Sometimes when I’m too agitated to sleep but too sleepy to read or write or do anything useful, I log onto my computer and Google the names of people I used to know. It sounds a little creepy, but it’s not as if I wouldn’t have been thinking about them anyway. Insomnia is an occasion for revisiting old griefs and regrets. If you want to hear the dead scratching on the walls of their tombs, you have to stay up past your bedtime.
Once I Googled an ex-girlfriend and found out how much she and her husband had paid for their house. Her husband, I learned, was the man she’d dumped me for. Despite what she’d said at the time it really was me, not her—whatever her commitment issues might have been, they hadn’t prevented her from staying with my successor for almost thirty years. Tracking his cyber-spoor—books he’d reviewed on Amazon, organizations he’d joined—I could see that he was a man of a sanguine temperament, with a positive, forward-looking turn of mind. He wouldn’t have wasted a minute of his time Googling the likes of me.
One bleary night I found myself thinking about a college roommate who’d recently died. Had I known what fate held in store for him, I’d like to think that I would have told him how much I’ve always regretted saying what I did that time when I was so in my cups. Even after all these years, I’ll be walking down the street or brushing my teeth when I’m suddenly brought up short by the memory of the look on his face when I opened my mouth. I clicked my mouse and entered a website that another one of his college friends—a better one than me—had created in his memory. And there he was: 19 years old, exactly as I remember him.
I went to high school with a musician who came as close to making it as you can without becoming rich or famous. One night, I don’t know why, I typed the name of one of his bands into Google and to my astonishment discovered that fan websites, MP3s, and YouTube videos had popped up like so many mushrooms. I clicked on one of them and saw him, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, his face achingly young and hopeful. I clicked again and he was in concert in Osaka, Japan, older this time, and grizzled from the road. The singer he was performing with—a bonafide rock-and-roll legend—would die of a heroin overdose that same month. Jamey would follow him a few years later.
I Googled my late father’s father once and found the manifest of the steamship that brought him to this country from Poland at the turn of the last century. I Googled my father’s sister—she killed herself in the 1960s—and found her listed as a member of Erasmus high school’s graduating class of 1931. Letters that my late mother sent to Harpers magazine and The New York Times are archived and can be accessed for a nominal fee.
The great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis (he died of cancer in 1989, when he was just in his early fifties) wrote a short story called “The Encyclopedia of the Dead,” about a Mormonesque religious order that documents the lives of ordinary people. Locked overnight in the library that houses the Encyclopedia’s thousands of volumes, its narrator reads about her recently deceased father. Though just a few pages long, his entry recounts in astounding detail not just his vital statistics, but the textures of the landscapes he inhabited and all of his sorrows, disappointments, and joys, rendering him in all his dense and irreducible pathos and particularity. “This,” she concludes, “is the central message of the Encyclopedia’s authors—nothing ever repeats itself in human history; all things that, at first glance, seem to be the same are barely similar; every man is a single star unto himself; everything happens always and never, everything occurs endlessly and never again.”
“In the future,” Andy Warhol famously predicted, “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” A decade or so later, he emended himself. “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.’” Fifteen minutes later the future is here. And thanks to the indelible traces that we leave on the Internet, some of us achieve a notoriety of the kind, if not the degree, that used to be reserved for the notorious alone. In the small hours of the morning, that can be a source of considerable consolation.