How to be alone with other people

How new writer Gabby Bess created an emo-baroque salve from modern alone-ness

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The books immediately underneath Gabby Bess’s “Alone With Other People” as you search for it on Amazon.com are “Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time” by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz (seems nice that it’s co-authored), “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” by Sherry Turkle and “Alone With God: Rediscovering the Power and Passon of Prayer” by John MacArthur.

Its long been a truism that modern life is associated with loneliness; this is something embedded in Marx’s analysis of alienation within the commodity form and developed through the existentialism of both continental philosophy and American post-war fiction. But the relevance of these philosophical tenets is arguably waning in everyday life. To what extent do we still exist within modernity? If we are on the way out of such an era, what has become of such issues as alienation and loneliness? Is existentialism still a thing after Chatroulette?

Nietzsche’s maxim that “If you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss will stare back at you” seems more than an adequate summation of the intelligent (“recommended for you”) computing algorithms of our time.

The Amazon algorithm seems largely designed to counteract loneliness, ensuring no object can be considered without at least two or three others beside it.The masterstroke of the social web is applying similar logic to our social circles. With this has blossomed a way of life, propelled by the Californian Ideology of Silicon Valley and encoded in the software and hardware that emerges out of it - a MacBook comes with a preinstalled program for taking selfies, for example, and your Google search will now privilege results with a relation to people in your Google+ circles.If these technologies herald an episteme shift within culture, then the extent to which they solve the basic human problems of loneliness is negligible. Sherry Turkle makes a similar observation in Alone Together, as Amazon reminded me, with her catchphrase “we are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone”. Nietzsche’s maxim that “If you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss will stare back at you” seems more than an adequate summation of the intelligent (“recommended for you”) computing algorithms of our time.

Like a good TV series, Gabby Bess's book creates a compulsion to continually fast forward to the next page/episode, balancing an emotional engagement that’s continually intricate yet alluringly unresolved.

Alone With Other People is Gabby Bess’s first full length book, a collection of poetry and prose published by the immediately fantastic Civil Coping Mechanisms, a “DIY kind of press” based in Washington DC. Born in 1992, the voice is mature for so relatively young a writer - something remarkable made somehow less so when you consider Bess’s already considerable breadth of experience, having published the chapbook Airplane Food as well as widely online, on top of editing the quarterly zine Illuminati Girl Gang. CCM have embarked on an impressive campaign to give writers who have mostly published online their first book. What really resonates with Bess’s is the way that it condenses her range of writing into the one unique object - like a good TV series, it creates a compulsion to continually fast forward to the next page/episode, balancing an emotional engagement that’s continually intricate yet alluringly unresolved.

In one scene, Juliana and Adam are in bed, eating Trix cereal off the bedsheets to extend their time together and divert from the issue of either having or not-having sex. Adam then has to leave, and they decide to let him do so by barrel-rolling over each other, “kind of like spies”.

The book combines three aspects of Bess’s work - her poetry, her prose pieces, and excerpts from her Black Dot Series. What unites these is the strength of personality and experience that runs through them. The poems are predominantly first person and the prose pieces predominantly third. However, it is the prose pieces where this personness most shines through, perhaps because of the distance the third person voice provides. Although we have a different name for the female protagonist in each story, the male lover/boyfriend/ nervous-sexual-partner is uniformly referred to as Adam, a brilliant continuity that could be perhaps interpreted as a perverse and sadistic figure continually corrupting every other woman after Eve, or more generously the clumsiness of the male lover. It is the conformity and banality of these gender roles that lets a lot of the humour shine through. In one scene, Juliana and Adam are in bed, eating Trix cereal off the bedsheets to extend their time together and divert from the issue of either having or not-having sex. Adam then has to leave, and they decide to let him do so by barrel-rolling over each other, “kind of like spies”. “Juliana went over, Adam went under, and Juliana’s MacBook fell approximately seven feet to the ground.” This in the first place is a nicely constructed piece of bathos, warm and awkwardly familiar, and a clever contemporary twist on a pin-drop moment. However, two paragraphs later, and now alone, we learn that “Juliana used her MacBook approximately 16 hours a day so she thought about that story a lot.” That the ubiquity of this object is a constant reminder of so particular a moment is perfect, and a tender evocation of the ability of these machines to continually render and mediate so much of memory and experience. 

“The sex can be rough / to bring pleasure with / choking & punching & the sloshing / of liquids in the back of your throat / to spit near my eye area.”

This bathetic turn is a device used by Bess throughout the book, and is no less effective for it. What enables it to continually engage is this continual flicker between different voices and person. A statement such as “if instead of asking me to install updates and restart my computer I was asked if I wanted to die instantaneously I would probably click yes instead of not now” could seem hyperbolic and a bit oppressive in other contexts, yet its intensity is unlocked by the removal offered through the construction of different characters in the prose excerpts. Between these polarities of confession is where the book really pleases, however. For following these images and fantasies of dying, lines like “And of course / the downfall of the modern woman / will be loving parents.” come across as sparse and beguiling and as such quintessentially poetic. The internet has always appeared as a ready-made archive for confession, as it promises an alternative space away from everyday life where we can vent the frustrations, feelings and anxieties that a capitalised social sphere encourages us to repress. As it enters more and more our conception of everyday life, it is the types of confession that direct their critique right back at the objects and conditions from which they came that will come across as the most effective and sincere; excess and extravagance only seem to legitimise their own grounds of creation. It is in the undermining and often dismissal of the context of their creation that these elements of bathos become powerful. If baroque (emo??) at times, Bess seems certainly aware of this, and is at her best when she’s most uncompromising: “The sex can be rough / to bring pleasure with / choking & punching & the sloshing / of liquids in the back of your throat / to spit near my eye area.”, and later: “We do not earn salary / for this emotional labor.”

Suicides have risen sharply in the US since the introduction of the OS X operating system in 2001 ... Which is the greater arbiter of solitude: the book or the MacBook? 

It’s hard to know to what extent loneliness is a shared pathology for Bess’s generation and to what extent it becomes a thing of fetish and interrogation through art; probably both. Some quick and mostly facetious google searching reveals that suicides have risen sharply in the US since the introduction of the OS X operating system in 2001. Which is the greater arbiter of solitude: the book or the MacBook? Clearly loneliness can’t and won’t be solved by increasingly “social” technology, but instead a more radical critique of things like family and education and social structures, inasmuch as it can be solved at all. It is around these issues that Bess delights. If the prevailing condition as proposed by Silicon Valley is that of being with other people while alone (always one facebook message away from lifelong friendship, I guess), Bess’s Alone With Other People neatly inverts this, highlighting the antagonism between these various cultural forces across the Global North right now, yet also finding strength and humour within this, and above all - and this is maybe the real victory - an ability to feelingly and deftly communicate.

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