In the title story of my short story collection The Syllabus of Errors, Ludo, a failed academic, waits in a café for Claire, a woman he’s travelled some way to meet again. Twenty-three years previously, on a school ski trip, he believes he shared a ‘moment’ with Claire. Had this ‘moment’ materialised into a romantic relationship, Ludo believes that his life would have turned out differently. It’s a pretty high-stakes game for Ludo, but Claire, when she arrives, will prove not to be who he has constructed from her social media profile, and have a radically different memory of the ‘moment’ than Ludo.
This reunion is made possible entirely by social media, specifically Facebook, as it’s on Facebook that Ludo first reconnects with Claire. Ludo has found her on Facebook, friended her on Facebook and on Facebook she’s proved amenable enough to meet him for a drink — although he has gulled her with a fiction that he’s travelled for a meeting that serendipitously happens to be in the town where she now lives. While Ludo waits, he ponders the technology and other things that did not exist twenty-three years before, when they had their ‘moment’, when he found himself briefly alone with her in a mountaintop cable car station.
When he realises she’s now late, he considers texting her, but realises he couldn’t have texted her before. He realises that you could still visit Yugoslavia and Woolworths back then. He prepares a script for when she does eventually arrive: ‘he would joke about things that didn’t exist last time they were together, like voicemail, Facebook and chichi, culturally-indeterminate café-bars.’ Ludo doesn’t consider in any depth, or with any degree of self-awareness, the role Facebook has played in facilitating this reunion. He knows it played a role, but he doesn’t see the threat to his dignity if he allows a ghost girl to obliviously create in his imagination a rosy future buried in a restless past.
“Since his initial approach had elicited a reply from Claire Vickers-was-Thornley, divorced and ‘interested in a relationship’ he had sensed again the atmosphere of a high-up world and the blue haze of the mountain.”
Ludo should know better. He’s a student of fascism, of why fascism happened in some countries and why it didn’t rise in others. He should know that a troubled past cannot be rewritten in this way, that insisting a troubled past can be erased will not prompt a Golden Age into being. Like many of the stories in The Syllabus of Errors, issues of crisis, rancour and revisionism are played out in the problems between men and women, or the problems of lonely men, an attempt to play out grand themes in small spaces, as well as an effort to compare and connect the historic past to the perplexing present. But, it is the Internet that makes the story tick. Without social media, the story would have to take a different turn; despite being, in essence, just a story of boy-meets-girl-who-doesn’t-fancy-him.
If the central planks of The Syllabus of Errors, when I boil them down to their simplest conflicts, are fairly straightforward, what happens if I shift the story backwards in time? I write a lot of contemporary, observational stories, and I will include digital communications and technology if I think the characters would use them. I also write historical fiction if I come across a story that compels me; and I do write stories set in the more recent past. The central planks, the order of battle in The Syllabus of Errors, as I say above, would be the same if I’d set the story in 1926, or 1966 or 1976, but how would the textures of the story be different?
With a bit of research, I could probably easily reversion the setting and cultural references of the story, retool it for 1976. The Café Reggio, where Ludo and Claire are to meet, would certainly not be ‘culturally indeterminate’, would either be very English or culturally determinate, Greek, or Italian, say. The denizens of the Café Reggio would be less diverse. The openly gay couple would not be open about it. If twenty-three years had still passed since they had their ‘moment’, this puts our backstory back to 1953. As such, Ludo’s considerations of changes that have occurred in the interim would probably more tend to social change rather than technological change. Cars were still cars in 1953, even if cars in 1976 were more advanced, but women didn’t take the pill, homosexuality was illegal, the death penalty was routine. A thirty-nine-year-old bachelor meeting a thirty-nine-year old divorced woman in 1976 may have had a different dynamic to today. None of these things would necessarily impinge on the story in ways that would change it. The plot of the story would remain the plot of the story.
If the way details were marshalled would not change the essence of the story, would not separate it from a story Chekhov or Grahame Greene or Muriel Spark or any number of writers more talented that I could have written in their time, it’s how Ludo and Claire connect that makes the story of its moment, of 2011 when I wrote it, of social media.
Let’s backtrack. Say Ludo and Claire have their moment in 1953 but it’s not until 1976 that he makes his overtures. This would mean he would have brooded on her for twenty-three years before some internal pressure caused him to seek her out. Facebook, and Friends Reunited before it, quite casually encourages us to seek out people from our pasts, whether they want to be found by us or not, whether they agree to interact with us or not, whether it would be good for us to compare ourselves to them or not. It encourages us to take a sort of social inventory, create directories of who we know and have known. It’s not unlikely that Claire may have popped into Ludo’s head while he was browsing Facebook, or have appeared in a mutual acquaintance’s feed. He will have been ambushed by this longing. It will have come for him.
In the 1976 version, he wouldn’t be so easily ambushed. He would have to go to lengths to find her, to track her down. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is only able to find his ghost girl and move into a house close to hers because she is famous. He follows Daisy in gossip columns and society pages. Claire runs a tile shop. She’s one of us. Ludo would have to contrive a way of meeting her. He would have to work much harder, in a more transgressive way. He would, in short, need to stalk Claire, making him more sinister than sap. He would either know exactly what he was doing, or he’d need to be as unbalanced and monomaniacal as David Kelsey, the stalker and wannabe Nietzschean superman in Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness.
If I didn’t want Stalker Ludo, it’s possible I could have contrived a random encounter. They bump into each other on a train station, a beach, a book store, but that wouldn’t give me what a Facebook connection gives me. It’s the quality of the longing, how the brooding upon a few otherwise innocuous details or images facilitates the rewriting of the personal past and the drawing up of a grand plan, the dream to end all dreams, resolution.
Ludo constructs a Claire unlike the Claire we meet from a few details. Memories of a conversation they had when they were sixteen that she doesn’t remember at all (as you wouldn’t if the conversation were of no consequence to you; or you’re a pretty girl who may be used to being cornered by shivery, stammery geeks with designs on your person). He’s seen her picture and other pictures that 1976 Ludo couldn’t have seen unless he acquired them by illicit means. He knows she’s single and he knows she’d possibly entertain a new partner, which he wouldn’t if he ran into her in British Home Stores or Habitat. By allowing longing to connect the dots, he’s able to construct a ghost Claire for his ghost future to exorcise the ghosts of his ghost past, a past that doesn’t lead to the Ludo he is, but the Ludo who is half of Ludo and Claire, and isn’t a man grappling with his unhealthy interest in Nazism.
This summoning of ghost versions is normal on the internet — it’s how the internet works on all of us, but especially the needy and bitter. As spurs for fictions, the everyday potential of semi-random online encounters paired with snapshots and images works no differently than the ‘glimpses’ Henry James refers to in The Art of Fiction, but with the extra dimension that they can be revisited ad infinitum by the brooder unless he or she oversteps the mark. As this new unstable element in human relationships is here to stay (Facebook may well be declining but social media is not) it seems a shame that more writers are not exploring it as scrupulously as they do the recent and distant past, with its limited vistas and different shades of solitude.
Ashley Stokes is the editor of Unthology and The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, and author of The Syllabus of Errors: Twelve Stories of Obsession, Loss, and Getting in a State (Unthank Books, 2013).