Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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“Point, Click, Love”: A Novel by Molly Shapiro (by Alan N. Shapiro)

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Video of Molly Shapiro interviewed on Fox News TV

Point, Click, Love amazon home page

More about Molly Shapiro

Molly Shapiro is my first cousin, the daughter of my father’s brother. I have known Molly since she was a baby, in the 1970s. They called her Molly-Dolly.

Molly graduated from Brown University where she majored in semiotics, and from Columbia University where she studied creative writing. She spent some time living in Rome, Italy. She lived in Seattle and worked for Microsoft and then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Now Molly lives in the midwestern United States, in Kansas City, Missouri, where she grew up. Many people know that I am from New York City (and Long Island) and I live in Frankfurt, Germany. My main connection to the Midwest USA is that I am a big fan of Big Ten college football and basketball. (The Big Ten is the name of an academic and athletic “conference” of 12 universities, formerly there were 10). I am a huge fan of the Michigan State Spartans. I have been a Michigan State fan since 1966 (I was ten years old), when the Spartans played for the college football national championship against Notre Dame, in a famous game that ended in a 10-10 tie. The Spartans are doing very well lately in both sports – over the last ten years, and in particular right now (ranked #11 in the country in football and #6 in the country in basketball). I am very grateful to Michigan State for compensating somewhat for the misery that I suffer – the cross that I bear – as a fan of the miserable New York Jets (football), New York Knicks (basketball), and New York Mets (baseball). And the Rangers and Islanders too (ice hockey).

Molly Shapiro is a great fiction writer (and journalist, marketing, and public relations writer). She published an excellent book of short stories called Eternal City, which won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize. She wrote several commissioned screenplays, including “The Bob Marley Story.” Now she has published her first novel, called Point, Click, Love. It is published by Ballantine Books (part of the Random House Publishing Group), and it is going to be an international bestseller! A German translation will soon be published by a major German publishing house. Congratulations, Molly! Your book is fantastic! I really enjoyed reading it! I am proud to be your cousin!

They are saying that your novel belongs to the genre of “chick lit.” Now I like “chick lit” (I’ve got many volumes of Brenda Joyce and Stephanie Laurens in my apartment – OK, I admit it, they were left here by a former girlfriend, but the Paige Toon I bought by myself). This is precisely the reason why I ironically introduced the “male” counterpoint of mentioning Big Ten football and basketball, my major connection as a New York/Frankfurt person to the midwestern United States. It’s something about reuniting the yin and yang of the male and female cultures.

But, Molly, they are wrong in their categorization of your book! Your novel is so much more than chick lit. Your novel is an intellectual-academic achievement. It should become part of the cultural studies curriculum at universities. I recommend that everyone who is studying or is interested in cultural studies, media theory, critical theory, semiotics, or serious 19th-20th-21st-century American literature read your novel Point, Click, Love. It is a brilliant commentary on and critique of contemporary American culture and everyday life! It exposes a lot of the hypocrisy in how Americans live today. It deploys a lot of deep insights which originate from semiotics and social theory. And it is a lucid analysis of the online virtual culture of the Internet, and of social media like Facebook, and of the new forms of alienation which the pervasiveness of computer technology in business and “the private sphere” has introduced into our lives. It brings to life the simulation and virtuality and hyperreality theses of the French thinker Jean Baudrillard and the Italian thinker Umberto Eco, and explains these theories in much more understandable ways than did Johnny Baudrillard and Bertie Eco themselves. And unlike Johnny and Bertie, your writing is not only a critique. It is an affirmation and celebration of America (the America that we love!), and of online culture as well. Your writing expresses a double-sided view – both critique and affirmation – as any important work of media theory should do. Your novel is a major example of the kind of writing that transcends the binary opposition between popular culture and intellectual “high” culture that I have been talking about in my “transdisciplinary” work until I am blue in the face (a Paul Auster reference, ha ha!). This is a great accomplishment, Molly. Awesome!

Other commentators will talk about the “chick lit” dimension of the novel Point, Click, Love. I will talk about the book’s intellectual side.

WARNING: Please do not read beyond this point if you have not read the book and don’t want all the plot twists to be given away.

The midwestern thirty-something female character named Katie has divorced her high school sweetheart Rob after 15 years together as a couple. Rob had many deficiencies – he was a lazy SOB – and Katie does not miss him for a second. She is now cynical about all men, but she is nearly 100% heterosexual and realizes that she is going to need a man for sex. Katie’s family has the fantasy that she will quickly meet a second husband much better than Rob. Above all, he will be a huge economic success, “a big-time executive for a pharmaceutical company.”

“That was their fantasy, not Katie’s. Katie no longer bought into all that crap. Pharmaceutical executives were dull. McMansions fell apart after a few years, and SUVs were bad for the environment. Hadn’t they heard about global warming?”

At first, the divorced Katie with two children observes apparently happy couples all around her and feels envy. She feels left out.

“It didn’t take her long to see past that illusion. Most of those young lovers were destined to break up. If they didn’t break up, they’d end up getting married, having babies, being sleep deprived, arguing over whose turn it was to do the bath, and going to bed mad.”

Katie briefly considers a conversion to lesbianism. But to learn about being a lesbian, she does not travel to San Francisco or Berlin to experience the lesbian subculture. Instead she watches TV. She watches The L Word and concludes that lesbian couples are the same as heterosexual couples, but with more sex toys.

“And so she decided to take care of her need for sex in the same way she took care of paying her bills, finding cheap airfare, and buying her kids’ school uniform – she went online.” Online dating. Match.com.

Katie meets a man at match.com and has several rounds of email exchange with him. Then they have a phone call. Then they meet for a date in an expensive restaurant. The forty-six-year-old man named Ed tells Katie that he still believes that he might meet “The One” – the love of his life with whom he will live happily ever after. They drink cocktails and white wine. Then they eat some delicious seafood. Then they have sex.

Katie decides that Ed is “no game player” so she calls him the next night. Ed sends Katie a bouquet of red roses. They start to have regular long phone conversations. They meet up again the next weekend. They go places and they have great sex. Ed sends Katie lots of gifts and they spend every weekend together.

“After only five weeks of dating, he said it. ‘I think I’m falling in love with you,’ he whispered while they were lying in bed.’ Katie looked at him and, before she could catch herself, said, ‘Me too.’”

Ed starts to talk about marriage.

But Ed is indeed a game player, and he is a liar. After a few months of spending all their weekends together, Ed abruptly disappears. No more phone calls. No more messages on her answering machine. Maybe he is dead, but there are no stories in the local news about the police finding a cadaver in the lake. Katie has a key to Ed’s house and enters stealthily one evening.

“At the top of the stairs, Katie could see that Ed’s bedroom door was open and there was a light on. She tiptoed to the doorway and looked inside. On the bed she saw the back of a woman with a mess of brassy, fake red hair, her plump white ass in the air, with Ed’s hairy pink legs sticking out from under her.”

Maxine is the next member of the foursome of female friends. She is a painter and a philanthropist. She is married to a highly successful doctor, “one of the most renowned gastroenterologists in the country.” They have a large disposable income. Maxine spent time in Europe when she was young, and travels around the USA to gallery exhibitions of her paintings. Everyone thinks that Maxine has the perfect marriage. But “that was her biggest secret of all. Her marriage wasn’t as great as everyone thought it was.” After she became pregnant and had her first child, sex between Maxine and her husband Jake became less and less frequent. Then came the second child. After the third child, they stopped having sex entirely.

Then one day Maxine picks up Jake’s BlackBerry which is sitting on the kitchen counter. She discovers a long list of text messages from Deirdre, a young, beautiful and brilliant doctor who works in the same hospital as Jake. Maxine does not have the courage to read any of the text messages, so she ends up in the in-between state of knowing that her husband might be having an affair with another woman.

Maxine enters a state of long-term unhappiness, but, for many “practical” reasons, she cannot leave her husband. Instead, she escapes into the world of celebrities and the voyeuristic satisfaction of media-consumer culture’s dissection of the drama of their love lives.

“She sat on the living room couch and turned on the TV… [She] started flipping the channels until she came to an E! True Hollywood Story about Jennifer Aniston. It was an in-depth documentary with all the crucial details of Jen’s life: her rise to fame, her early loves, her marriage to Brad, and the breakup. Maxine was fascinated. More than ever, she couldn’t  believe all the many parallels between her life and Jen’s – the career success, the perfect marriage. And then Angelina came along.”

“What is literature?” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

“Of course, Maxine felt foolish. Couldn’t she find a great literary character to identify with instead of a movie star? A Madame Bovary? An Anna Karenina? A Lady Macbeth?”

Here Molly Shapiro raises very interesting questions about what is literature? in the contemporary situation. Is the appropriate object of inquiry of Literaturwissenschaft still novels, poetry, and plays? Or is it film and TV? And infomercials, computer games, and Java code?

The third member of the group is Claudia. But this story within the story is all about Claudia’s husband Steve, who is addicted to Facebook. He is another lazy male SOB who was laid off from his last job and makes little effort to find a new one. He is both a couch potato and a facebook french fry. He watches gourmet cooking shows on the Food Network but never cooks anything for himself or his family. In the number one social media software application called Facebook where you can acquire hundreds of “friends” via hundreds of mouse clicks on a graphical user interface element known as a “button,” Steve went about “creating an alternate universe for himself where he wasn’t such a pathetic loser.”

“When Steve lost his job, he went on a frenzied friend-acquisition spree, racking up some five hundred friends. His five or so ‘real’ friends would call him up and ask him to go out for lunch or to play a round of golf or have a drink with the guys, but Steve always refused, preferring to stay home and interact online with his five hundred fake friends.”

Baudrillard’s simulations and simulacra theory brought down to earth.

I think that there is such a thing as real communication on the Internet. It can be a tool for democracy. I take a double-sided view: fake and real, simulation and communication. Baudrillard and Habermas (can’t think of a funny nickname for him right now). But what really gets me is the “fetish,” the “commodity fetishism” of the high-valued real estate venues like Facebook. Sometimes I start a chat with a real person at a website in a low-rent cyber-neighborhood, a communication enabled by peer-to-peer or distributed networking technology. This person has the opportunity in this moment, in the here and now, to communicate with me, a real person. But they are willing to instantly throw this opportunity away. “Do you have facebook?” “Do you have MSN?” “Do you have yahoo messenger?” “Do you have skype?” The chance that I will successfully meet them there without something going wrong technically during the switchover process is about 20% (I kept a log). But they will willingly throw away our communication based on that small chance of meeting up in the fancy-schmancy commodified venue.

“Steve was one of those perpetual status updaters, but instead of telling the truth (‘Watching Rachael Ray make a turkey lasagna and thinking about the Chinese takeout we’ll have tonight’ or ‘Just wondering how many brain cells die from three straight hours of Call of Duty’), he’d write vague, elliptical posts about exotic travel (‘Anyone know if it’s OK to drink the water in Cambodia?’) and philosophers he’s never read (‘I’m gonna vote ‘no’ on Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return’).”

“And whenever they went somewhere as a family – a restaurant, the girls’ soccer game, the mountains of Colorado – Steve would always be on his iPhone, punching in his status. ‘Bacon burger topped with brie. Gotta try it!’ ‘Sandy and Janie the big scorers!’ ‘No place better than the Colorado Rockies!’…

“It was bad enough that Steve had sunk so low, but his insistence on making everyone else think he was at the top of the world made it all the worse.”

In Facebook, you put your best foot forward, so it is fake, it is virtual. It is not “the real.”

“When Claudia met old friends and acquaintances around town, she often wondered whether they were part of Steve’s simulated universe.”

The fourth member of the group of real female friends is Annie. Annie grew up in New York City, went to prep school, did comp lit at Yale, and got an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Management. Annie’s existential-biographical issues seem to have to do with the fact that she living in a “red state,” in Kansas (in her case, not in Missouri), in the Midwest, whereas everything that is exciting and glamorous seems to be happening in Manhattan (not the one in Kansas) or in southern California, or in that ultimate mythified cultural capital of the American intelligentsia and Woody Allen’s imagination: Paris, France. Mais non, monsieur, ce n’est pas comme ça.

“Kathy,” I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America…

“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America

– Simon and Garfunkel, America (1968 album, 1972 single)

Next (chapter 12) comes a hilarious sendup of the Los Angeles art world. Maxine is invited for an all-expenses-paid week in LA by the gallery where an exhibition of her paintings is taking place. As a Derridean deconstructionist, Molly Shapiro has given a name to her character – Maxine Walters – which is only one letter removed from the name of famous LA Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

In the discussions about art in the Los Angeles gallery, the bullshit flies fast and heavy:

“’I love your stuff,’ said Ted. ‘It reminds me a lot of Wayne Thiebaud.’

‘Oh , no, no, no,’ said a woman in a red suit as she walked down a staircase. ‘Thiebaud is much too… obvious. I think she’s more Diebenkorn. A mixture of the abstract and figurative. Thiebaud completely lacks Ms. Walters’s expressionist bent.’”

While sitting in an LA vegetarian restaurant eating a tofu scramble, Maxine espies the TV actress Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame. This gets her started on a frenzy of star sightings.

“When she saw the pretty little starlet [Flockhart], she immediately remembered all the details she knew of her life – her marriage to the older Harrison Ford, the adoption of a child, the talk about a possible eating disorder. Maxine realized that she knew more about Calista Flockhart than about anyone else in the restaurant, even the person sitting across from her. The actress seemed more real than everyone else – like a massive dose of hyperreality.”

Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco on Hyperreality, by Mark Inigo M. Tallara

The hyperreal is not fake — it is more real than the real.

The allegedly real is more fake than the fake.

Or perhaps it is the opposite. Who knows? It cannot be reduced to simple formulas. It is the sociology of contemporary life and it requires careful study and thinking. Baudrillard and Eco were merely the initiators of this investigation. They did not provide the answers.

Employees in companies sit in cubicles next to each other but never speak and listen directly to one another with their mouths and ears. They do texting and emails. People open Twitter accounts and try to develop into minor celebrities, acquiring a coterie of followers of their most minute moves. “I just ordered a cappuccino. I just ordered a latte macchiato.” Claudia decides to tell her husband via a Facebook message that she had an affair with a co-worker, but she accidentally clicks the wrong button and posts this information to all of her “friends” and “followers.” Katie ends her romantic relationship with Henry by texting him in abbreviated globish: “Hen, time to move on. U r a fab guy. Take care.”

On page 210 of Point, Click, Love, the main character Katie – after an especially disillusioning encounter with an older and wealthier male – becomes fed up with the world of online dating. “When she got home that evening, she immediately went to her computer and began deleting – all the emails and all the photos and all the profiles used during those months of online dating.” But the next morning, Katie has a happy serendipitous reunion at Sharp’s 63rd Street Grill in Kansas City, Missouri with the first man (le premier homme – Albert Camus) whom she had met in her early online dating experiences and had at the time rejected. The juxtaposition of these two events in Katie’s trajectory is one of many pieces of evidence indicating that Molly Shapiro’s novel is richly ambivalent about online dating. It would be, in my view, incorrect to say she is only positive about online dating.

And neither is Molly Shapiro entirely negative about Facebook. Claudia’s suspicion that her husband Steve is having an affair with the minor character Marjorie turns out to be wrong. “’We never even met in person,’ explains Steve. ‘Really?’ replies Claudia. ‘It was all on Facebook, a little on the phone.’ At that moment, Claudia finally saw the value of Facebook, the ability to connect with people while keeping a safe distance… More often than not, people were using Facebook as a way to work through their fantasies without causing any harm.” This could almost be said to be the media studies application of a Freudian-Lacanian theory. Facebookers could “carry on a simulated relationship full of pictures and postings.” Make that a synthesis of Baudrillard and psychoanalysis in the field of culture.

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