When the novel shifted to the right
As in life, in fiction, dating apps have offered authors bold new stories about human relationships and intimacy.
For other writers, dating apps allow characters to meet who might not otherwise connect because of differences in age, race, or class. Their provocative stories of desire and the limited social worlds we are confined to. In Sarah Thankam Mathews’ “All This Could Be Different” (2022), a recent college graduate referred to as “S” (her profile name on the app) is shocked when she meets her date, a woman raised by a struggling single mother. shares a detail about her upbringing. “When I was very young,” she admits, her mother “used to strip to pay rent, and I suspect, based on some vague memories, that it was quite a blow.” He interrupts himself when he sees S’s surprised look: “Wow, now it’s your face, I want to take a picture.” Sally Rooney’s latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” (2021) also revolves around two middle-class couples, one of whom meets online. Felix works in an Amazon-like warehouse, while Alice is a rich and celebrated novelist. “How did you get a famous girlfriend?” Félix’s brother asks. “Tinder,” Felix answers to his brother’s surprise. But Alice, tired of bourgeois literati, is looking for a surprise.
In Rooney’s novel “Normal People” (2018), Connell’s character is placed in a middle-class milieu through his education. Although Connell meets his love, Marianne, because his mother cleaned his family’s house, their time at university allows them to become physically and culturally closer. In “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” Rooney uses Tinder to bring together two people living in vastly different financial circumstances without bridging the distance with cultural capital. Rooney understands that meetings are classified meetings. Alice tells Felix that she felt her college friend’s parents weren’t thrilled that she—the daughter of an auto mechanic—was their daughter’s roommate. “They wanted Eileen to make friends with nice middle-class girls,” he notes, reminding us that these supposedly organic, less-orchestrated ways to meet are as elaborate as any app.
The more nefarious aspects of internet dating are also the subject of recent novels, where technology sharpens our prejudices rather than shattering them. In Chantal V. Johnson’s “Post-Traumatic” (2022), a black woman in her mid-thirties sees her white friends inundated with messages on apps while she receives a “drip” and quite a few “food-related adjectives describing her skin tone .” She feels exotic and rejected. “It’s been the subject of ten think pieces: black women are the least desirable,” she muses, referring to countless studies of racial bias in online dating. Similarly, in “All This Could be Different,” S—the the daughter of South Indian immigrants, she admits to looking for white women on apps. “I knew my thoughts were apolitical and ugly,” she admits, adding, “However, desire breaks through the words, as it should, the water breaks down the flimsy barrier. ” Indeed, Mathews is careful to emphasize that while the apps represent freedom from some traditions for S (heterosexuality, arranged marriage), they enable others (colonialism) to persist.
Is technology our collective fairy godmother, getting us to balls we wouldn’t otherwise be invited to and making our world small enough to touch anyone?
Dating apps are technologies designed by workers and available on smartphones made from minerals mined under exploitative conditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kate Folk, who lives in the shadow of Silicon Valley, produces some of the most exciting and complex fiction about apps to date. Folk’s “Out There” collection is set in a San Francisco where an estimated 50 percent of men on dates use “blots,” artificial humans originally created to replace low-paid caregivers. A Russian company has used the technology to target lonely women, reprogramming the blots to take them on romantic trips to Big Sur, where the machines, taking advantage of spotty cell service, hack into their phones and steal their data. At first, spots allow Folk to explore dating under the patriarchy. In the title story, the narrator is relieved when his friend doesn’t ask any more questions about his personal life. It must be real!
However, a later story, “Big Sur”, features the perspective of a blob named Roger, who is dumped by the Russian company after their scam is discovered and ends up homeless. While Netflix shows like “The Tinder Swindler” focus our attention on lone wolves, dating scams are increasingly being run by people who have been trafficked, forced to work in texting factories and send scripts to lonely, vulnerable people. Roger’s former target, Meg, takes pity on him, realizing that she, like him, is alone in this expensive town, without family money, and rekindles their relationship. Here, Folk shows how technology has created new underclasses—and new forms of identity that can become the basis of love and solidarity.