Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story.

When you open the app, it doesn’t present itself as a novel. It presents itself as the Pickle Index from the story. Rather than having a page 1 to start on, there are several different places to dive in: the recipe index, the Q&A section, bulletins from the dystopian administration, an animated map of the story world.

Notification badges—little red circles with numbers in them that people are used to seeing on their email app—keep you from feeling unmoored: There are several places you can go, but you never have to wonder where need to go to take the next step in the story. It’s a smart way to keep readers from getting lost.

The app isn’t just a framing device; it is itself story content. For example, rather than being told by a third-person narrator “Flora’s missives became more and more popular as time wore on,” you see yourself that the share count keeps going up. And when you reach the end of the story, the animated map of the story world shows that for the first time people are traveling between two formerly blockaded areas. That could have been a written epilogue: “Following the downfall of the administration…” But instead the app silently shows it.

The app makes playful use of its platform in other ways too: You can shake your phone or iPad to make certain things go faster, and there are title treatments that transform as you tilt your device. One thing I’m ambivalent about: It forces you to read the story over at least ten days—once you finish a section, you have to wait until the next day for a notification to alert you that the next section is available. This makes sense: The app is supposed to be the app from the story, which sends daily bulletins. But as a reader with a tight schedule it’s frustrating to have the time and desire to read something and be prevented, especially if you know you’re not going to have time the next day. I understand the desire on the part of the authors to immerse people in the story world by making story time line up with reading time, and the appeal of having an excuse to send notifications as another way to use the platform, but I think a useful rule of thumb would be “Don’t prevent people from reading your story.”

I’m a couple years late to this party: The Pickle Index was published in late 2015, and right after it came out there was a fascinating back-and-forth among Eli Horowitz, Russell Quinn, Robin Sloan, and Craig Mod. Required reading if you’re interested in this stuff.