Over­loaded

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Stu­art Kelly

theMys­tery.doc by Matthew McIn­tosh Grove Press, 1,664pp

You could, I sup­pose, blame Her­man Melville for the Amer­i­can pen­chant for max­i­mal­ism: books that are not just long but weighty. To be added to this door-stop­ping ten­dency is Matthew McIn­tosh’s theMys­tery. doc, sub­ti­tled “a novel”, although it frets over that de­scrip­tion. What is sur­pris­ing is that McIn­tosh would join this club. His de­but novel, Well, pub­lished in 2005, was a shade un­der 300 pages: clas­sic cre­ative writ­ing in the key of Ray­mond Carver, and no bad thing for that. theMys­tery.doc is a whop­ping 1,664 pages. It in­cludes pho­to­graphs, text mes­sages, pla­gia­risms, dis­cus­sions about it­self and a whole “draw­er­ful of jpegs, tifs, pdfs, mp3s, midis, wavs, aiffs, mpgs, movs, and all other ac­counts we keep of our / de::: / cline:::”

It also fea­tures reams of pages made up mostly of as­ter­isks. Th­ese may be a wink to Edith Whar­ton’s story The Muse’s Tragedy. They oc­ca­sion­ally rep­re­sent snow­fall, but they are also the static on a tele­vi­sion, it seems; ap­pro­pri­ately for a book much con­cerned with tech­nol­ogy and its dis­con­tents. A num­ber of pages are just rep­e­ti­tions of > > >, as if the au­thor – again, this is clearly de­lib­er­ate – had fallen asleep at the com­puter. There are five pages of what looks like – I may be wrong – a modern doc file pasted into an ear­lier ver­sion of the soft­ware: “AWW91IHdl­cmUgcmi­naHQiEhIK2x…” and so on. There are black pages and empty pages, as in Tris­tram Shandy, and there are redac­tions.

“The uni­verse is a big puz­zle and needs to be put back to­gether again,” says one of the nar­ra­tive voices. That may be so, but is there a story? Yes, to an ex­tent. There are con­ve­niently ti­tled chap­ters that tell the reader of an au­thor who wakes up with am­ne­sia, can­not recog­nise the woman in the room with him, and finds on his lap­top his work in progress, a blank file called theMys­tery.doc. A cat is dead in the yard. He has some kind of re­la­tion­ship with a woman much younger than he is. There is a par­al­lel nar­ra­tive about a young man mov­ing from Fed­eral Way, Seat­tle – the set­ting of Well – to work in Lon­don. There are sec­tions in which peo­ple – or maybe just one per­son – try to find out

if Web­siteGreeters.com is a form of Tur­ing test. Is the in­di­vid­ual at the other end of the datas­tream an ac­tual hu­man or not?

And there are inset short sto­ries about, among other things, care homes, pre­ma­ture births, dy­ing par­ents that are very touch­ing and ten­der (in both senses of that word). There are tran­scripts of 911 emer­gency calls. There are over­heard con­ver­sa­tions and a strange kind of agent, un­load­ing his se­crets. Quite early in the book, I re­alised what the game was: we live in a world of in­for­ma­tion over­load and frag­mented iden­ti­ties.

Even the ex­tent of the book is a kind of aw­ful re­al­ism: as if McIn­tosh is say­ing “too much, too much, too much” again and again and again. He him­self ap­pears as a char­ac­ter, and that makes it even more prob­lem­atic that the book tries to di­ag­nose it­self. If I were to use one word to de­scribe theMys­tery.doc it would be “valiant”. It is like a gi­ant scrap­book of ideas for books. Many are clever, many are mov­ing, many are sin­cere, many are in­trigu­ing: but not all of them should be be­tween two cov­ers.

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