theMystery.doc (2017)

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The new novel so colossal it comes with a built-in ribbon bookmark. At over 1,600 pages, its stature commands attention. But it can easily be ingested within a few sittings; though it takes much more time for digestion and absorption. I turned the last page tonight. Then wandered around my apartment. Took a walk outside. Glanced at some neglected books on my shelves. Aimless in a stupor. Finally I sat down to collect my thoughts. The book has cast a spell on me. Its towering imposition—the scope and magnitude of its reaches; the power and grip of its obsessive assembly—have overwhelmed me. Matthew McIntosh has succeeded in his goal of finding a new form to capture and pass down the post-9/11 American experience.

The title, which mimics a filename, keeps us acutely aware that this is a created artifact—it is as if McIntosh has emailed us his manuscript. A perusal of the massive book yields a striking resemblance to experimental books like Tristram Shandy, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Jonathan Saffron Foer’s Tree of Codes. There is very little conventional narrative for a novel (i.e. neat little paragraphs that stretch for a series of pages). Instead the book is a compilation of phone-call transcripts, newspaper clippings, emails, transcribed audio files, chat logs, error messages, ads, and so on. There are pages-long stretches of photographs, symbols (especially asterisks), and, in some cases, blank pages altogether. Like the aforementioned House of Leaves, McIntosh makes extensive use of mimesis, pushing the limits of the complementarity of form and content. This, in turn, results in quite a bit of white space. But to claim that McIntosh has wasted paper would be to conclude that David Lynch wasted film.

The most striking aspect of the innovative form of the book is its resemblance of a day in our lives. Think about the barrage of information that we consume, whether directly or indirectly. We wake from a dream, the most salient remnants of which are slow to dissolve, replaying in our minds as we grab for our phones on the bedside table. Already we are thinking of the things we must do today, interspersed with the fragments of the dream, while we swipe through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Timehop, Snapchat, et al. Our mind is assaulted with images and opinions, from a truculent political view to an ecstatic engagement announcement. People lament the loss of loved ones. Others post a countdown to their long-awaited vacations. We like some posts, pass by others, even stop to offer a comment or two. A text comes in. We engage in a brief conversation. Eventually we turn on the news and eat breakfast. The latest trends in fashion commingle effortlessly with the latest shooting. At work we commit ourselves to a cycle of face-to-face conversations, silent work, emails, instant messages, Skype calls, a lunch break where we try to stay off our phones and participate with the people around us, and so on. In the evening, we again scroll the seas of social media while binge-watching our favorite Netflix show. Something catches our attention: immediately we are ordering items on Amazon. We remember an article we bookmarked a couple days ago. We dismiss ads and requests to sign up for newsletters. Now, in the midst of all this cognitive stimulation, our minds remain busy with the work of sorting out those constant streams of past and future. One memory and one prediction after another. In a given day we experience a whole spectrum of emotions in response to a massive amount of small tidbits of data. And this, I claim, is exactly the contemporary consciousness that McIntosh has captured in theMystery.doc.

Like language in Ulysses (which a character attempts to read but cannot finish) the structure of the book is itself a character. Yes, there is the expected author-surrogate familiar to metafiction, and the Kafkaesque (minus the bug) wraparound story is that he has awakened with amnesia after working on his second book for eleven years. But the mystery isn’t in what happened to him or what was in his blank file called theMystery.doc; the mystery lies in the form-character. As the author-surrogate says,  “A world in which you have no history is a world of utter possibility.” There is no solid story, no authoritative text (it’s blank!), therefore, like the visitors to Website Greeters, we readers find ourselves employing a mental Turing test to the novel’s structure. (Are you real? Are you trying to tell me something? Or are you just a programmed thing spitting out fractals?) We get the most commentary on the creation of the book in the section titled “The Ultimate Goal”: There is an endless number of potential orderings, but only one correct way.” In one way we could view the book as the result of its author (or, perhaps, an algorithm) finding that “one correct way” of ordering the glut of information he compiled.

A character named Charles says, “It makes me wonder if possibly you’re not writing a book at all, but doing something very different.” Toward the end of the book quantum physics is brought in to play (specifically the strange things that the famous double-slit experiment has yielded). The author-surrogate begins to discover that there is a low-level, quantum particle (below atoms, below quarks) called “{ }.” The chilling realization is that, like quantum matter, our very observation will alter things. In another sense, the author believes that he has discovered a connection to things that has led him to create Platonic Forms themselves. As in the essence of the connections; that which makes them connected. But, as readers, our very observation (i.e. reading) of these quantum particles, the “{ },” will alter the material.

Aside from mental gymnastics and literary showmanship, the book is nothing short of devastating. As David L. Ulin puts it, the book is “one we live with (or through), rather than read”[1]. There is a pressure within the text that makes taking a break from reading it feel like coming up for air. Just as Phaedrus swings the mental knife in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to lay bare the fissures underpinning society’s discontents, McIntosh takes us on a tour of pain, suffering, loss, uncertainty, and addiction to expose the damaged psyche of our collective consciousness. With a head full of a lifetime of ideas, movies, texts, news footage, pictures, music, we have come to a point where there is no longer order (a character makes a comment about the book defying over two millennia of classification science). Our minds are adept at ordering chaos, but we’ve reached a point of entropy from information overload. We are mental informavores without a proper system for dealing with such a capacious diet, and theMystery.doc can either be a challenge or an impasse.

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Footnotes
[1] From http://www.4columns.org/ulin-david-l/themystery-doc.

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