The western literary canon, according to Mallory Ortberg, can be summed up in the following exchange:
Character A: Life is meaningless! There is no God! My heart is breaking! Beauty! Despair!
Character B: WTF?
Ortberg’s new book, Texts from Jane Eyre, is a collection of imagined text exchanges between famous literary characters. King Lear becomes Lear texting “okay who wants a kingdom,” to which Goneril replies “me me I do.” The Great Gatsby is a series of drunk missives from Daisy begging Nick to pick her up “in the valley of ashes nearrrr the road but not on it exactly.” And The Sun Also Rises has Jake sexting Brett a picture of his war-damaged member. These hilariously succinct, scrupulously faithful imaginings of what fictitious literary heroes might do with an iPhone and unlimited data plan first appeared on the website The Toast, where Ortberg is an editor and frequent contributor. Individually, they are tiny marvels, poking gentle fun at the melodramatic conventions of both classic literature and contemporary digital communication. But read one after the other (which it is nearly impossible not to do), they become something deeper—a surprisingly profound treatise on the history of conflict in literature.
Anyone who made it through junior high English class most likely suffered that dreary exercise of rewriting Shakepeare in modern speech (or, if you were especially unlucky, listening to a teacher rap Keats.) The point of these exercises is to make centuries-old texts relatable; their characters understandable. Ortberg’s book, on the other hand, argues that the whole point of much of literature is that the most indelible fictional characters (as well as writers and poets) were misunderstood—by their peers, their families, their societies. In Ortberg’s interpretations, Hamlet broods in his room about the emptiness of existence; his mother tries to tempt him out with a tuna fish sandwich, promising to take out “the crunchy bits.” Daisy Miller is undermined in her attempts to experience life by a frenemy who slut shames her and makes fun of her clothes (“You have the naked shoulders of a sultan’s whore.”) William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Lord Byron are condescendingly told to quit it with the poetic imagery (“I didn’t know you wanted to have sex with the rain… maybe you should focus on all the things you can have sex with.”)
Texting is a ridiculously imperfect mode of communication. Somehow, the brevity of the message creates an inverse potential for misunderstanding. Does “fine” mean “sure, as long as you’re happy I’m happy,” or does “fine” mean “have it your way I don’t really care because I’m going to break up with you tomorrow anyway”? It can be easy to think that these stupid little emoticon-filled digital semaphores signify the death of communication, while actual literature—words compiled on paper to form verse and poems—symbolizes the apex of communication, the idealized seamless comingling of minds through language. In fact, Texts for Jane Eyre suggests, without misunderstanding—without centuries of literary WTF—there would be no novels, no poems, no narrators beating their chests and screaming into the void, only to be told to calm down and have a nice tuna sandwich. No Emmas, no Ishmaels, no Pips, no Daisies (Miller or Buchanan). And presumably no Holdens, though, curiously, Ortberg leaves out his correspondence, which surely would go something like this:
I was just thinking. The ducks.
Where do they go?
Like, when it gets cold?
Ummmm, that would be south, no?
Btw, the fencing coach is looking for you. You are sooo busted. LOL.
Whatevs. You know what’s weird?