FICTION: In Travis Nichols’s second novel, an obsessive troll shut out of a wedding website takes his rant to the comments section of a cooking blog.
Travis Nichols’ second novel takes the form of an obsessive online rant by a man whose extended unwelcome comments have led him to be banned from Charlico.com. That’s a wedding blog where plans for wedding events are displayed to relatives and friends of Charli and Nico, a couple about to wed.
The uninvited blogger, whose many masks include linksys181 and linksys157, happens upon the page while scanning for photos of women who remind him of a girl he once fancied. She looked like Ally Sheedy. So does Charli, the bride. So linksys181, who has no connection to the couple, intrudes upon the site.
Nico’s brother and best man Chris, the blog’s moderator, ignores the first rule of Internet etiquette: Don’t feed the trolls. “Are you really trolling a wedding website?” he asks. And the battle is on. Chris warns Linksys188 to stay away, then delays comments for days, then begins deleting. Finally, an infuriated Chris loses it. “Fun time is over,” he writes. “If you publish one more comment, send one more email, leave one more voicemail, contact me, Nico, Charli or anyone else in the family in any way again, I will ****ing kill you. You are a sociopath. Seek help.”
Linksys181 shifts to a cooking blog, BrendaCookingFun.com. There, he details his grievances against Chris (he calls him “head of his online neo-Stasi”) in the comments thread under entries like “Yummy Vegetarian Lasagna for Two.”
Nichols, a poet whose first novel, “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” was a multigenerational novel about World War II, comes to this fresh subject matter with firsthand experience. He worked for a number of years at the Poetry Foundation’s website and blog. He captures the wheedling tone, the aggravating escalation, the stultifying self-involvement of the Internet troll. And he adds a level; this troll includes in his posts a novella-length narrative concerning his own “sentimental education.” This opus goes on for 15 chapters. (It’s not really a spoiler to say its conclusion involves vomiting.)
Nichols is brilliant at showing the irrationality, ad hominem references, pseudo-intellectual riffs and sheer scary craziness of this particular anonymous Internet ranter, who serves as a worthy stand-in for others. The challenge is to keep a novel-length narrative of this sort readable all the way to the end. (Happily, it’s brief, and the voice is true; it helps if you’ve been in the crossfire.)
“The More You Ignore Me” is set in 2009. Someday it will be an artifact, a blip in digital literary history from the early days of cyber-bullying. For now, it’s still raw enough to bring the dark laughter of recognition. The only thing worse than being a target of a troll’s venom, Nichols makes clear, is being in his skin.
Jane Ciabattari is author of the story collection “Stealing the Fire” (a new Dzanc rEprint series e-book) and vice president/online of the National Book Critics Circle.