Is anyone still unclear on the concept of the blog? Self-publishing on the Internet is the short answer, with millions of bloggers creating endless variations on the theme. There's the news blog, the politics blog, the travel blog, photo blogs, family blogs, humor blogs and, a natural for the form, the personal journal. That's what Katie Kampenfelt is writing when we meet her in the opening pages of Allison Burnett's canny third novel, "Undiscovered Gyrl."
Katie's enough of a techie to have been enrolled in computer camp the summer before high school, but already so troubled by her parents' divorce that she wound up in a psych ward instead. She's 17 now, a high school graduate, and has just decided to defer her first year of college.
Her mother's upset and e-mails (yes, e-mails) to tell Katie that she'll have to find a job. An English teacher urges Katie to keep a diary of her year off so she can look back and see what the experience taught her. So, like thousands of people each week, Katie has logged on to Blogspot and started her online confessional. That's where we meet her in October 2008, in the pages -- pixels, really -- of her blog.
She's a bright and funny wild child who smokes and drinks and takes drugs. Her unnervingly insightful posts are peppered with "LOL!" and "Grrrr" and "HA!" We learn about her somewhat clueless mother and her disengaged and alcoholic father, who was kicked out of the house when Katie was just 7. And we hear about the men in her life, lots of men, with whom she has lots of sex. Though she has a boyfriend her own age, she also has a sexual relationship with Dan, a neighbor in his 30s. Almost any man she meets, it seems, wants to have sex with Katie, and she appears to rarely refuse.
It's troubling, of course, but there is little chance of discovery. Many details in the blog, Katie warns us, including her name and those of her friends and lovers, have been changed.
"Just so you know, if I thought there was even one in a google chance of anyone recognizing me from this blog, I would never ever be this honest. And what's the point of blogging if you're not going to tell the truth?"
The truth Katie tells on Undiscovered Gyrl quickly racks up a big online audience. Within three weeks of her first post, 450 to 500 people log on each day to read her latest confession. They find her, we're told, by using the blog search terms "gyrl, high school, sex, oral sex and bliss." Katie's getting plenty of e-mail too, most of it unkind, sent by strangers emboldened by the anonymity of the Internet. And in case you've missed the Lolita connection, one of Katie's correspondents is GAHumbert2. As the posts detail Katie's growing isolation from her friends, who went off to college and fell out of touch with her, the e-mailers fill the void. When, immersed in a new job and entangled by a fresh set of awful choices, she fails to blog for a few days, Katie gets a flood of e-mail from her readers. Here she is, fending them off in a blog post:
"Okay, so I didn't post for three days. What's the big deal? Hey, I've got an idea. How about you guys GET A LIFE! I am working hard to get one and if I succeed, guess what? I will quit blogging immediately. Why? Because people with lives don't blog. They don't even read blogs. Didn't you know that? LOL! It's true!"
To give too many details about Katie's life would spoil the book. From that first decision to stay home from college, instead of building the way a young person's life should, it tumbles. Family fails her, friends abandon her and men use her. She's complicit of course, and maddening. But when she couches it all in the language of love, writes with a naive yearning for fairy-tale endings, it's heartbreaking. Her raw, young voice describing the sordid situations she finds herself in -- seeks out, really -- is authentic teenage girl. All the more startling, then, to take a peek at the author photo and discover Allison Burnett is a man.
Despite the techno premise, "Undiscovered Gyrl" is the coming of age novel we're familiar with. There's the first person voice, intensely self-aware, angry, alienated and filled with teenage narcissism and pain. But unlike pure narrative, where the reader is on the receiving end of a monologue, or the convention that lets you peek into the pages of a diary tucked under a mattress, this is a public blog. You've come here on purpose to be entertained.
When the ending kicks in with a twist you'll either hate or appreciate, it forces you to realize you lost yourself in the plot and character and read for pleasure. This makes you complicit in the consequences, turns you into a reader, yes, but also into one of Katie's voyeurs.