"I'm bullish on Sudden Oak," writes Ami Greko. And when Sudden Oak's Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn ran their The Silent History app-novel event in 2012 and 2013, many more people were bullish on them. Now back with a new transmedial storytelling event (again apparently for iOS only), the digital duo gets a thoughtful, mixed review here from Greko who writes "'The Pickle Index' wants to be the Slow Food movement of publishing." Another interesting observation: her regret that weak text is "a common problem with writing created for a digital space." —Porter Anderson
The Pickle Index, the new book-and-app-novel from former McSweeney's staffers Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn (known collectively as Sudden Oak) is one of the rarest and most exciting things that can happen in publishing: an original story, created with and for the multiple formats it lives in.
The title is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, or as an iOS app. Each version has unique elements—the hardcover comes in two separate books, the paperback is illustrated, and the app contains a truly massive number of pickling recipes—but the overall story remains the same throughout each version of the text. For the purposes of this review, I've read only the app version.
The rough narrative is this: we're in a dystopian future, but dystopian like George Saunders, not like Philip K Dick. The land is ruled by a capricious leader, Madame J, and there are two classes, the have and have-nots. Food supplies are dwindling for half the country (I'll let you guess which one), and to bolster civic pride and also their pantries, citizens of the country must share one pickling recipe a day via The Pickle Index. Within this framework we meet a group of circus performers, who manage to provoke the ire of the government.
The main navigation for the app is through a circle split into three sections: Today, Index, and Cookbook. The tale unfolds over 10 days, and readers need to return to each section daily to receive the next instalment of the story. Annoyed with the stop-starting of the narrative, I skipped three days in an effort to bank some pages. No dice: upon opening the app, I was sternly informed that my citizen ranking had dropped—although I could attempt to raise it by reflecting on the glorious leader for 10 seconds—and the daily story feed started where I'd left off. A suggestion for readers as impatient as this one: buy the hardcover copy.
The daily content in the today tab provides the "official" narrative, told by a sycophant journalist so far under the thumb of the government that he's even fallen in love with Madame J. Contrasting this is the daily story in the Index tab, told by our hero, Flora Bialy. Unlike the straightforward text in the today tab, Flora's narrative is a kind of samizdat text, told outside official channels via The Pickle Index.
The index is a peer-to-peer system, with recipes passed from household to household. To read Flora's story, you need to select her recipe from the day's list of (truly terrifying-sounding) pickling recipes and have it sent to you via your neighbors. This delivery is represented in the app by a field of little boxes, each labeled with a person's name. Users are able to share their own pickle recipes, so it was unclear to me whether the names I was seeing in the Index were characters created for the world of the book, or people reading the book concurrently with me (based on the twee-ness of the names—Bram Scrunch? Serafina Stick?—and the origins of the creators, I'm guessing the former).
'This app is all about delay'
In case you weren’t sure from the start, the length of time it takes for a recipe to travel to your cookbook tab confirms it. This app is all about delay. Not only do you need to wait a day between chapters of the book, The Pickle Index takes its sweet time delivering you the recipe. It takes so long that after a couple of days, the app offers you two ways to get the recipes delivered faster, although neither of which really improves the situation by more than a few seconds.
So what does the reader get for all of this delayed gratification?
Immersive is a word we throw around a lot without really having a very good definition of what it actually means. Is it light and sounds and 3D video? Is it being so absorbed in the work that you forget everything that is happening around you? The Pickle Index is neither of those things, but it does solve immersive in a different way. Every piece of the app's architecture has been considered, creating a padding around the writing for readers to explore.
What the author wants is for you to be forced to spend time with the story, even if that time isn't spent reading. The Pickle Index is meant to be a complete dip into the world of the novel. Ironically, given the medium, The Pickle Index wants to be the Slow Food movement of publishing, emphasizing that just getting there is half the battle.
I loved The Pickle Index for this. I appreciated the level of detail that went into the world of the app, the weird names of its citizens, the way Madame J knew when I hadn't been reading. As a reader you feel how much care has been taken to ensure that the writing has been created in concert with the features around it, that consideration has gone in to how to plot the story to the features of the app.
Curiously, I wonder if it's hardcover and paperback readers who feel they've been cheated. Ultimately, the writing wasn't quite strong enough to be what pulled me back into the app—I went to see if anything unusual would happen next in the telling. Reading the story from cover to cover, I'm sure I would have walked away much earlier. It’s a common problem with writing created for a digital space, and one I’m usually quite suspicious of the creators as being able to fix.
I’m bullish on Sudden Oak, though. The book world needs more technology created by and for the people who read every day. The Pickle Index shows us a path forward, one I hope we’ll see more of in the year ahead.