HUNDREDS OF NEW APPS hit homescreens each day. From Instagram to Angry Birds, portals for cheap gas to hotel deals, puzzles to games to social networks, the domains of smartphones continue to blur boundaries between computers, books, toolboxes, and beyond. The emerging zone of “app-lit” ranges from Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain, with its raining whispers and words; to an “infinite comic book of musical greatness” called Space Ducks by Daniel Johnston; to Eli Horowitz’s GPS-based, crowdsourced fiction titled The Silent History; to a host of children’s book-apps, including an interactive version of the Academy Award–winning animation, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. While some stalwarts decry the death of the book, idealists frame its history as a mutable medium, and see new technologies tapping its creative potential.
Just as oral transmission shaped the epics of Homer, and serialism fashioned the fiction of Dickens, the means by which we tell stories shape those stories themselves — not only what but also how. And when. Apps are among the latest mediums for this message.
“Can I just say something about that, briefly?” concludes the opening paragraph of Alexandra Chasin’s app-novel, Brief, programmed by Scott Peterman. This novella or brief (as in, legal defense) explodes from its collaged e-cover of a briefcase into a not-so-brief soliloquy by an art vandal, “Inqui, the Destroyer” (also dubbed the “Museum Masher” and “High Art Killer”). Directed to “Your Honor,” who doubles as dear reader, the first-person narration rants about the narrator’s personal and cultural history, questioning originality and authority, mashing up sources from Life magazine to Life cereal, Bobo the Clown to the Bay of Pigs, Hamlet to Tristram Shandy. Brief seeks to both indict us and exonerate our sources, repiecing them in search of a larger truth about making and thinking, being and acting, in a world where creation paradoxically arises from destruction.
Paradoxes abound in this “oral argument”: it is audibly silent, digitally tactile, visually noisy. The app is programmed to reorganize the novella’s text around a cache of 700-plus images that make it virtually impossible to return to the same page twice (at least by slim chance: 1 in 340,068,392). Unlike many ebooks, there is no option to skip between pages, forcing us to progress linearly, swipe by swipe. Rather than pages, Brief numbers its organization by paragraphs. Rocking the iPad reshuffles images around existing, if shifting, “pages.” By calling itself one thing while acting like another, Brief reclassifies through appropriation, changing its text in context. Like the novel-app’s epigraph by D.J. Enright says: “Since the object in question is a modern poem / A police spokesman stated yesterday, / It is hard to tell whether it has been damaged / Or not or how badly.”
Damage scores the novella’s text, meshed with shards of art and culture. Brief is a veritable history of art vandalism and iconoclasm. Its representations of representations echo how, depending on interpretation and relevance, representation can inspire creativity or provoke wrath, garner millions on the market or face criminal charges, demand or reprimand censorship. Chasin drives this home by putting at ...read more