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James Patterson explains the 'really cool experiment' of publishing a novel on Facebook

David Pogue
Tech Critic

James Patterson, among the world’s bestselling authors, has never shied from experimenting with the storytelling form—or the storytelling business. He heartily embraced e-books when they were new; he’s launched a series of super-short, $4 books (“like reading a movie,” he says); and these days, he relies on coauthors to help him maintain his astonishingly prolific output.

But his newest novel, “The Chef,” attempts the most radical experiment yet: It’s told entirely through Facebook Messenger, one text at a time.

You’re welcome to experience it yourself, since it’s free; click here if you’re on your phone, or here if you’re on your computer. (In February, Hachette will begin selling the novel in traditional paper form for $28—at over twice the length.)

The novel, coauthored by Max DiLallo, tells the tale of Caleb Rooney, a hard-boiled New Orleans ex-cop who, along with his ex-wife, runs a beloved food truck in his off hours. As the huge annual Mardi Gras festival approaches, Caleb tangles with unwelcome FBI agents, falls in love with a beautiful married blonde—and must head off a devastating terrorist attack on the city he loves.

As you might expect of a Patterson novel, this one bubbles along with plenty of action, snappy dialogue, and plot twists. There’s lots of violence, but no profanity, and only the softest hints that sex has occurred. And if you’re looking for subtlety, character development, or backstory, this isn’t your novel.

(“My form of writing,” says Patterson, “is colloquial storytelling. It’s not fancy. It’d be terrible if ‘100 Years of Solitude’ was written the way I write. But it’s good, I think, that somebody’s writing this way.”)

There is, however, a lot of weirdly over-the-top food talk. Caleb Rooney, hard-bitten man of action, occasionally lapses into flowery, incongruous descriptions of “sugarcane rum–braised Kobe beef, truffle-braised scallops with an orange-saffron vinaigrette, and a cast iron–seared duck breast finished with a licorice-tinged absinthe glaze” or “a citrus-glazed swordfish amandine that promises to be tangy, flaky, and crunchy all at once, and a succulent lamb chop Clemenceau.” That may be the closest thing you’ll get to experiencing Rooney’s inner life.

Perks of the format

Once you fire up Messenger and start reading, you quickly appreciate some of the cooler side effects of this experimental storytelling form. For example:

  • You can’t flip ahead to peek at the ending. (You get about four “texts” at a time, and then you click a button to summon the next few.)
  • You never have to bookmark anything—every gadget you pick up (phone, laptop, tablet) is always at the spot where you stopped.
  • In the Messenger chat box, you can type questions (“Who is Marlene?”) and get bot-driven answers. At the moment, the responses are often nonsensical, but Facebook says they’ll improve as more people interact with the story.
  • The typos and inadvertently duplicated passages, still present as I read the novel the night before its release, can easily and quickly be fixed before many people see them.
  • The dialogue- and action-heavy Patterson style lends itself especially well to the Messenger treatment. The sentences and paragraphs are short and declarative, containing themselves nicely inside what are basically text messages being sent to you by a bot.

But the really huge advantage of this delivery system is that lines of text and dialogue can be interspersed with photos, audio recordings, and, notably, video scenes.

Left: “The Chef” intersperses video scenes with the prose. Right: The main character has an Instagram profile.

“It’s a really cool experiment,” Patterson told me. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever done before: reading and then watching film, reading and then watching film.”

Well, yes—super low-budget film.

The producers attempt to justify their selection of which sections to film by adopting the “found footage” concept: They’re all scenes supposedly captured by security cameras, car dashboard cameras, and so on. But that conceit does mean that we miss out on all of the action, including a four-airplane pileup and some climactic Mardi Gras terrorist mayhem. (Anything, that is, that would have cost a lot of money to film.)

“Ah,” you say. “But isn’t that the beauty of a novel? That you get to imagine these exciting events?” Well, sure—but then why supply videos at all? Either they’re worth doing or they’re not.

In this case, I side with the creators. True, the videos replace your imagination’s view of the characters and scenes with more literal ones, prescribed, cast, and produced by Facebook and Patterson’s team.

But it’s an utterly new experience. It’s not like seeing the movie version of a book, where the moviemaker has reinterpreted, adapted, and condensed the original. This is the original, and the video and written scenes were all created by the exact same people with exactly the same story to tell.

Often in “The Chef,” the videos and photos simply appear among the prose paragraphs, without comment—and at those moments, the storytelling style really sings. They slyly bring you into the hero’s world, letting you pore over the clues exactly as he’s encountering them.

Sometimes, clunky dialogue that’s passable on the page of a potboiler sounds absurd coming from an actor. (“This is the stuff of nightmares come to life,” he says at one point. Or: “My Crescent City was still alive, unbowed and standing strong.” Have anyone ever used the word “unbowed” spontaneously in a sentence?)

At other times, seeing the video clips is a thousand times better than just reading. When Caleb gets the smug, triumphant villain on a FaceTime call, complete with occasional signal dropouts, it’s creepy-good and chilling.

Does it work?

“I’m really very pleased, and yet I know that there’s a lot more potential here,” Patterson says about the final product. “It works, but we could do something that’s much, much better.” He says, for example, that—had there been enough money for it—he would have preferred about a third less text, and a lot more videos.

Well, he’s precisely right. “The Chef” has its share of clunkiness, and nobody will mistake the film work for Christopher Nolan’s.

At the same time, the experiment is entirely successful in proving the format can work. “The Chef” works especially well on the phone … especially when you’re running around in life, finding a few minutes of reading time here and there … and especially, I’m guessing, for the younger audiences that Patterson has spent so much of his life trying to get into reading.

“The Chef” may be only the 1.0 version of the Great American Text-Messaged Novel. And nobody’s saying that it will replace any other formats, like printed books or e-books. But it’s enough to get you excited about what version 2.0 or 9.0 might look like—something with a bigger budget, maybe more professional actors, greater reader interactivity.

“It’s different,” Patterson says, “which I think book publishing needs.”

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.

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