Travis Nichols’ hard-to-describe second novel, The More You Ignore Me (Coffee House Press; 211 pages), takes the form of a single, rambling blog comment—a decade-spanning, bitterly confessional manifesto written in response to a recipe posted on the fictitious BrendaCookingFun.com. Its author, the narrator—who goes unnamed except for two screen names: Linksys181 and Linksys157—resorts to commenting on a cooking website only because he’s been banned from doing the same on Charlico.com, a website dedicated to a wedding the narrator is deeply consumed with preventing. The reason for this obsession, and the nature of Linksys181’s relationship to Charli Vistons, the female half of the soon-to-be-wed couple Charlico, are only two of the mysterious and engrossing narrative threads winding and unraveling through this strange and digressive Internet thriller.
This is not, however, a novel solely “about” the Internet and the pathology of its various trolls and anonymous do-gooders. While it mimics the structure of the blog comment, and occasionally spouts half-baked literary theory about this new medium (“Before comments, we all thought only in these paltry terms: ‘words = writer/reality’…The true commenter alone advocates on behalf of reality unbeholden”), Nichols’ book employs more familiar literary forms in the course of its narrator’s Kinbotian tirade as well. At these points, the novel refreshingly shifts focus to Linksys181’s past, to his memory and personal moments of “real life” trauma. Linksys181, proud of his narrative gifts, sporadically presents the past in the form of a screenplay, before settling self-consciously on the form of a novel, with chapter headings breaking up scenes and reflections. There is no marking delineating when or if this experiment in novelization ends. Instead, there’s the vague sense the narrator has forgotten to signal that.
That kind of forgetfulness is, after all, characteristic of Nichols’ troubled, digressive narrator, whose choice of language and syntax sits jarringly apart from the expected grammatical banality of the blogosphere. This contrast comes through particularly when the erudition of the narrator becomes the object of his description: “I, a humble man of limited means…put my modest writerly talents to use in service of gnosis.” And while the narrator’s elevated tone and self-righteousness can occasionally border on the abrasive, when taken in the context of the whole book—a narrative relayed by a social outcast whose inability to converse “normally” is at least partially responsible for his otherness—the readers’ initial aversion to his over-literary bombast turns into sympathy.
Nichols’ prose especially shines when relating the narrator’s ambitious project: “In a flurry of clicks and scrolls I delved further into the life of Charli Vistons.” This project at first resembles a twenty-first century Moral Re-armament campaign, but eventually, and tellingly, morphs into a quest for personal coherence and resolution. Charli Vistons, the potential bride whom Linksys181 takes it upon himself to protect through cyberspace, is revealed to resemble powerfully a figure from the narrator’s past, referred to throughout as “MFL” (My First Love). The story of MFL is that of a love triangle within which Linksys181 is neither point A, B, nor C, but instead an obsessive and stalkerish “X.” How the narrator eventually barges into the love triangle and the tragic consequences of this action become the central conflict of Linksys181’s diatribe, around which the motives and meaning of his obsessive Internet presence revolves.
The title of Nichol’s novel recalls the chorus to a song by the great cultural ego Morrissey, who sang “The more you ignore me / the closer I get / you’re wasting your time.” While the narrator seems to be trying desperately to mimic that inexorable movement forward, at the same time he’s slipping quickly away. The strongest tension in the novel comes from how it evokes the tortured sensation of simultaneously being ignored and being misunderstood. Linksys181 may only have found his voice in the digital realm, and his language and tactics may be disdainful, but the ultimate roots of his discontent is something altogether understandable: a desire and passion for meaningful human connection.