I was a couple dozen pages into A.E. Osworth’s debut novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, when I identified the source of the unease I’d been feeling: It was coming from the book’s narration. The book is told in the first person plural, a relentlessly voyeuristic we that worms its way under the skin of every character, gorges on their private lives, and can’t be relied upon to tell the truth. Finally it sunk in that I already knew this story. I’ve heard it before—in 2014 when Gamergate was popping off, then more and more in the years to come: women, people of color, trans, nonbinary, and queer people getting swarmed and bullied off the web and out of their homes by coordinated harassment campaigns masterminded by reactionary video game nerds (the most vindictive minds of the 21st century).
We Are Watching Eliza Bright is about a woman named Eliza Bright (plot twist!) whose recent promotion from QA tester to developer at Fancy Dog Games has given her the opportunity to make her mark on the world’s hottest online roleplaying game, Guilds of the Protectorate. But after experiencing a sexist microaggression on her very first day (her male teammates markup errors with the “code” 80085), Eliza attempts to address the issue with Fancy Dog’s CEO, who stonewalls her efforts with his corporate double-talk. Seething from this exchange, she agrees to a tell-all interview with a games journalist, which escalates the situation far beyond what she could have imagined. Suddenly, she’s being doxxed online, her Twitter mentions are full of hate and death threats, her Guilds avatar is hacked and cyber-raped, and one anonymous user (“the Inspectre”) develops a particularly unhinged obsession with handing out her just deserts.
But that’s oversimplifying the claustrophobic and tense tone that Osworth develops over the course of 400 pages. Unbeknownst to Eliza, there have been eyes following her since the very first paragraph (made manifest with a swarm of malevolent cursors on the book’s cover, designed by Sarah Congdon). “We’re always here, on the internet, eyes trained on our cast,” expounds the Gamergate hivemind at the close of the first chapter. “[W]e can find out a lot. And what we don’t know, we can guess; or we can ask; or we can invent.” Their true motive becomes even more transparent as the novel progresses: “We are obsessed with what goes on where we can’t see it.” This isn’t simply an unreliable narrator with a twisted worldview or one who gives its reader false information; it’s a combination of both.
One can argue that this is what’s made real-life Gaters (both from the first movement and the more recent “Comicsgate” spinoff) so dangerous—their deficit of actual, concrete knowledge, which has only ever been surpassed by their ideological fury. Take the incident that gave rise to “#GamerGate” (thanks, Adam Baldwin): Eron Gjoni’s sensational screed against Zoë Quinn, which had little to no basis in reality yet immediately whipped up an eager 4chan mob to chase Quinn from their home and drive them to a suicide attempt. Similar fates befell games critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Brianna Wu. In each case, it was obvious that the self-righteous indignation over “ethics in games journalism” was a gauzy smokescreen covering their true aim to push back against “social justice warrior” ideas like feminism and antiracism. Though Osworth doesn’t name Quinn, Sarkeesian, or Wu in their text, they don’t shy away from naming the real-world perpetrators or their breeding grounds.
Osworth peppers the narrative with references to contemporary social media channels and message boards, including 4chan and Reddit’s infamous r/KotakuInAction. But the book’s hivemind narrator gives the reader a lot of secondhand information, gleaned from Eliza’s doxxing and various chat logs that get leaked after the novel’s climax. Through this conceit, the reader is forced to digest information the same way the anti-Eliza mob does—smashing our cognition with theirs in a supremely uninviting, yet fascinating, narrative experience. It’s a tough trick to pull off while maintaining any sense of narrative cohesion, but Osworth manages it in part by allowing their own voice to occasionally rise up and subtly quiet the din. It’s not all invective and slurs thrown at our heroine and her office friends Suzanne and Devonte, dismissively named “Diversity Squad” by the Inspectre. Every so often, Osworth blends a little self-directed derision into the Gaters’ monologuing: “We, the very few women, are good at compartmentalizing—it is necessary when your hobby hates you.”
The real comic relief comes with Osworth’s invention of “The Sixsterhood,” a queer commune in an undisclosed part of Queens, New York, that offers a safe haven for Eliza when she’s forced into hiding. Introduced early on as “a collective of queers and folks without genders…who will become Very Important later on,” Osworth’s Sixsterhood is at once a love letter to and a lampooning of urban tenderqueers. The dozen or so voices irregularly wrest control of the narration from the Gater contingent (who refer to the Sixsterhood as “those candy ass bitches”) in order to fill in parts of the story that Eliza’s abusers couldn’t possibly know. But they also allow the reader some respite from the Gaters’ unrelenting gaze. The Gaters cheer for misogynist violence, present one unified ideology, and stubbornly resist self-reflection, but the Sixsterhood emphasize their run-on sentences with Capitalized Words and no periods like they’re texting friends and often interject about how much better everyone would feel if they just held a nice, healing Powerful Anger Circle. Their kindness and understanding is everything the Gaters aren’t, providing a much needed outlet through which Osworth can subtly complicate gender without losing focus on the rotten core of misogyny that propels the book’s story—and its real-life inspiration—forward.
And frankly, with a book like this, you need a laugh every once in a while, especially if you’ve brushed up against online-harassment campaigners in real life. Personally, I know how it feels to see my name and pre-transition photos show up on Kiwifarms, waiting nervously to see if anyone would take the initiative to escalate; I’ve slept on a friend’s couch with a bat near the door after they were doxxed and sent threatening messages. I’ve felt eyes combing over my portfolio and Twitter feed and disembodied fingers digging into me for a fix. There’s life before you’re known to others, and then there’s life after—knowing those sneering, leering voyeurs could be anyone. The feeling is, to put it mildly, unnerving. Channeling that discomfort into a modern-day thriller about internet culture is a task that few writers would be up to, especially because that level of authenticity requires a commensurate measure of skill. In fact, the few inauthentic moments in Osworth’s debut (mostly their occasional attempts to capture real people’s likenesses, like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah) stand out extra harshly because the text is so biting in its accuracy. With their novel’s release this week, Osworth establishes themself as a bold new voice in experimental fiction. There may be other Gamergate novels to come, but for now, We Are Watching Eliza Bright has set the bar.