The Unbinding

By Walter Kirn

Anchor. 176 pp. $13.95

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Reviewed by Jen A. Miller


On March 13, 2006, novelist Walter Kirn began posting chapters of

The Unbinding

, a so-called "Internet novel," on the Web site Slate.com. This is a Big Brother story, now published in physical book form, in which just about anyone can find out anything about anyone. But

The Unbinding

isn't set in the future - it's set in the now.

The story opens at the Web site Mystory.com, which is the online diary of Kent Selkirk. He works at AidSat, a personal monitoring company whose clients wear bracelets or ear jacks that allow them to communicate with AidSat any time of the day or night. "They call because they've fallen and can't stand up," he writes, "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 powerful network, which Selkirk uses to find out more information about the people around him, including Sabrina Grant, a woman living in his apartment complex.

We get her point of view in this story, too, through Grant's letters and calls to AidSat (she's a client), and through the logs and e-mails of Rob Robinson, an agent who is watching both Selkirk and Grant. The story spins into one full of conspiracy theories, lies folded onto lies, and a lot of references to Tom Cruise. Because it's written from different points of view, the reader never really knows what's going on, who's right, and who's telling the truth - if any of them are.

The Unbinding feels like it was written on the fly. Kirn couldn't go back and re-edit earlier chapters, as a novelist could with a manuscript. He wrote it, posted it, and that's what he had to work with. It gives the book a quick, almost frantic, pace, but as an Internet novel it worked. And because the story was told in real time, Kirn mixed in current events. After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested 17 people in connection with terrorist plots, the event was mentioned. The Unbinding was written at the height of Tom Cruise's public meltdown, so he figures prominently into the plot, too. The text even references a Boston Globe piece written about Kirn writing this project.

The Internet novel is an interesting concept - how much can you use the connectivity of the Web to enhance a story? Kirn took the opportunity to link to odd corners of the Internet, such as Web sites supporting conspiracy theories and cults, and to add shots of humor with pictures and video, such as links to a very silly clip of Sharon Tate and Dean Martin from The Wrecking Crew, and Johnny Rivers singing "Secret Agent Man" linked up with a mention of Rob Robinson.

The question is, though, does this work as a physical book? Not quite. For a paper book to work the same way as the Internet book, readers have to sit by their computers and, whenever they come across a bold-faced word or phrase, click over to Walterkirn.com and hit the corresponding link. It's a disruptive process. If you're buying a physical book, you're probably not the kind of person who wants to read long passages of text while sitting at your desk. It would be much easier to read the novel as it was originally presented.

Of course, you can read The Unbinding - non-Internet version - as a stand-alone novel. The idea of what constant surveillance means, and what rights should be given to the big bad government to watch our every move, is well molded by Kirn into a relevant yet entertaining plot. But you won't get those added layers of oddity and humor. The best way to read The Unbinding is still where it started, and where it's still online, at Slate.com.

Jen A. Miller writes about books for Poets and Writers, US Airways Magazine, Pages, and Psychology Today.