“Worry” is the Novel of the Online Generation

Alexandra Tanner discusses the false promise of the internet, the evangelicalism of MLMs, and Mormon mommie influencers

Hand holding iPhone and using Instagram
Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

The biting cultural commentary that emanates from the pages of Alexandra Tanner’s debut novel Worry is like the too-bright light of a smartphone screen at night, pulling you closer and keeping you absorbed late into the night.

One year following a secret suicide attempt that only Jules, our narrator, knows about, her sister Poppy moves in with her in New York City, a temporary arrangement that slowly transforms into an uneasy, long-term situation that forces both sisters to examine their separate malaise. Poppy, riddled with hives and titular worry, tries to move forward with her life (in part by adopting a three-legged dog named Amy Klobuchar). And Jules, in an attempt to escape the bleakness of her days—characterized by unfulfilling content writing jobs, the end of a long term relationship, an increasing sense of loneliness, and a sense of angst about the death of real art— loses herself to the internet, where she pores over posts made by anti-vaxxers, influencers, and internet mommies. 

With wit and brilliant insight, Tanner explores the nuances particular to sisterhood, set against a landscape riddled by capitalism and consumption. I had the chance to talk with Tanner via Zoom about social media’s terrible pull, the allure of the illusion of choice in a world that so often feels out of control, and the ways siblinghood can serve as a reflection of our truest selves. 

Jacqueline Alnes: A few years ago I read your essay, “My Mommies and Me,” about a collection of Mormon mommies you started following during the pandemic. I remember feeling like, is she in my brain?

Alexandra Tanner: I love that. 

JA: Can we just start by talking about your internet mommies? Actually, I mean Jules’s internet mommies because this is fiction. 

AT: I was thinking this morning about how it’s like a chicken-egg thing. I knew I wanted to write about all the insane shit I was looking at on the internet, and I didn’t know how to do it. Do I write a nonfiction experimental book that’s me scrolling through the internet every day? Do I write a novel? I had this idea for siblings living together and I was getting deeper and deeper into the mommies in 2019, early 2020, and just being a victim of the algorithm where it shows you ten beautiful children lined up in order, wearing matching pajamas, and two months later it’s like “Look at this holocaust denial shit.” I understand how people who are on the internet looking for that in a non-ironic way or non-voyeuristic way are caught up in that, because it’s completely compelling. It’s hard for me to even articulate what I love about them. It’s like an alternate universe.

JA: It feels riddled with holes.

The internet set up to feel like you can win, like you’re finally going to hit on the prize.

AT: I remember writing that essay and wondering, what’s my way in? Is it just that I’m different from them? And that’s not even it. It’s a part of it, but it’s so much more wrapped up, for Jules, specifically, she has mommy issues, she has internet issues, she’s not getting what she wants from her mother, she’s not getting what she wants from the internet, so I think her experience of them is different than my experience, which is just consume, consume, consume. I think she thinks there’s some end point where they are going to help her arrive at some end point about herself. They’re… maybe not. 

JA: I like the part where she intellectualizes her interest in the internet mommies at one point by saying she is “interested in how femininity is coded and recoded on image-centric platforms like Instagram.” I always think, when I’m scrolling, that I’m going to discover something, and that someday I’m going to understand why I spend hours doing this, but I don’t. Why do you think we obsess over lives of strangers in this way?

AT: I have so many thoughts. I think it’s the gamification of the internet. It’s set up to feel like the Skinner box where the pigeon pushes the button and they get a treat. It’s set up to feel like you can win, like you’re finally going to hit on the prize and something’s going to be bestowed upon you, whether it’s attention or free stuff or an understanding. 

I think a lot about stalking strangers on the internet versus looking at people you went to high school with and the people you know, you’re like, I can still get inside their head, I know why they’re posting like this. With a stranger, it’s more wrapping yourself in someone else’s consciousness and seeing what that feels like, and transporting yourself a little bit. 

JA: I’m starting to feel like this is therapy. Alex, please diagnose me. 

AT: Please help me with my internet recovery.

JA: Can we talk about evangelism? There’s so much here I don’t even know where to start. People selling products, religion, conspiracy theories, and a mom who becomes an evangelist in her own way. What draws you in about evangelism or what did you learn from interacting with these different forms?

AT: I want to say that evangelist consciousness is so counter to Judaism’s consciousness, which is inheriting something and having your own private relationship with it versus getting everyone on board and getting into people’s brains and saving them. The religious saving is one aspect, but MLMs and innocent moms getting pulled into pyramid schemes and into debt and home foreclosure, like that LulaRoe documentary, is another. The evangelism of the MLM is that it can save you from the drudgery of work, and the drudgery of parenting and being trapped in this hamster wheel life. You can make your own choices, you can make your own money, you don’t have to rely on anyone, you don’t have to rely on a corporation. That’s been really interesting to me as I’ve looked at religion and these specific kinds of consumerism. There’s a promise of salvation from something.

JA: It almost reminds me of how you were talking about social media. It must be this hit of adrenaline you get if you’re in an MLM, where you get a feeling of “I did something” or “I sold something” even though parts of it aren’t really real. You get constant affirmation.

The evangelism of the MLM is that it can save you from the drudgery of work, of parenting and being trapped in this hamster wheel life.

AT: Absolutely. If I have a great tweet today, I’m saved from paying attention to work; I can pay attention to likes. If the right people like it, someone’s going to reach out to me with a book deal or a brand partnership. Something greater is coming.

JA: What is meaningful is often so boring. What is meaningful in life is often not the Instagram story. It’s the work of figuring out yourself or your faith or your community. I feel like so much about the world we live in is veering toward quick hits. There’s this theme of people making fear-based decisions in the book instead of coming from a place of hope for what might be different.

AT: Jules is definitely motivated by fear. I think she’s completely stuck because of how afraid of everything she is. I think Poppy is a little more about trying to make a beautiful life, even though that’s vulnerable. Jules is like, why try? What are you going to get? It’s all about the moment and if you think too far beyond the moment or try to chart a life for yourself beyond “what can I look at that’s going to piss me off online today,” it’s scary.

JA: Both these characters are in their twenties, in New York City. It feels like it might be a good time, but they are so bleak about things. It made me think a lot about our current landscape. I teach a lot of 18 to 20 year olds and I feel like there’s something that’s happened the past few years where it seems like they are more realistic about life than I might have been at that age. What do you think contributes to this bleakness?

AT: I think it’s everything. Political apathy, climate apathy, the structures that are in place that are making people feel bad and forcing them online or to stay in their apartment or go about their lives. I’m hesitant to talk about millennial vs. Gen Z, but there was this sense of being a kid in 1999 and being like, “The future is here! It’s possible! Everyone has unlimited capital and potential!” The swiftness with which that came crashing down and the long reticence to accept that none of that was ever true, it was only true for a moment, was so many people’s formative moment. I think people are starting to realize that there is so much structural misery and inequity and devastation in the world that it is prompting us to focus on our own little capsules of happiness, moment to moment. It’s selfish, but I think we live in a selfish world.

JA: The system makes us want to be selfish sometimes, and makes us believe that the only way to survive is to be out for ourselves. There’s very little that incentivizes us to be in community. 

AT: It de-incentivizes it. If you care, you’re a sucker. There are all these memes about your non-profit boss. If you sacrifice certain aspects of your life because you believe in a mission you’re, I don’t know, you’re a pancake. 

JA: Did you learn anything for yourself about the gulf that exists between screen life and real life from writing this novel?

AT: I mean, yeah. Once I realized I was going to center this book around social media, particularly ultra-right-wing conspiracy theorists (horrible parts of the internet that no one should look at), I threw myself into it 100% and gave so much of myself to it during the drafting of the book. While I was selling the book and revising the book, I still had my foot in the door there. Once I was done feeling like I’ve had to pay attention to this stuff, I’ve been meditating and trying to be more conscious about the time I spend on the internet and the things I look at. 

There is so much structural misery and inequity and devastation in the world that it is prompting us to focus on our own little capsules of happiness.

The things I see online aren’t just a game, it can affect me, it can make you a worse person, not even a worse person morally, but the internet promises that it can show you how to be the best version of yourself—drink a gallon of water every day and take your vitamins and lift weights Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and take long walks—it gives you this plan that’s not attainable because it’s just content. Even the good parts of the internet that are wellness TikTok—go on a cleanse, you can reclaim your body—that’s not real. None of it’s real. The only thing that’s real is being in the present with yourself. Writing this let me get in the mud of being addicted to the internet, look at where I was, and then lift myself back out of it. 

JA: For me, it always has preyed—I mean, I guess it can’t say, “It preyed on me,” because it’s the internet

AT: It preys on you! TikTok tried to show me a video of a snake eating a little baby mouse last week. It preys on you. 

JA: It feels like when you’re at your most desperate or unsatisfied, which, going back to where we are in the world, where a lot of people are feeling that way, the internet offers the illusion of something better. 

AT: Yeah.

JA: I don’t have a sister, but reading this, I felt like I did because these sisters are so mean to each other but also cannot be without each other. 

The internet promises that it can show you how to be the best version of yourself. It gives you this plan that’s not attainable because it’s just content.

AT: Siblinghood is just having another you, but it’s not you. You have the same psyche in a lot of ways. You grew up in the same house, in the same environment, learning the same things, having the same worldview pressed upon you, which is all very obvious, but once you go out in the world a little bit, have an adulthood, and then come back together, it’s interesting. I think it’s part of what’s unique about their situation in this book, is that these sisters are living together after they haven’t been for a while. They are confronting their shadow selves, Jungian shadow selves, and also trying to assert their differences from one another, while also mirroring one another, because that’s what you do when you’re a sibling. I loved thinking about starting from the kernel of my relationship with my sibling, who I did live with for a short period of time, and saying, what if that never ended? What if it was longer? What if it was more pressurized? I’m fascinated by how siblings know exactly what to do to help one another, hurt one another. They can say one thing that can snap you out of the worst mood you’ve ever been in, or they can throw you into psychological trauma. 

In a lot of ways, if you have a certain kind of sibling relationship, there are moments where you have no boundary. Even with a partner, you maintain a boundary of “I have to be nice to this person” but with a sibling you don’t really have that. 

JA: It almost feels like the siblings are oppositional to the internet. It seems like it’s uncomfortable for them to have to confront their real selves. When they live on the internet, they don’t really have to think about who they are or what they are doing, but the person sitting next to each of them is a direct reflection of who they really are. 

AT: I want to write that down for myself. The fakest thing in the world and the realest thing in the world.

JA: What do you hope readers take away from this novel? 

AT: That’s hard, because I think I wrote this book so much to press up against the idea of lesson learning. I wanted it to add up thematically and to that amazing revelation that you had, I want things like that to come out, but I don’t know if there’s a takeaway. Have you seen A Series Man, the movie? 

JA: No.

AT: It just ends. Bad thing after bad thing and then confirmation that the worst thing is bound to happen. I didn’t quite want it to be that. I wanted it to be about how it’s up to you to look at what your life adds up to and what it means, and make something of the randomness, if you can—but you might not be able to. 

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