October 2002 (v5 i2)
Exposing the plight of the student body since 1997
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I Am Abandoning the Great American Novel
by Thaddius McNeil, Guest Columnist

My novel stews, unfinished in drawer. My poems are bellicose and legion and all made of pure shit. My pen sits motionless—my sheets of looseleaf barren in their neat stack next to the typewriter. Yet I labor continuously, without cease, on the work that will place me in the canon—the Great American Away Message.

People used to say that jazz was the only American art form—the only thing that we had created ex nihilo from the fertile earth of our imaginations and offered to the world. I would add another—though much younger—child of the American id: the AOL Instant Messenger Away Message.

Where else is the simple fact of non-being conveyed so simply and succinctly? The Away Message says “I am not currently what you expect—I am the of the Other—yet soon I will return and fulfill the roll you need.” It is at once a fascinatingly brief self-portrait and a glaring, Kafkaesque commentary on the possibilities of one-way communication with a world outside of the known.

The Away Message must inform, entertain, and most of all, provide satisfaction—to any one of a number of people you know. It must be at once pithy, personal, and timeless. It’s a request for information at its most basic. Someone calls out through the dark night of cyberspace like a caveman of old—yodelling across an empty valley of another cave, requesting conversation, information, or simple companionship. “Are you home, brother?” The reply will come automatically and respond in the negative—“on the can,” “at Souper Salad,” or simply, “bowling.”

Clearly, the possibilities are infinite, but how to write the Away Message, the one that ends discussion, makes all things known, all states of being clear, and displays the cell phone number in just the right shade of chartreuse?

It’s a rub that one must wrestle on a daily basis—and not least because so few people find it compelling. How can I explain to the woman who audits my Ford Foundation Grant for Budding Novelists that I am tired of jousting with Proust and Melville—that my art is timeless, yet limited to 1,024 characters; that the concept is mercurial, multifaceted as a butterfly and can be written in any one of twelve pre-approved colors?

Suddenly, emoticons, abbrevs, and teenage hyperbole flood forth, covering page upon page with prose, flowing from my consciousness like a breaking dam, white rapids of participles and propositions, meter and rhyme, decimating everything in their paths.

I write: “AFK, BBL. :) :P .... luv yah! hit the cell, deuce: 555-8984. James: I’m so not sketchy!!! J/K!!!”
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