June 18, 2019

Fiction in the Age of Radical Transparency

“TELL ME A SECRET. In the abstract, it’s an awful request. It suggests that the asked has a repository of secrets to reveal at any time if the feeling is right; that the asker deserves to be told one or any of these secrets; that the revelation of the asked’s secret wouldn’t constitute a betrayal of some third party; that the asked is the sort of person who keeps secrets at all, i.e., either somebody with something to hide, or someone with an inner life and private history so special that no one would ever suspect it; that it’s charming to be someone with secrets, perhaps a little dangerous too; that a secret is always more essential, and more desirable to know, than what’s on the surface. But what if the opposite is true? That your secrets, the things only you know about yourself, are in fact the most trivial, most banal things about you? In a society where many of us who don’t qualify as public figures spend a lot of time projecting our lives and our personalities in public, the biggest secret of all might be that, in whatever privacy we have left, we don’t have any secrets.

Secrets have come to seem quaint, something vaguely legacy or vintage, like glossy magazines or flip phones. They were still big in the 1990s, when people were something other than brands, when lots of people still loathed brands, when personalities were still constructed out of whispers and glances rather than public utterances and little clicks of affirmation. This new world was still being born out of the old when Sam Lipsyte wrote “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” a story from his 2000 collection Venus Drive. It was the early days of the secret-devouring internet. The story’s narrator is employed by his ex-girlfriend at her “web site for serotonin-depleted teenage girls,” the sort of entity that would turn private life into public currency. He recalls a night they spent together: They met on the street following his band’s show, and “checked into a Super 8 motel with a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and a running conversation about trust.” He demanded an exchange of secrets. Now, though he remembers hers (dysfunctional bowels), he can’t remember his own, and as she fires him, she’s too busy to tell him his secret. “What the hell is wrong with me?” he asks. “Where the hell is my inner soul?””

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