz the woman’s bracelet and waited twenty seconds for a response.

“What is it?” she said. Then a second voice, male: “Who’s that?”

“We’re checking back. As a courtesy,” I said.

I heard the male voice say, “Fucking turn it off.”

“That’s nice, but I’m fine,” said the woman, Sarah Flick, a licensed practical nurse, age thirty-four, and a resident of Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin. I had her call history in front of me and saw that she’d used the service just twice that quarter, both times for relatively trivial reasons: to verify the safety record of a child’s playpen she was buying and to ascertain the legal penalty for driving while intoxicated in Iowa.

“I’m really completely okay now,” Sarah insisted.

But the health sensors said otherwise. Blood pressure that would pop the plastic screw top off a soda bottle. Light perspiration. A faint but discernible coronary arrhythmia. I touched the key that opens my conversations to my superiors at our Portland unit and lets them review developing situations. Sarah needed a medic, most certainly. I sensed that she might also need a cop.

“I believe you’re in danger. Answer yes or no,” I said. “Do you feel safe around this man you’re with?”

“No.” A quick and tiny “no,” but vibrant.

“Is he threatening you in any way?”

“A lot of them.”

“Physically? With violence?”

“Not so far.”

“Could the reason you didn’t know which state you’re in be that he brought you there against your will?”

“He wants me to hand him the ear jack now, he says. He didn’t know what the thing was before.”

“Cooperate. We’re moments away,” I said. “We’re almost there.”

Such moments are what I live for in my job. They’re why I get to work early for every shift and volunteer to fill in during the holidays: those times when I and the AidSat system unite—when the broad continental reach of our concern fixes on a single soul in peril and we stretch our arms down from the stars. Our infinite automated tenderness ought to have been built into the universe, and for a few years, as a child, I thought it had been. When my parents split up, I found out that I was wrong. But at last the flaw has been addressed. The
for answering prayers is now in place, and
I am
seated at its mighty

Two hours after Sarah’s call, I heard from Portland—from a supervisor named Peter P., whom I’d dealt with once or twice before. I happened to know from AidSat scuttlebutt that he had come to us from the upper echelons of the personal wellness industry. It’s a tame-sounding field, but in my experience it turns out some very potent personalities, including a young woman in my complex whom I once had the pleasure of watching at the paintball range where I blow off steam on weekends. Her name is Sabrina, she’s shapely from every angle, and I happen to know through casual research that she works at the Heart Glow Spa downtown. We’re headed for a date, I hope, as soon as I can finagle a chance meeting and come up with the right restaurant.

“That call could have worked in an ad,” said Peter P. “The guy was her ex. Extensive prison record. He knocked her out with dope and stole her car and drove for two days before she woke back up. Only problem is she was wanted, too. Aggravated assault on the girl she left the ex for.”

“Still,” I said.

“I agree with you completely.”

“We foiled an abduction.”

“Sure as shit. The second one this week, my files show. Now, head on home. Your day is over, Kent.”

I asked Peter P. why.

“New mental-health directive. You engaged in a high-stress intervention there. Depresses the immune system, we’ve found, especially in the winter and early spring. We’re trying to be proactive on this front. Hit the gym, maybe. Take a sauna. Rest.”

I did a few years at military school, so I recognize an order. Before I signed off I asked Peter P. a favor that I’d been thinking of asking him for months: a call history on this Sabrina cutie, who I’d noticed wore an AidSat jack disguised as a clip-on sapphire earring. He went oddly quiet for a moment, the way people do when they’re writing something down, then offered to “dig a bit” and left the line. My impression was that her name meant nothing to him but that he wasn’t entirely thrilled to learn that it meant something to me.

But that’s my impression whenever I ask my colleagues for helpful tidbits on clients I’d like to

BOOK: The Unbinding
13.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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