We All Live on Slack Now
Calvin Kasulke's work from home novel "Several People Are Typing" questions whether our colleagues are just disembodied avatars on the internet
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I am either blessed or cursed enough to consider Several People Are Typing author Calvin Kasulke a friend. As former coworkers at Electric Literature, I’ve spent a fair amount of time sitting in the same room as him, but communicating only via email, DMs, or, importantly, Slack. Therefore I can say with certainty that reading this novel feels exactly like being on Slack with Kasulke. Several People Are Typing is filled with dry humor, wit, and thoughtfulness, and every time I read it I take something different from it. Although the book talks about working from home, it feels like a reprieve and reworking of the types of conversations that have followed us through the pandemic. To put it simply: this book shreds.
Several People Are Typing is a novel told entirely through Slack transcripts—Slack being an office messaging system similar to Microsoft Teams, or a more professional version of IM. The book follows Gerald, an employee at a marketing consulting company who somehow becomes trapped inside Slack and must convince his coworkers to save him. Meanwhile, his coworkers all think he’s just working from home. There’s romance, mystery, howling, sunsets, and body-swapping with the morally grey AI, Slackbot.
Although Kasulke and I no longer occupy the same Slack channels, I was lucky enough to get to sit down and FaceTime with him about bodies and the internet and other vast and unknowable things.
McKayla Coyle: Okay so I was thinking a lot about performance, because, not to be Trans on Main, but I’m usually thinking about performance when I read.
Calvin Kasulke: Let’s go! It’s a trans book, let’s go.
MC: This is sort of a performance-lite question. We only ever meet the characters over Slack, but they still feel super fleshed out. But they’re kind of double performing, because they’re performing their personalities online via Slack, and they’re also in a workspace where, obviously, they’re also always performing. How much of the personalities that we see do you think is performance? And how did this affect how you approached writing the characters, knowing that there’s a remove?
CK: They’re all doing their little commedia dell’arte roles of the different coworkers. Slack is inherently public. Everyone is always in public and therefore they’re always performing on some level. I mean that in a value-neutral way—everybody’s a little bit different depending on who they’re around.
Again, there’s a little bit of a coworker commedia dell’arte. Everybody fulfills a role, whether they mean to or not, or they or they will be put in a role and then struggle against it. I think that’s present when Gerald starts becoming more productive (because what else does he have to do?), and everybody has to reconcile that Gerald, who they had pinned as the underperforming guy, is now overperforming. But also he’s doing this weird bit where he’s trapped in Slack, which they all think is fake, so now his coworkers don’t know how to slot him into their whole thing. We see people struggle with what they should do about it. There’s a couple of DMs where it’s like, “How do we perceive Gerald now?”
So everyone is performing, some more than others, some are leaning into it more than others, some are sort of stuck. It depends on where they are, if they’re leaning into or even conscious of that performance. So yes, performativity. Let’s get into the trans stuff.
MC: This book is largely about disembodiment, and a major question of the book, for me at least, was: Who are we if we aren’t our bodies? We live in a culture that already has a big mind-body disconnect, and then we have technology that makes that disconnect worse because you don’t really need a body to be online. When Slackbot steals Gerald’s body, everyone in the office is like, “Oh, Gerald he stole you, you’re gone,” and Gerald’s like “No I’m not, I’m still 100% Gerald. I just don’t have a body anymore.”
CK: I wrote this book as I was coming out—it is a post-coming out book, in as much as I was writing it when I was on hormones. So it’s not a coming out thing, but is a coming into my body thing. It’s being on testosterone—the first year, especially—and realizing that I’ve had a body this whole time. I’ve felt like a brain in a jar, but I’ve had a body, and I am now conscious of my body needs. My body feels a certain way when I eat a certain way or when I do or do not exert myself, and all of that affects my fucking brain because there is no mind-body disconnect.
These metaphors, or these clichés, become so trite that they enter our cultural metaphysics as the idea that our mind and our heart and our body are all distinct things, and not part of the same miserable system. If your body is unwell, your mind is unwell, and almost certainly vice versa. It is hard to be hale and hearty with your brain malfunctioning. Writing this book was realizing that and writing into that, and for the first time wanting to be alive and wanting to be in my body, and being in it in a different way.
In some ways, I missed feeling like a brain in a jar. When you ignore your body, or when you are inured against the needs of your body, what you can do with your brain is different. You can operate at a different level. So, there was a little bit of mourning in that, but there was also realizing like, “Ah, shit, this [my body and mind] is all the same,” and knowing it was going to be hard to reconcile, but that it was good. This book is certainly informed by a very particular time in my life where I was walking around like a baby deer being born.
MC: It’s so much harder to take care of your body than it is to not take care of your body. It’s worth it, but it’s hard as shit.
CK: Yeah, and it doesn’t always feel worth it. There’s not a lot of reward you get for feeling okay. The reward for feeling okay is not feeling bad, and that doesn’t always feel worth the effort. Particularly if you’re used to feeling bad, if that’s a baseline that you’re at. It’s hard. It’s a lot.
MC: There are a lot of things in this book where, the first time I read it, I thought that you were making one point, and then the second time I read it I was like, no, it’s the complete opposite [laughs]. One of those things was the relationship between people and technology. At first I thought the point was that humans need technology, technology is taking over, etc. And then the second time I thought it was about how humans created technology and therefore technology needs humans. Did you want to portray the relationship between humans and technology as symbiotic or parasitic?
CK: I don’t think I set out wanting to portray the relationship in any kind of way. I wasn’t like, “Here is my treatise on technology,” like this was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I’m not surprised that you got two diametrically opposed meanings reading it two different times, both because of the replayability of this book, and because I have a lot of ambivalence about technology. It’s hard to come down really hard one way or the other. Technology has made a lot of things in my life possible. I’m obsessed with it, I’m obsessed with the weird ephemera, I’m obsessed with the ways people use it. I think it’s remarkable, the stuff that we see people do over and over and over again every time a new technology is presented.
Humans are geniuses at connection, and we’re gonna find ways to make technology facilitate our ability to connect with each other. We’re always going to want to celebrate, and to mourn, and to talk shit, and to track our money. Some of the oldest written documents we have are receipts from thousands of years ago, because this is the shit that we do. We draw dicks, and we keep track of who owes who what, and we’re going to do that no matter what mechanism we have.
I think the book reflects my enormous ambivalence on the absolutely horrifying shit you can see and do and inflict on people through the internet, and also the really beautiful moments of grace that the internet allows us to bear witness to and be part of.
MC: Since I actually have to be on social media regularly with a lot of people now, I’ve realized that easily a third of people don’t know what they’re doing on the computer [laughs]. I think that most people on Twitter just think that they’re alone in a room, and when they see a tweet it’s someone opening the door and being like, “Hey, this!” to them personally, and when they respond they’re like, “You’re in the room with me now and no one else is here.”
CK: Yeah, how people perceive of the space is really significant. It’s unsettling to see people not change to the social environment. On an individual level, it’s kind of funny to see a person who is treating Twitter in a way that you cannot conceive of a human being using Twitter. It’s why people follow Cher, right? Twitter has a shape to her that it does not seem to have to anyone else, except for maybe Dionne Warwick. But yeah, when your aunt replies to a tweet like she’s sending you an email, it’s unsettling.
On the one hand, it’s surprising to see people not get it. On the other hand, it’s kind of shocking how many people get it. And how many people can adapt, and how agile we are. If you went and posted like it was 2010 for a week, people would think you lost your goddamn mind. It’s remarkable how people adapt, and how we change the terms of how we speak to each other even on the same platforms.
MC: I have something related to this, which is that I think you create a physical landscape of the internet. The book doesn’t have a traditional setting since it’s written entirely in Slack messages, but I think the real setting of the book is this internet landscape. I’d never thought of the internet that way before, because you can see the internet, but you also can’t see it in its vast, grandiose true form. Like a biblical angel [laughs].
CK: Right yeah, it’s just 80 eyes and circles of flame and “Be not afraid.”
MC: Yeah, you would die if you looked upon it. But what was it like to reframe the internet as a physical space? What was it like to use it as the setting? Was that something you were consciously thinking about as you were writing?
CK: Oh that was pretty conscious. I come from a background of a lot of screenwriting and playwriting and writing for audio fiction. So I knew that anything physical, I had to introduce because it’s not there, it’s mostly just people talking. Anything that you write has outsize meaning when you insert something into a physical space that is blank. A lot of the playwrights I like are either super maximalist or super minimalist. They’re either gonna tell you every fucking chair that’s in a room and what it means and how old it is, or it’s Pinter, and it’s like, “There’s a table, there’s a man, there’s a banana, here is a play.” Then your whole world is this table and this man and this banana, and that’s it. And when the world is that small, tiny changes become massive. So I wanted to be very choosy with the physical things I introduced into the book. I wanted to make sure I hit some color and some light and some texture and some sound. There’s a lot of dust, there’s a lot of light, Gerald talks about oranges and blues and that kind of thing.
I also wanted to reflect the internet that I was engaging with in the initial space when I started writing, in like 2013. When I came to drafting the full book in 2019 and was rereading some of the older stuff I was putting in, I was like, “Oh wow this internet still looks kind of the same.” Everything’s still blue. I wanted to reflect the internet that we see, that Gerald talks about, but I wanted to keep things limited.
God knows Brandon Taylor already put his foot in it with the “I read your little internet novels” piece that he wrote, where he talks about “Whose internet is an internet novel? What internet are you talking about?” That was a question that was too big for me, and why I wanted to limit this to Slack. I know that the internet that I engage with is not the internet, by any means, and I am not the guy that can take that on—again this is not Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for The Internet Writ Large. I cannot speak to the internet, capital T, capital I, but I can talk about this particular Slack office, and I can introduce howling and dust and light.
MC: I think this book begs the question of digital versus physical worlds, and which one is real. I kind of have a problem with calling one world real, and the way that automatically makes the other one unreal, but do you think the book is making any kind of argument about what we should consider real? Or do you think it’s another thing that you feel kind of ambivalent about? Does the book even need one to be real?
CK: I think you flatten both of them when you ask which is real and which isn’t. It’s a question of, how do these things facilitate human connection? And how do they facilitate distance? I’m not gonna sit here and argue that the physical and digital worlds are exactly the same or that these distinctions don’t have meaning. I think all of these distinctions have meaning, and I think it’s all real. If we’re gonna be really specific about “Well Twitter’s not real life,” let’s be as specific about interpersonal interactions, let’s be real specific about everything’s context. Because I would rather lean into being very conscious of the context in which these discussions happen, and in which our interactions happen, than to obviate any distinction at all.
There’s variations in all of these ways of interacting, and they’re super meaningful. We can connect it to your earlier question, are these people performing? More and less, depending on where they are. People let their hair down a little bit more depending on who they’re DMing with, versus being in a public channel versus being in a DM with your boss. Those variations matter even in little distinctions in the same platform, let alone the vastness of the internet, let alone the vastness of planet fucking Earth. All of those contexts and those little nuances really, really matter. But they’re also all real.
I mean, they’re all real as much as everything is fake. Everything is just shit people say to each other and these are all rules that we make up. We keep on building these rules and going “Do these rules matter?” and I’m like, “I don’t know. We just made them. We get to pick.” No one’s coming down off a mountaintop to tell us, “Instagram DMs are the real shit, everything else is silly,” [laughs]. Or if we are told that, it’s because it’s a cool 17-year-old teen who says it, and a bunch of self-conscious 30-year-old culture writers write articles about how the 17-year-old teen was right. So maybe it’s Gen Z who have the golden tablets, and we’re all just fighting. But even then, somebody had to decide to listen to 17-year-olds. I don’t know why. And I will fight them.