Calvin Kasulke’s new book, “Several People Are Typing,” is the tale of a guy whose psyche gets trapped in Slack, the workplace-messaging app. Slack lends the story its setting, dictates its form (a series of conversations among co-workers), and defines the book’s voice (characters communicate in a recognizable Slack-speak). Kasulke’s proposition, which taps into the subsuming nature of Work Today, seems to be: What if Slack ate a novel? A reader’s reply might be: Why would I read that novel? And yet “Several People Are Typing” is fun, funny, addictive, and surreal. It doesn’t feel much like literature, but it does feel like any number of Slack-adjacent activities: procrastinating, eavesdropping, solving a puzzle. I blazed through it in an hour, came up for air, and then immediately blazed through it again—behavior that mystified me until I remembered how I am on Slack.

On the book’s first page, our Everyman protagonist, Gerald, is engaging in an activity that might be familiar: he’s pleading with Slackbot, Slack’s automated assistant. “Help,” he types. “uninstall.” “uninstall self.” Through some accidental sorcery involving a spreadsheet, Gerald has transferred his consciousness into the app, leaving his insensible body behind in his apartment. Slackbot’s response is typical. (“I searched for that on our Help Center,” it says, before linking a series of articles on how to change one’s time zone.) Meanwhile, Gerald’s colleagues seem unfazed by his plight, which disrupts neither their workflow nor the firm’s bottom line. In fact, incorporeality makes Gerald more efficient. (He’s eventually tasked with writing a blog post about his enhanced productivity.) This state of affairs, with its echoes of remote work, is meant as a provocation—would we mourn, or even notice, the loss of one another’s bodies? The novel itself doesn’t treat Gerald’s predicament like an emergency. The conceit established, Kasulke turns to more alluring tasks: cataloguing types of Slack users, parsing the app’s tonal shifts, and satirizing the inanity of office life.

The book is a marvel of mimesis. It wonderfully captures Slack’s tropes, from the broad (anxious jokes about the boss reading one’s D.M.s) to the subtle (the use of Giphy to soften an interaction). Kasulke bottles such ephemera as a co-worker’s sardonic “godspeed,” or the precise friendliness of a supervisor’s tone when she drops into the “cute” channel, where employees post pictures of their kids. He is as alert to Slackers’ individual tics—the team member who uses the “away” status as a crutch, for example—as he is to the ambience of the program itself. Gerald works for a P.R. firm of about ten people. His hours are spent in a net of delicately crossed personal and professional wires, and the ebb and flow of formality feels sharply observed—that is to say, realistically tricky. Doug Smorin, the boss, at one point sends a private message to Tripp, the office jerk, to thank him for having lunch with a new hire when no one else was physically in the building. “Hope it wasn’t too awkward,” Doug offers, before clumsily getting to his point. “Don’t order sushi on the company card again.”

In recent years, a group of novels—Ling Ma’s “Severance,” Halle Butler’s “The New Me,” Alissa Nutting’s “Made for Love”—have depicted the workplace as a tundra, stark and devoid of life. By contrast, Gerald’s office appears temperate, even sweet. (A last-act queer love story, which taps into the delight of realizing that two colleagues are seeing each other, is surprisingly satisfying.) But the benign vibe only underscores how estranging even the best offices can be, with their demands that we upload more and more of ourselves for work. Slack is a figure for this alienation, since no one scans as a complete person while using the app, but Kasulke doesn’t actually need it to present his case. He needs only the firm’s deadening jargon and the dehumanizing nature of its goals: reducing individuals to consumer sketches, helping suppliers with the optics of their terrible products. In a dark moment, Gerald, sounding like a cross between a stoned philosophy major and one of Chekhov’s depressive bureaucrats, lays bare the novel’s stakes. “If the only part of you that you can consciously experience is your consciousness’ experience,” he muses, “and if all of that focus is 100% turned on to the dumbest fucking bullshit shit you’ve ever read in your life . . . that’s all that you are. All I am. Isn’t it?”

Given the constraints he’s assigned himself, Kasulke is understandably curious about what aesthetic experience on a messaging app might feel like. Soon after being converted into data, Gerald grieves the loss of the physical sublime: “There’s nothing visual you can cram into a glowing rectangle that fucks with your brain quite like a sunset,” he says. Slackbot responds by showing Gerald “where we keep the sunsets”: a repository of crepuscular GIFs, all playing at once. To Gerald, the spectacle is “the most beautiful thing” he has ever seen. Later, he tries to be a sunset, splintering himself across the Web, wherever people are posting the images. “The pain was shattering and enormous,” he tells a colleague.

Kasulke seems to be probing a question: Is there a digital sublime? The theme is endemic to so-called Internet novels, particularly “No One Is Talking About This,” by Patricia Lockwood. For Lockwood, logging on might shower one in the “sapphires of the instant,” but it might also distract one from them; at any rate, the same bursts of beauty and ugliness, emotion and insight, animate both the material and digital worlds. Kasulke’s view is more dualistic. For him, online and offline are distinct places, and their competition is zero-sum: if you exist on Slack, you don’t exist in your apartment. A sunset GIF is fundamentally different from the phenomenon that it represents.

This dualism evokes a robust tradition of scholarship on the aesthetics of the Web. In 2000, the critic Sianne Ngai pioneered the concept of the “stuplime,” which she set in opposition to the classical sublime. Where the latter involves a sense of terrified wonder, stuplimity, as the academic Sueyeun Lee has argued, flows from an encounter with “a massive amount of material that surprises in its flatness, resulting in an ‘aesthetic experience in which astonishment is paradoxically united with boredom.’ ” Consider Gerald’s revelation after he is beamed, in sunset-GIF form, into a dizzying number of living rooms and offices:

we’re not made to absorb this much human information at once, man. all
the pathos and bathos and other thos-es

I’d say it’s exhausting except I can’t feel tired and anyway it’s
beyond that

it’s overwhelming for a species that was basically content with an
oral tradition of a handful of long-ass stories about the same six
shitty gods for millennia

now we can do all this knowing and empathizing and not-empathizing
around innumerable tiny human stories and we can never fully succeed
reprogramming our minds to get good at it

For Lee, too, stuplimity is often a by-product of surfing the Web. But whether data elicit awe or numbness—whether they partake of the sublime or the stuplime—need not be a function of whether those data come through a screen. (I’ve experienced amazement on Twitter and stupefaction at the grocery store.) Kasulke suggests that, just as the physical sphere is closed to Gerald, a novel about Slack can’t hope to access the traditional sublime. His book therefore shows little interest in the ways that fiction might resist Slackness—by irradiating people’s inner worlds without dialogue, or by describing the look of a room, the feel of an object, the weight of the air. Kasulke confines himself to the modes (cataracts of information) and moods (the prickly, the ironic) apparently proper to the Internet. There are no lightning flashes, only clicks.

And yet the book’s quest to map new aesthetic territory ironically leads it somewhere ancient. “Several People Are Typing” proceeds not in sentences but in Slack’s lineated prose. This makes it as much a poem as a novel. The same attributes that one might analyze in a lyrical line—length, shape, whether the thought terminates or spills over—matter here, too. Fragmented phrases suggest distraction, agitation, or thinking in real time; composed sentences land with a determined heaviness, like ink sinking into card stock. As with Slack in life, both comedy and plangency dwell in the line breaks, which pace the flow of language, speeding up some epiphanies and slowing down others. Occasionally, Slackbot even riffs on “The Second Coming” by Yeats:

The Help Center cannot hold!

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed!

And everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned!

Perhaps these articles will help:

• Leave a channel

• Archive a channel

This reply leaves Gerald somewhat baffled, but it’s hard not to be charmed by its cracked continuity with the past. Reading the novel, I thought of a Slackian pleasure, which is the work of constructing, in your mind, a flesh-and-blood colleague from the messages she writes. Puzzling over ambiguous signs: this is literature’s game, too. Kasulke may have set out to demonstrate the inescapability of the office, but—multitasking like most of us—he also reveals the stickiness of fiction.


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