In 1963, back when it was still acceptable for poets to be openly, ferociously competitive, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s whorled Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan was still new and aesthetically suspect, the greatest poet of his day mounted the stage under Wright’s spiral ramp and inaugurated a reading series sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Robert Lowell, a tall, elegant man of letters from an old New England family, read his own work to the crowd and then introduced a friend, “an underground poet still digging.” On cue, a stooped, heavily bearded, intoxicated man approached the lectern, and, in a peculiar, strangled voice, explained why it was proper for a trick-or-treating tot to use an expletive to curse the chairman of the First National Bank who’d dropped a polished apple into his sack and broke his cookie.
So horrid and bright to open his eyes. So much better to stay enshrouded in ruddy dark. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. He cradled this liquid inch; it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. Sweet artificial scents of partially digested alcohol rose from its glistening surface. How much like an offering this was, with its bobbing rice grains and bilious yellow tint (he was bent on his knees in the sand). The smell intensified. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung his slop into the fire pit.
The lowland of online discourse – that virtual Benelux where bloggers, essayists, and opinion writers grope for fragments of attention – has been flooded with essays weighing the worth of writing degrees; particularly the Master of Fine Arts degree. Discussion tends to hit its annual zenith around September as magazines such as Poets & Writers release their annual rankings and thousands of fledgling authors begin preparing applications.
[You are encouraged to listen to the NUMBER STATION soundtrack below while you read this, for atmospherics]
Call me McGirk.
Call me McGirk. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and read the wordy part of the world…
My sincere apologies to Melville.
After a semester traversing a series of literary seas within seas, prying at the “unsayable, the unspeakable, the unknowable, the unattainable” silences within a series of difficult texts, the greatest white whale of all [writing] has yet to feel our [critical] harpoons. That most unknown known remains – the reader. The mysterious diaphane, the field thrown up between the author, text, and reader. What on earth goes through a reader’s mind while he or she takes in a string of words? It is our good fortune that a suite of cutting edge automated ‘readers’ are coming closer and closer to providing an answer.
As you navigate the Internet, the Internet – which is to say certain entities using the Internet – navigate you. This isn’t a benign process. They want to learn as much about you as possible so that they can snag your attention; diverting your time into loops of advertisements and possibly even push you through a point-of-sale and taking your money directly. They do this by gleaning information about you. Where you go, what you search for, what type of computer you are using…. Websites leave small tracking codes on your computer called cookies, and each of these transmits data back to homebase. By visiting this site I have already captured your IP address, and can tell which keywords you used to find this site, what type of computer you used, where you are located and a couple of other data-points.
The data I’ve collected is a crude simulacrum of you; an inscription of your desires for an instant (or obligations, as is the case for my only guaranteed reader ). These simulacra have a purpose. Electronic texts can be altered according to the whims of their readers. All writers crave attention. Electronic texts, through their intelligent operators, are aware of their readers, and can quickly respond to being read. By understanding the wants of their readers, operators can better shape content to serve readers’ needs. There are even advanced analytics packages that will automatically generate ‘content’ for users in response to what they ‘perceive’ readers as wanting (in fact this is a multi-billion dollar a year business, or it was until Google tweaked its search results to waterdown these serar)
However, as is the case with traditional pen and ink reader-response, our analytics are incomplete – and at times totally flawed.
Keywords (also known as index terms) are among the most interesting and valuable traces left by users. Most users most often first come across a site by searching for a specific term on a search engine. With this site, jamesmcgirk.com, about 53% of users are directed by a search engine (33% are referred by another site, and the rest come directly). My users mostly come looking for “James McGirk,” “mfa personal statement example,” “maine coon,” and a plethora of business and espionage related-terms I listed to attract interesting visitors. (More on this below) An entire industry has sprung up to interpret these keywords, and another to optimize content online so it can be better read by search engines (this is called Search Engine Optimization). Using search terms as a crude model for a visitor’s mind, weird simulacra have been created. Content is generated automatically at the discretion of computer programs. There are even companies assigning stories to human beings based on the suggestions of algorithims. When you hear the term content farms, that’s what’s going on.
As in the simulacra in Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, these replications of desire are incomplete. It would take an infinite amount of data (and a correspondingly infinite amount of time to collect this data) to accurately model a human being’s wants and desires. But machines are getting closer and closer.
Content can be thought of as a diversion, as a product designed to leach time from the consumer. A moment of communication between man and machine. A relationship. Ideally this will be a symbiotic relationship – a user will discover an article that is pertinent to his or her interests or finds a link to a product or service that somehow fits into his or her personal narrative. But this is rare. Mostly these diversions are a nuisance, at times completely parasitical. To the point where some even launch malware to seize control of your terminal and force your attention on it. But most are more subtle than that. Perhaps the most sophisticated technique is gamification; in effect snarling a user in addictive gameplay, the way casinos try to dazzle their consumers until they’re too numb to do anything other than play.
Literary forms are beginning to emerge in response to automated reading systems, searches, and other more prosaic but no less important technological developments such as archives and instant data retrieval. Online, an age somewhat akin to the pamphlet-strewn amateurism of the 18th Century America is in bloom. The most exotic forms can be found on the Internet’s wild fringe, in its anonymous and pseudo-anonymous chat sites. Here there is a frantic economy of monikers, memes and spoofed identities. In online forums such as the all-text Autoadmit.com and the semi-anonymous Somethingawful users compete to create the catchiest, most innovative forms – most often an evolution of an earlier idea, name or other fragment of an idea. The best innovators become famous within their tiny little spheres. Other fora (or is it forums?) are completely anonymous – the most famous of these being the notorious 4chan/b ‘Random’ board, [NOTE: extremely non-safe for work] – where the only recognition earned is the sheer longevity of a creation. The best of memes were once charted on the Encyclopedia Dramatica. (This is a mirror site, the original was recently closed down after pressure from the Australian government, among other more mundane reasons.) But now there is no reason at all to create but sheer artisitc thrill. Although ‘board lore’ has developed a concept somewhat akin to ‘duende‘ – a dark, nihlistic form of amusement known as ‘lulz.’
The next evolution of the online literary form – which one hopes will eventually lead to the hypertext equivalent of MOBY DICK, which became a sort of bellweather of American long-format literary fiction – could well come from manipulating these mysterious semantic mechanicals. They offer the opportunity to make writing dangerous again. With the proper keywords, information is taken up into automatic readers belonging to some very interesting entities, to the point where there can be real world consequences. As a way of experimenting with this form I have created a series of posts with keywords that I imagine might appeal to some of the more peculiar gleaners out trolling for information. Among these posts are lists of oil rigs, information about espionage, a fake consulting company specializing in complex shipping orders in the Arabian Ocean (mostly deleted), electronic warfare, and other ‘edible’ keywords. The visitors I’ve received include: hedge funds, multinational banking concerns, the department of defense, oil companies, environmental organizations, the Pakistani government, the Kuwaiti government, the Iranian government, the Russian government, an unacknowledged US military facility, a few mysterious hits from ‘Cabin John, Maryland’ (a park across the river from CIA), Mi5, Mi6, but sadly I have yet to influence any. To my knowledge, all that I’ve managed to do is intensify the feeling that I’m being watched when I type online.
It was horrid and bright to open his eyes. Better to stay enshrouded in ruddy darkness. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. This liquid inch he cradled between his palms, it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. He considered, as the sweet smell of ketones, sickly and artificial rose, how much like an offering it was with its grains of rice and bilious yellow tint (plus he was bent on his knees in the sand). That smell quickly became a shriek. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung it in the pit.
Oh… oh, ugh… please don’t do that. Please. That’s where we eat.
A female and Western someone said that, one of the other rafters, a voice he recognized, the bossy freckled one who paid for her own holiday. He looked at her. She looked at him. She scorched wood in the fire pit and turned it. Sparks twisted loose and rocketed upwards.
Food glued to fingertips felt repulsive. He plunged them in the damp grains before him and yanked them out again. Red and grey filled crannies, nooks and wrinkles, and fell in tiny streams. Shining mica particles tumbled in the threads and winked in the light. Most stayed stuck. Even as he rubbed. A hollow in the sand remained without crumbling.
His freckled interlocutor, with her wide fleshy cheeks, dark eyes, prim little frown and dismayed expression pointed to his hands:
You are disgusting. Why wouldn’t you rinse them… in the river?
He considered the grit on his hands, and the bloated carcass swirling down the rapids.
Their rafting guide lifted his head. He held a pan he was grinding silt against to clean the grease from.
Plus… plus… here is this point, sahib: you may wash your sins away in this river. May I walk you to this bank?
No, no, I can manage. Thank you.
He lifted himself from the sand. Grey poured from his smoke-steeped clothes and tumbled from his poisoned flesh. His insides sloshed and gurgled. He surveyed his domain. Where he lay was a mark. Where he thrashed and rolled there were flat scuffs in the wind-blown undulations, and a long smear leading from where he crawled to the pit.
How easily he could chart his progress. But on the periphery were signs he could not decipher so easily. As fresh as his they were – maybe fresher and certainly crisper – a wobbling trail that circled him twice then led back up the tall slope and disappeared into the woodsy tangle of trees and spiny brush.
He dropped to his knees to look. Ebb tides of sludge sluiced through him and collided.
You gonna barf again? Do it away from the communal area – please.
He did not respond. There was an interior pad about the size and shape of his balled fist – but the ground was punched in far deeper than a boot-print. Radiating out on one side were four nubs as long but much more substantial than a thumb. They were tracks, animal tracks from an animal at least as large as he. He felt someone walk up beside him.
The guide crouched. He studied the tracks. He beckoned a closer look with one hand.
These are small for tiger.
With the other he pressed a palm beside the print to steady himself and measure.
But perfect for leopard.
The circuit around the sleeping American was not so far off the leopard’s usual route. Each evening’s prowl had its tripartite purpose: To find food and squirt urine jets – that is to re-inscribe the boundaries of his domain where they abutted against the other leopards’ (and tigers’, and feral cats’ – though he thought of these more as nuisances than peers, indeed the dank smell of their urine and mere thought of their scat piles made his whiskers crumple in disgust) – and if he felt like risking internecine conflict, he might to nudge his boundaries forward and theirs backwards with his jets. But his final task was the one he took the most pleasure in. On his midnight prowls, before he left his own mark he took a moment to sniff deeply and consider the boundary scents of others; to steep in the pheromone tags of his brethren and sift through them hunting for signals, for must, for weakness, for the continued survival of his peppery brood – three cubs, two males, one female, each marking their own little worlds now – whom he knew only from a fierce rut from a splendid ruddy bitch who padded into his domain one lonely afternoon. She was long gone.
(Some would have say there was a fourth purpose too – to patrol his area for danger – but leopards are afraid of nothing.)
He came away with his domain freshly mapped each night. And as he slept through the day, and his body twitched and his whiskers wiggled with dreams, he roamed his lands again and again. Gliding above them sometimes or sometimes plunging in, weaving in and out, plotting escape routes, points of ambush, lines of sight, lines of communication; learning his scoop of land so intuitively it became a part of him, the shape corresponding roughly to the hollow hemisphere of his paw as he spread it swipe.
Some contours within were always the same and always would be the same, unless the river shifted, which it not yet had. The spines of rock that pleased him would stay the same, as would the tributaries feeding the great river below that he could lap from, the general shape of the gorge and the slope down to the riverbank. Those never changed. Other elements were fluid. The sand lining the river. Depth of cover. Colonies of rats. Mud puddles filled with biting fleas, scorches left by lightning strikes. The trails to and from the water sources, romped by every creature – these always existed, but shifted, at the whim of the mass of them. He charted the monkey blinds, those foul tempered, foul tasting things who posted lines of sentinels who screamed alerts as they saw him, and pelted him with shit if he came to close. There were caches of food, kills he hoisted and hid the better to let them linger in their juices before he sank his fangs inside; the meat risked spoiling the longer it hung but the risk of a writhing mouthful of maggots thrilled him too.
But his maps were not just functional. They had their flourishes too. Flat patches of dirt he enjoyed rolling around in as a freshly whelped cub. The shaded copse his mate first prowled into and howled for his seed. The scent marks of ancient leopards he kept alive with his own squirted palimpsests. And finally he plotted the strange encroachments of man. The terrifying black strip they laid that smelled faintly of sun-baked bowel. The swift screaming things that traversed it were somehow associated with them, leaving clouds of flatulence and peculiar flotsam and jetsam in the gullies running along side.
Their most recent arrival was less dramatic yet somehow more beguilingly sinister.
As the great river receded and the grey sands were revealed beneath, a single smoke belching beast would one day lumber down the gentlest part of the slope. Like an elephant it was averse to steepness. (This message was encoded for posterity.) Four men clambered out and built flimsy nests and dug a great burrow they filled with fire.
That night as he made his rounds he chanced upon a mark he never sampled before. A faint trace left on unusual oblong dome that felt as if it had been ground down by man many years before. The scent was barely alive. He placed his nostril close. Some weren’t worth preserving otherwise his nightly rounds would take an eternity. But this one addressed man. In a whisper of soft reeks it spoke of a wounded was stranded on a sandbank during one monsoon. All he had to eat were corpses. And the only corpses that washed ashore were men. They were astringent, sour metallic, and rank all at once. Yet he developed a taste eventually. And when the waters receded he slaughtered hundreds. Then disappeared, leaving his dominion empty.
As the fire died down, he slunk down across the cool, dense, sand. The air was moist and vivid, stirred by the churning of the waters. The nests billowed in the breeze. How easily he could rip one apart but as he approached the perimeter of one his paw snagged on a thin line. Like a massive cobweb. He shrunk back from it, afraid a sentinel would screech the line would stick to his fur but it only twanged. Still he strayed well away. He approached a strange oblong that wasn’t made of stone. He dragged his muzzle against it, taking in a whiff dried river minerals and then a choking sent that made his fur bristle. He was about to leave and return to his route when he found a lone sleeper by the dying fire.
Water dried and left crusts of minerals on his skin. His fingers tasted of salt. The sun stung his goose-puckered flesh. The last of the rapids. The river spread out before them and became languorous and slow. Ahead of him in the raft the freckled one took off her helmet. And she turned to him and as she did a beam of light fortuitously ignited her hair, which roared a more crimson shade of copper and as she leaned forward, her blocky lifejacket pulled away from her, revealing a plunging chasm of cleavage, sunburned pink and freckle dusted flesh that disintegrated into shadowed scoops of pure white. She held her helmet in her hands. The straps hung off. Frayed and grayed with sweat. She leaned off the boat and dragged the helmet in the river. She pulled it out again and held it before him. An inch of water drained through the circles of polystyrene – masses made up of millions of bubbles – that pulled and twisted the curled copper hairs she had left behind.
Hold this, will you? She said.
She scooped a long cord of damp red hair over her shoulder revealing a long length of speckled neck. He caught her smell as she took it from him again. Milk and salt and musk, it drew him closer. His muscles ached from rowing but bathed him in a dopey soup of soothing relief.
But for the rush of current against the rubber sidewalls the raft was silent.
A squat stone marker sailed past. The Interlocutor pointed.
Say. Now what is that? She said.
That is one commemoration to the Great White Hunter. The guide said. He pulled his mouth back and shuddered with laughter, revealing blazing enamel and bubblegum pink gum that charred to well-done burger on its periphery. For this man! Panar leopard – he ate 400 men. Very cunning cats! Monsters! They lift the roof, drop in, scoop up baby and snatch her in his jaws!
Why do you say that?
He was very nearly eaten.
Were you very really nearly eaten?
He nodded. Circled and sniffed, he said.
She placed a freckled finger on his wrist. It pleased him.
A brown flicker by the lights. A nest gnawed through worn acoustic paneling. One, then two birds alight on twin fluorescent bars suspended far above Food Dimensions’ supermarket floor. Below, swaying, pitching, rolling and yawing, tile gullies gone grey-yellow from grubby footfalls and spills, extend, extend!; between cliff walls of chipped enamel bulge edible geometries of blue, yellow, faun and beige.
The birds curl thread claws over the edge, dip, fall, plunge and propel themselves upward, two dark darts swoop among the cans, seize soft grubs of masticated grain, grip and tug pieces from under suffocating see-through skin; and leave behind feathers and traces of beak.
An underworld undergirds this marketplace, or rather, under grids it, radiating aisles outward. From sufficient altitude, from an avian perspective, one would hardly see much difference. A triangle bisected and striated by lines of black asphalt instead of a brittle white metal that is something close but far cheaper than steel. And closer still the asphalt flows and gleams at intervals with pressed steel shells, egg shells, cradling combusting liquids in a cast-iron crucible. To the automobile and its driver – when in the condition of being a driver – the city is rendered as necropolis, a tomb world of clipped decisions, direction, distances and long-dead Dutchmen who have moldered past the point of matter, and all that remains are names. Onderdonk.
And it goes on and on in this vein…
Finally finished FERAL CITY – THE OCCIDENTAL/IST/ISM – A CLOUD ACROSS THE FACE OF THE SUN novel I was working on, but I have decided to rip the thing apart and rebuild it.
Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy: Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy; Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: Forty Stories; “Ward No. 6”; Joseph Conrad: Great Short Works of Joseph Conrad; The Shadow-Line; Edith Wharton: Roman Fever and Other Stories; “Bunner Sisters;” Willa Cather: Collected Stories; D. H. Lawrence: The Complete Short Stories; Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Collected Stories; Philip Roth: Nemesis.
More to come…