In the press materials for Matthew McIntosh's new 1,660-page brick of a very literary novel, TheMystery.doc, the publisher says not to be fooled by the book's length. Sure, it weighs 4 1/2 pounds, but they cheerfully insist that "it reads as quickly as a novel of a more conventional length."
That is a lie. It doesn't read anything like a traditional novel — not as quickly, not as smoothly, not as satisfyingly, none of it. McIntosh's second book reads shattered. It reads fragmentary. It reads like trying to unwind Christmas lights from a thorn bush — pinpricks of brilliance hung up in confusion and pain. It reads like a symphony written by a speed freak and performed by industrial robots. All crashing symbols, and between, only silence.
Let me start by saying this: It is about a writer who wrote a book once that was pretty good, and then spent 11 years trying to write a very long second novel — written by a writer who wrote a book once that was pretty good, and then spent 16 years trying to write a very long second novel.
Also, the writer has amnesia.
But wait. No, wait. There's one clear thing at the beginning and that's that McIntosh knows what he's doing here. He knows that you'll know what an old chestnut he's roasting, and he leans the hell into it. It gets strange. Then super-strange. Weed is smoked. A professional drain cleaner is consulted. Then a crazy lady. There's a dead cat and hints of plots and schemes and higher powers intervening. The writer (McIntosh's imaginary writer) has told lots of people (including his wife) that he's writing a big, important book about big, important things, but when he goes to fire up his computer, there's nothing but a blank document entitled theMystery.doc.
That's (maybe) 10 percent of the book. The rest is ... Well, the rest is everything else. Literally. EVERYTHING. The rest is conversations about God and artificial intelligence and the Pacific Northwest, excerpts from Wikipedia pages on geological formations and logging and missing persons. The rest is notes from McIntosh about the book. Chat logs with a robot. The death of a father and a premature baby and Sept. 11 and childhood memories. Old photos. Pages and pages and pages of nothing. It is a novel that fails in its attempted modernity — its vivisection of the form — about as often as it succeeds. And there's a sense that McIntosh doesn't really care about the ratios. That a lot of it just wasn't meant for you.
Does that sound mean? Good. Because I didn't enjoy reading this monster and neither will you. My experience went something like this: I hate this I hate this I hate this Zzzzzz (That's where I fell asleep) Oh, God, there are still 1,400 pages to go? I hate this I hate this I hate this ... And then, for some reason, something would catch my eye. A phrase, a picture, something, and something would turn over in my chest and I'd get it. I'd understand what McIntosh was doing. And I'd love the damn book for making me feel the way that almost no book ever has — for making me feel alive and rooted in this one stupid world of ours with all its randomness, all its awfulness and all its beauty.
Then, five minutes later? Back to hating it. Then loving it again. Then being choked up by the rawness of some disjointed, scattered, creatively typeset memory from childhood given the full, present weight of reality or pages of periods and asterisks meant to be falling snow. Then I would fall asleep again.
So hating theMystery.doc is OK. But I don't think McIntosh meant for anyone to enjoy it in any real sense of the word. I don't think he meant it to be fun or entertaining or even thought-provoking, exactly, because there's something about the weight of it, the layout, the intermingling of multiple stories and POVs that seems to deaden thought.
But he meant you to feel it, and you will. What he's attempting with this novel (and sometimes succeeding at) is writing a story for this moment. One that is just as scattered as we are, just as rotten with memory, just as distracted, just as haunted by the strangest things — by a missing person story we heard once, by a voice on the other end of the phone or a death that we handled with less than perfect grace. It is a book that interrupts itself 10,000 times with the random nonsense of daily life, and, annoying as that is, it creates something out of it that feels like pure thought. Like a one-to-one translation of the noise inside your brain.
It feels like life, which is a strange thing to say, but maybe the truest thing I can tell you about theMystery.doc.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.