March 5, 2013

Dead SULs: Gogol for the Facebook age


Never was subject matter and bland, mass-produced, death-conjuring reading device better matched.

The closeness of “Gogol” and “Google” is just too tempting for it not to have resulted in some kind of mash-up or modern-day re-working—and so it now has, in the form of Kristin Butler’s Dead SULS (page link here), a novel-in-progress based on Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.

In the original book, Chichikov, a gentleman on the make, has a scheme to purchase the titles to dead serfs (the “dead souls”) in order to artificially inflate the size of his property and his standing in the world. The plot of Butler’s new enterprise features a similar type of scheme: the buying of followers or friends on Facebook and other social networking sites. Her “SULs” are Suspended User Lists, which a tech entrepreneur, eager to make his way in the start-up world, is avidly buying up and trying to persuade others to do as well.  Butler’s gambit gestures in the same direction as Gogol’s did: these virtual, ghostly multitudes who are treated as property are a symptom of the rapacity and spiritual shallowness of the culture they inhabit.

She’s also picked up something interesting in the foreword to Dead Souls, which is that Gogol, writing in the 1840s, made an appeal that sounds oddly familiar. Butler calls it “Crowdsourcing the Novel,” I might call it “irony,” but here’s the text for your own judgment:

Reader, whosoever or wheresoever you be, and whatsoever be your station – whether that of a member of the higher ranks of society or that of a member of the plainer walks of life – I beg of you, if God shall have given you any skill in letters, and my book shall fall into your hands, to extend to me your assistance… Also carelessness, inexperience, and lack of time have led to my perpetrating numerous errors and inaccuracies of detail; with the result that in every line of this book there is something which calls for correction. For these reasons I beg of you, my reader, to act also as my corrector.

In other words, the address to the reader– meant to enlist, disarm, amuse, or just plain beg for understanding– lives on. As Butler puts it: “Oh yeah, and in terms of all of the mistakes I’m going to make along the way:  what he said.”



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.