20 November 2009

To: HOLLY'S INBOX From: Ellen Subject: Re: The future of literature as we know it

When I heard someone had written a best-selling novel consisting of a series of e-mails, my first thought was, "This is going to be awesome." To the extent that people these days spend their lives on e-mail, it was about time that someone updated the 19th-century model of people sending letters back and forth to each other. (Not that people have stopped writing those; Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott's WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU is a great recent novel-in-letters.) Such is the premise behind HOLLY'S INBOX -- using the conceit of all the different e-mails a person gets and sends in a day to draw a life and scoot the plot forward without any ancillary scenes.

The author apparently got the idea from reading a former employee's left-behind e-mails (note to self: delete everything), which he described to Entertainment Weekly as "gripping." It's too bad he didn't just copy and paste them into HOLLY'S INBOX, because this book was so, so slow. I would say it was too realistic, but the real inbox of a new receptionist with a slutty best friend, an in-office boyfriend and a secret dark past -- and no discretion about putting all of this on company e-mail -- would have to be more interesting.

As Pie Not Included pointed out, some of the exchanges are much more like IM conversations than proper e-mails and the story one character is telling is dragged out much longer than it would be in a proper e-mail exchange. Holly is a total twit who (spoiler) nearly loses her job over an unnecessary lie, but she's capable of writing multiple-paragraph e-mails.

Why did I finish this book if it was so boring? First, it accurately replicated several e-mail forms common to homo sapiens sapiens cubiculi -- the passive-aggressive assignment thread, the snarky response to the non-response, the thinly disguised code for bitching about superiors. Second, I held out hope that it would get better once Holly's secrets were revealed (didn't).

And third, it's rare I read a novel which I think is not good but which I also believe could and will be done better soon. (Either a lot of bad novels I come across are flawed in the fundamentals, or I don't look at them with a charitable enough eye.) When it got really dull I even started thinking, "I could have written this book." Of course I'm deluded, but you would be too; think about how many e-mails you send in a day! This book tops 650 pages but because the to/from fields are constantly repeated, it doesn't contain that much text. Grandstanding aside, it's a form I'm excited to see taking shape, if not this particular shape.

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