David L. Ulin

Amnesia, mortality, and the limits of language: a 1,660-page “Allbook” from Matthew McIntosh.

theMystery.doc, by Matthew McIntosh, Grove Press, 1,660 pages, $35

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There’s little purpose in trying to summarize the plot of Matthew McIntosh’s second novel, theMystery.doc. In the first place, the book is more than 1,600 pages in length, so how to encapsulate it all? More to the point, it resists such a reading, even as it offers a number of interlocking narratives. Perhaps the most useful way to think about theMystery.doc is as an experiential novel, one we live with (or through), rather than read. A pastiche, a collection of moments that both connect and don’t, it blurs the line between text and image, fact and fiction; it is not postmodern but post-postmodern, or maybe none of the above. At the same time, it is surprisingly accessible for such a long book: not a critique of meaning so much as an evocation of meaning’s aftermath—an expression, in other words, of the chaotic culture in which we live.

The set-up is relatively straightforward: a writer named Daniel awakens one morning to discover that he has total amnesia. He has spent, or so he is told, eleven years working on a project called (yes) themystery.doc, but the digital file is also blank: “Zero lines, zero words. Zero characters. Zero zero zero.” McIntosh acknowledges the contrivance from the outset: “It was one of those plots,” he writes, “where you wake up and you don’t know who you are.” It’s a telling moment, with the author both framing a story and commenting on it, and it gives a hint of his intentions for the novel, the directions, or some of them, the book will take.

Daniel’s story is central to theMystery.doc, although it is not, in and of itself, the mystery. McIntosh makes this explicit by pivoting almost immediately from Daniel and into a series of ancillary narratives that enlarge the book’s perspective in unexpected ways. Missing, or lost, people are a motif throughout the novel: a housewife named Kimberly Anne Forbes, who vanishes while shopping in Portland; a woman trapped on a high floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, looking for solace or salvation as she waits for the towers to collapse. Their stories are punctuated by a series of conversations between a (possibly) automated “greeter” at an entrepreneurial website and a rotating cast of clients who spend much of their time trying to determine whether they are interacting with a machine or a human being. Then there’s what we might call the backstory, involving the author, or his fictional stand-in, which features emails, photographs, and dialogue between him and the members of his family. These include his father, a pastor who is dying of cancer, and his niece Margaret, born prematurely, whose death animates the emotional life of the novel as if she were the tiniest of ghosts. Late in the book, after having shared photographs from her funeral, McIntosh reproduces an image (or so theMystery.doc would have us believe) of this small girl in a neo-natal ward, body red with the effort of living, hooked up to a breathing tube and a network of IVs.

All of this, of course, is meant to signify upheaval, of both the personal and the cultural variety. The mystery, it should come as no surprise, is the mystery: the stomach-dropping question of why we are alive. We often dismiss that issue as sophomoric, but that’s part of the point of a book such as this, which takes it on faith that literature, that art, should address the largest questions, even (or especially) when we know they can’t be answered in any satisfying terms. Among the key tensions here, in fact, is the limitation of language, which is always deserting McIntosh and his characters—and, by extension, the rest of us. theMystery.doc is full of deconstructed or fragmented pages: blanks, redacted copy, internet messages, photographs, bits of code, and images from films. When Margaret dies, for instance, the monitor that tracks her breathing switches to alarm mode, a shift represented by a vivid screeching: five pages filled with nothing but the letter “e.” Immediately afterward, McIntosh presents a photo sequence of the World Trade Center falling, followed by fifteen pages filled, almost entirely, with asterisks—the insufficiency of language, once again, to reckon with loss. It’s a vivid juxtaposition, Margaret’s death in sequence with all those who perished in the towers. But there is no sliding scale for suffering, and anyway, it’s the monumental nature of mortality he is writing about, or against, which gives the non-linguistic material in the book its subtle power.

McIntosh, to be sure, aspires to the big book division. His predecessors include James Joyce, Marguerite Young, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann, Karl Ove Knausgaard, all acolytes of “the whatness of Allbook,” in Anthony Burgess’s pointed phrase. “We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature,” Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer. “It is to be a new Bible—The Last Book. . . . After us not another book—not for a generation, at least.” Something similar might be said about McIntosh, although like Wallace (if not quite the others) he seems intent on undercutting this, as well. “How’s the book?” an old woman named Vel asks Daniel, who doesn’t remember that he’s her neighbor. When he tries to dodge the question, she presses him: “There is no The Mystery! There’s no book!”  

That’s a meta-moment, or it could be, but for all the novel’s self-awareness, its questioning of form and content, theMystery.doc has larger concerns. Here we are, back to post-postmodern, since McIntosh is not trying to be ironic but rather seeks a disarming vulnerability. It may seem strange to call a 1,660-page novel intimate, and yet this is what McIntosh is after, to mine the depths of a particular set of points of view. If narrative is all we have, our source of meaning, what happens when it is not enough? Here, we have another mystery engaged by theMystery.doc, which is less a novel than a scrapbook of slivers that asks us to be cognizant of both its heart and its artificiality, as if we and McIntosh were “two people walking through a city on a warm summer evening taking turns taking pictures with a camera with no film then writing what they’d seen through the viewfinder in a notebook for the other to read.” 

David L. Ulin is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Amnesia, mortality, and the limits of language: a 1,660-page “Allbook” from Matthew McIntosh
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