Before he was officially a novelist, San Francisco writer Matt Stewart was a marketing guy. And among the abundant publicity materials for The French Revolution, his debut novel, is an apparently self-imposed Q&A, in which he asks, "Why are you doing this?" Here is one part of his five-part answer: "I think I write strong literary sentences that give quick, 140-character shots of literary joy."
That's an unusual skill for a novelist, or at least it used to be. But the reason Stewart thought to ask himself this question in the first place is that his book is reportedly the first full-length novel published on Twitter. Yes, the whole damn thing: roughly 95,000 words, in roughly 3,700 tweets.
So this review is partly intended to applaud Soft Skull Press for having the nerve to kill some trees and make an actual book of the thing. Or even if no trees were killed, which of course would be preferable, to say that it is nice to have this book in bound-paper form. It goes to show that books in general remain among the most reliable and efficient fiction-delivery systems ever invented. Just as Stewart not having a publisher before tweeting his book but having one thereafter goes to show that Twitter is among the most reliable and efficient publicity-delivery systems ever invented.
Now, if it seems like this review has gone on too long without discussing the content of the book or its literary merits, well, whose fault is that? By the way, The French Revolution also has a free iPhone app, should readers want to unlock bonus content.
Okay, so. Notwithstanding a clutter of chapter epigraphs culled from history books, the correlation between Stewart's story and the actual French Revolution is less easy to appreciate than his linguistic agility. On his website, he describes the book as "a family saga cast in a unique historical structure, plus jokes."
"Vanity made the Revolution; liberty was only a pretext," quoth Napoleon, and we are to bear this in mind when learning how in 1989 an obese disgraced celebrity San Francisco pastry chef named Esmerelda Van Twinkle, while under the influence of hallucinogenic aphrodisiac dessert cake, became unintentionally pregnant with twins, whom she would later name Marat and Robespierre and raise with help from her quasi-tyrannical mother in such circumstances that the history of our city and indeed the world would be irrevocably altered.
It's hard to say whether Stewart should quit his day job in public relations, because he is at least good enough at it to be right about how good he also is at short blasts of literary joy. Consider the perfectly tweetable moment from the scene of the twins' birth: "As the hullabaloo grew louder and louder, the gas station attendant realized this was no ordinary six-hour excretion and called the police."
In fact, it is on that tightly focused scale — not in 140-character shots, necessarily, but at the sentence level — that Stewart seems most imaginative and most successful in applying his formidable ambition. It's just that sometimes the beauty of his sentences has more propulsive force than does the tale overall. It's like the illustration on the book's cover, with one tower of the Golden Gate Bridge rendered as a guillotine. "Ah, I get it!" you think, until you realize, "Wait, I don't get it."
Stewart's command of rhythm and descriptive detail sometimes astounds. His handling of character and tone — a cocktail of absurdity, whimsy, and occasional brutality — sometimes asks for the benefit of our doubt. But with all the energy he has put into this book, and, yes, into marketing it, he has earned that benefit.