Is That a Story in Your Pocket?
Justin Sirois sets up a digital hall of mirrors with a book about an app and an app about the book
Published: September 25, 2013
Most attempts to market books are dreadful. They are either stupid gimmicks that insult the book they are trying to promote or they are simply boring and irrelevant. Baltimore writer Justin Sirois has, however, hit on a way to promote his technobondage thriller So Say the Waiters (self-published) that actually deepens the experience of the book instead of cheapening it, adding a meta element that envisions new possibilities for avant-garde fiction.
The first volume of So Say the Waiters, which contained five episodes, was released late last year (“Sirois: So Say the Waiters,” Books, Nov. 21, 2012), leaving off just at the moment that its two main characters, Dani and Henry, come together, causing its fans to wait for the second volume, released last month, with the same bated breath we usually reserve for television shows.
“I originally envisioned people downloading one episode at a time and reading it on their phones,” Sirois says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, that’ll be really fun,’ like Dickens, sort of on your phone.” He was going to charge a dollar per episode, but it turned out that this was only partially possible—Amazon’s terms change for items under $2, giving less money to the author, —so Sirois grouped the episodes together in volumes. And, as it happened, the episodic structure confused people. “In my mind, I’m thinking I’m sort of writing a TV show, but it’s a novel, a series; but to book readers, they didn’t see it that way. And they were like, ‘Is an episode a chapter or a volume or what?’”
Still, the episodic structure gave Sirois an artistic freedom that he felt would allow him to go deeper than a traditional novel, gaining something of the scope of television shows such as The Wire. He also chose to self-publish the book—he had published a previous novel, 2012’s Falcons on the Floor, with Baltimore’s Publishing Genius Press—so he could release episodes whenever they were done. “I really like that freedom,” he says. And most people did end up reading the book either on their phones or e-readers. “I think the casualness of it is kind of cool. You can impulsively pull it up and read a few pages and put it back down. It’s always in your pocket.”
All of this fits quite well into the world of Waiters, which is about a GPS-enabled smartphone app and social media site that allow people to sign up to be kidnapped in a controlled manner. The kidnapping aspect is not incidental, but it is not as important as the way the waiting to be kidnapped—and even signing up for the app, knowing that the possibility of being kidnapped away from your ordinary life—is ever-present. “It is about the ever-presence of that story in your pocket,” Sirois says.
The brilliance of Sirois’ project lies in the overlap between the experience of reading Waiters and being a waiter. Back in 2006, Chris Dahlen wrote a post for the then-startup website Pitchfork, arguing that, “We don’t have a new [Lester] Bangs or [Hunter] Thompson yet because pop culture today is primarily a technology story. And we don’t know how to write about technology.” With his fictional kidnapping app, Sirois has hit on a compelling way to write about technology and he is one of the first to figure out how to bring the drama out of that story in your pocket in a way that is both edgy and true to the sometimes-tedious experience of always being wired to the internet. We are all waiters, but it takes the tweaking of art to show us this.
In an interview with Conan O’Brien that recently went viral, the comedian Louis C.K. said that we use our phones to avoid the existential sadness at our core. In the very plausible world of Waiters, this mild technological anodyne isn’t enough, but it serves as a window to help us get outside of our mediated lives and find a real connection. Which is where the kidnApp company comes in. By offering the loss of control plus the opportunity for an actual connection with an actual stranger, where one nevertheless knows one is safe, kidnApp both mimics and subverts the positive aspects of online experiences in real life. “It allows this very normal, boring scene, like an old lady getting a cellphone for the first time, to become very powerful,” Sirois says.
So while Waiters is a thriller, it is the kind of thriller anyone can identify with. You don’t have to be a spy or a millionaire or a psychopath to engage in the thrilling aspect of these abductions— as either a waiter or a taker (the second volume is far more about the experience of taking). You just have to have a phone. This is another place where the narrative device of Waiters and its kidnApping concept overlap.
Sirois says that after writing Falcons on the Floor and its sequel, The Last Book of Baghdad, both dealing with the war in Iraq, he just wanted to do something fun and not deal with anything “experimental.” But when he hit upon the idea of the kidnApp, he says he felt something like an electric charge. “I got really paranoid that somebody would do something similar or spoil it,” Sirois says. “I wrote 10 pages a day. I’ve never written that much before. I couldn’t sleep. I am a great sleeper, but for that month I was on pins and needles.”
Which is once again very similar to the way he describes the feeling of waiting to be taken (or waiting to take someone) in the books. And even though he said he was trying to avoid overly complex literary experiments, he may have, in fact, done something profoundly experimental in the constant interplay of the experience of creating/reading the book and reading/using one’s smartphone and being kidnApped.
To push all of this further, Sirois and his friend Phil Cashiola created an actual app at getkidnapped.com that purports to be the kidnApp in the books. Though it is not hooked up to a real company that will kidnap you, Sirois has been asked so often “Why isn’t there something like that?” that he has begun to consider the possibility of actually founding the company—but concedes the legal difficulties would probably be prohibitive.
Sirois also confesses that he is not actually involved in the BDSM community or particularly interested in it. And that is clear in the book. They are called waiters for a reason. “I usually leave it off when they go behind that door,” Sirois says. “So they can do what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do.” These books, while about BDSM in a certain sense, are not the next Fifty Shades of Grey.
Instead, with a slow buzz building around So Say the Waiters, Sirois’ project may end up more like the television shows he was basing his structure on in the first place: He is currently in negotiations with a producer who hopes to turn the books, the third volume of which will be released next year, into a television show. It would be fitting, and simply another way that art would mirror life mirroring art in the digital world of Justin Sirois.
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