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.