How fitting is it that I found out about the anthology Friend. Follow. Text.: #storiesFromLivingOnline on goodreads, and the editor Shawn Syms found out that I was interested in it on twitter, because I had written about it on my blog. He kindly sent me a pdf review copy to my email. Although this collection isn’t explicitly queer, the editor Shawn Syms is and so are quite a few of the contributors and/or their stories: Marcy Rogers, Zoe Whittall, Trevor Corkum, Megan Stielstra, K Tait Jarboe, Dorianne Emmerton, Clayton Littlewood, and Alex Leslie.
This anthology begins with the simple premise that “Technology, social media and online communication have changed the way we live our lives – and the way we write about them.” Some of the contributors are really playing with form here (there are whole stories in text messages) whereas some are more concerned with social media in terms of content. As with all anthologies, I had some favourites. Let’s talk about them.
So I was SO pumped when I saw that the first story “IMHO” was by Marcy Rogers, whose micro-fictions I loved in the Zhush Redux Queer Writing Collective anthology I reviewed last year. I was not disappointed. In fact, I think this story was my favourite from the entire book, which runs at almost 300 pages. Like Rogers’s pieces in Zhush Redux, “IMHO” straddles the line between humour and the grotesque. I’ll just give you a few random tastes of this story:
“The decision to kill Scott was not an impulsive one. It had evolved over time from a feeling of irritation to the embarkation of a heroic quest. A quest in which Jude would slay the…sometimes he wished Scott would take up drag so he could say he was off to slay the drag queen. But while some of his best friends wore dresses, Scott himself preferred tight jeans.”
“Jude liked to imagine Scott’s jeans getting tighter and tighter until he was squeezed right out of them like ground-beef toothpaste from a tube.”
Oh my god, isn’t that the funniest and grossest and most evocative image. What a brilliantly chilling but hilarious story. I loved it.
Okay, so neither the story “And Also Sharks” nor the author Jessica Westhead are queer as far as I know, but this was my second favourite regardless. It’s written in this kind of voice that you get, and kinda makes you laugh, but you also feel a bit sorry for her, but you kinda see a piece of yourself in her at the same time. It’s a certain precarious tone that Westhead pulls off very well. A woman who’s perhaps not the brightest crayon in the box is writing an online self-help guru of some sort whose website is called “Planet Janet.” Here she is:
“Anyway, Janet, what I really want to tell you is that I really respect your opinion and what you have to say, but most of all your bravery. You are not afraid to state your opinions, even when some people put comments like Kate P. did last week, though in a very small way I have to say I agree a little bit with what she put about your post that talked about adding a dash of joy to your daily routine, which is not so easy for everyone although you made it sound easy.”
This story actually made me laugh out loud, but it also made me cringe—like, uh, should I be laughing at this woman?
Zoe Whittall’s story “This Just Isn’t Working Out” is classic epistolary fiction about the end of a relationship with a twist: it’s told through a series of one-sided emails rather than letters. These emails cleverly reveal not only a lot about the writer but also the friend she is writing to. You see, the woman writing clearly admires her friend, but it doesn’t appear that the admiration is equal on both sides. The email writer is fed up with her boyfriend, and her job, and her life, and envies her friend who got out of wherever she is and is in Toronto. So she’s decided she’s going to join her friend who, from her point of view, is a free glamorous young woman living it up in the big city. From the outside though, you can tell that things aren’t as great and hopeful as she thinks they are. A ways into the conversation, for example, she writes:
Thanks for letting me stay for at least a little while. I totally understand that it’s not a great time for me to move in. I get it. Maybe I can get a place in your building? And don’t worry, you know how clean I am. I won’t leave a trace! We can run your lines together. I can help you with your costumes. Really, I can’t wait to just sit still in a café and watch people. I used to love doing that when I went to U of T.”
Ouch, don’t you just feel embarrassed for her?
Trevor Corkum’s exceptional story begins at the end—this is very interesting to me as it seems really like the form of social media, facebook in particular: reading the most recent news first, then skimming back to read the first part of the story. “5’9, 135, 6 c br bl” is heartbreaking and about a young gay guy who tells us:
“I’ve had other dates like this. You can’t really call them dates, but I do, because if I didn’t then I would have no dates, no real dates I mean, where a dude picks you up in a car or on the back of his Yamaha motorbike and brings you to a funky restaurant and foots the whole bill and tells you how great you look, how wonderful you are, even how your small insecurities are attractive, your tiny compulsions are charming, even the truly minor ones, and how much he wishes he could meet someone just like you to move into his fancy mansion in West Vancouver and be his monogamous boyfriend and live together quietly forever and ever.”
“So Much Fun” by Megan Strielstra was an unexpectedly queer story for me, about three best girl(friends) out on the town for the night, taking photos and instagraming. I really liked how this story kind of peeled away the photos to see what was really happening behind them. I often feel like photos on social media are more like a curtain to hide behind than anything else. I think I can’t quite say more about this story without giving anything away, but it was a fascinating and dark look at the messy lines between love and friendship. It also features two bisexual characters.
So, finally, there’s a story by the other writer in Zhush Redux that I really liked: Dorianne Emmerton. Her story, “A Series of Tubes,” is about a woman who goes trolling on message boards to relieve school stress. This was my favourite sentence: “The Internet was like high school, Marika thought, then corrected herself: life was like high school.” Online, Marika finds, oddly enough, a cyber girl crush even though she thinks of herself as straight. But a real-life crush on a boy interrupts her cyber reality, and the story takes a turn that honestly totally shocked me. It did not end at all like I thought it was going to. I’m still not really sure what to think of this story, but it has definitely stuck with me. (NB: trigger warning for sexual assault).
Some other standout contributions to Friend. Follow. Text. include “Status Update” by Sarah Yei-Mei Tsiang, which is about the stories behind status updates and beautifully written; Alex Leslie’s story about Justin Bieber but not Bieber (which is originally published in her short story collection that came out in 2012); and Heather Birrell’s story about an online forum for expectant mothers that takes an interesting turn: the women end up talking about abortion.
I highly encourage picking up this book! I loved it so much I didn’t even mind reading it on the computer, which I normally hate but in this case, I guess, was oddly fitting.