Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
Writers are anxious about the Internet and all things electronic, as we worry these newfangled ways of entertaining ourselves might someday obviate our own work. The solution, perhaps, lies in understanding and adapting to this new medium. Consuming enough that we can master its complexities and render appealingly intelligent confections for our readers. But who are these readers? Are they different online than they are in print? Some of them aren’t even human. There is a new form of reader browsing the Internet. For this is no longer just the age of mechanical reproduction; we now have to contend with mechanical readers as well. [LINK]
[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.
Here’s a link to In the Red Room if you feel like reading along….
First gloss: story of a man escorting his elderly parents around Sri Lanka. His mother meets a strange young man in the botanical gardens, who invites them all (quite forcibly) up to his villa. They spend a few tense moments alone in a peculiar red room before leaving. On the parents’ last day in Sri Lanka the narrator finds out who the young man was, a deranged young man who shot his young bride and her lover in the room and likes to relive the scene. The narrator agonizes over whether to tell the story and decides not to. But he realizes his mother may well have known the whole story all along.
Second read: Markup I marked sections in the beginning, where the young man began speaking — and I started paying particular attention to what he was saying — then I marked the description of the red room itself, which I’d glossed over, the young man’s actions really are weird, he coaxes them out by offering to sell the house and then offers a personally inscribed book of poetry. He becomes pushier and bossier, much more realistic; the sensation of being trapped in someone’s horrid little chamber is much louder on a second read, the climax of the second scene (with Sonny) comes as he returns to the room after leaving them alone for a long time:
Again we sat in silence, Dodd now shielding his eyes from the glare. When Sonny Gonzag returned, he was carrying a glass of water which he drank standing in the doorway. His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.
They hurry out soon after seeing this. They take a frightening walk back through his garden, which seems exponentially more dangerous — and I’m still snaring a little on this part, and then they are removed progressively from the scene; first by an evening, and then by the length of the trip (several weeks) which is when Sonny’s story is revealed. Finally the last scene is the narrator deciding not to tell his sensitive folks (a callback to the beginning) and then realizing his mother had already sussed out Sonny’s story (and had presumably been thinking about it ever since).
As I’m about to embark on a third read, the structure of it becomes really compelling. This is a reported event told in the first person. [ I [My parents’ trip to see me in a strange place [[the strange encounter with Sonny] parents thinking about the strange encounter with Sonny]] – Thinking about mother’s strange reaction to thinking about Sonny]. The title is “In the Red Room.” So this is really intricately structured. If it were Sonny all by himself in the third-person, or even 1st, it would just a re-telling of that weird incident, but by being about the parents reaction, and then his reaction to the parents reaction, it scoops out a sort of mis en abyme, nesting interpretations like Russian dolls.
Third read focuses on the last few pages: I’ll read it from the moment they leave Sonny’s place. Immediately the never-named narrator’s perception of his mother Hannah leaps out. I didn’t realize Sonny had followed them to the gates through the creepy jungle! They don’t mention the experience at dinner. But they parse it the next day (“we felt sufficiently removed”):
I kept waking up in the night and seeing that awful bed, says Hannah. [The narrator says it] was like watching television without the sound. You saw everything, but you didn’t get what was going on. The kid was completely non compos mentis, you could see it a mile away, Dodd declared. Hannah was not listening. It must have been a maid’s room. But why would he take us there? I don’t know; there’s something terribly depressing about the whole thing. It makes me feel a little sick just to think about it. And that bed!
Stop thinking about it, declares the father. And she does (in scene). They don’t return to Colombo. The trip passes by quickly. Strange repetition of the gas metaphor, that’s a powerful one that keeps coming up, the clove tree, the smokey room. Maybe just emphasizes the claustrophobia. “I was thinking of the crimson blazer and the botanical gardens” — is this just a callback? Why does the Indian lawyer immediately complain about the stale air? Penultimate scene follows, the parents reflecting on their trip, and Hannah suddenly figures it out – it was like being shown around a temple — she says and then the hinge of the whole story:
No, I’m serious. That room had a particular meaning for him. It was like a sort of shrine.
I looked at her. She had got to the core without needing the details. I felt that, too, I said. Of course, there’s no way of knowing.
She smiled. Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.
The son reflects on her statement and acknowledges that even though her stock phrase (what you don’t know won’t hurt you) seems so patently untrue, for once it was. The story end in scene (leaving the frame unclosed): I nodded my head and said: That’s right. (Giving the mother the last word, or leaving an ambiguity open, reflecting the unknowability that exists between all human beings.) Giving credence to the last interpretation, the mother and father are presumably dead from this distant vantage point.
Read Four, the first few pages: “I had underestimated their resilience, they had made a greater show of adaptability than I thought possible;” “not tempted by the distant or more inaccessible points of interest”… “(Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.)”… repetition of the parents need for comfort is repeated over and over. They are fragile, I think is the point, content to observe. Just as they are about to venture into the outer wild (i.e. the botanical gardens) is this graf:
As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It’ll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.
It was the spectators… who were the focus of interest. Okay, here’s something weird, because it puts them in a tourist position and then reflects on what Sonny makes them do, which is observe them observing the room and their growing discomfort. “We’ll look inside and come out again, she promised,” Hannah says of the botanical gardens. And is that what the point is? That experience, witnessed events and the perception of them change people?
Fifth read – taking apart the mechanics : Sonny is so manipulative! Makes them sit down for a beer and then he’s been watching and talking to their driver. Sonny complains about the birds. Mornings they are singing.
We huddled in a short corridor while he opened a door, reached in, and flooded the space inside with blinding light. It was a small room, made to seem still smaller by having given glistening crimson walls and ceiling. Almost all the space was filled by a big bed with a satin coverlet of a slightly darker red. A row of straight-backed chairs stood along one wall. Sit down and be comfy, our host advised us.
We sat, staring at the bed and at the three framed pictures on the wall above its brass-spoked headboard: on the left a girl, in the middle our host, and on the right another young man. The portraits had the imprecision of passport photographs that have been enlarged to many times their original size.
Hannah coughed. She had nothing to say. The room gave off a cloying scent of ancient incense, as in a disused chapel. The feeling of absurdity I got from seeing us sitting there side by side, wedged in between the bed and the wall, was so powerful that it briefly paralyzed my mental processes. For once the young man was being silent; he sat stiffly, looking straight ahead, like someone at the theater.
This is the core of the story, in the red room. Everyone is silent and the young man is stiffly staring. Then the narrator asks if Sonny sleeps on the bed. Sonny leaps up and hurries away, then spends time away. He returns long after, holding a glass of water. Hannah is still expectant! Why? Did she engineer this whole thing? And then the narrator’s perception of the mother. Okay, so the whole thing is about the mother and the son. Specifically the son’s perception of the mother’s perception. And now the parallels between Sonny and the narrators are coming apparent:
[Westin on Sonny} He’s mad as a hatter, but there he is, free to do whatever he feels like. And all he wants now is to get people into that house and show them the room where the great event took place. The more the merrier as far as he’s concerned.
This is such a tight, complicated story… here’s the paragraph about his perception of their perception of the incident although the unpleasant incident in question is really his memory of his parents’ perception of the event, I think:
I myself felt a solid satisfaction at knowing the rest of the story. But being old, they might well brood over it, working it up into an episode so unpleasant in retrospect that it stained the memory of their holiday. I still had not decided whether to tell them or not when I went to their room to take them down to dinner.
He decides not to. But the mother has actually figured out the story. But I still don’t get the ending: Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. So is this just about how much Hannah knew in the red room? It’s confounding! Another gloss, this sentence jumps out: “They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.”
A cicerone is a tour guide. Oh, wait. So glancing through this again I’m seeing the “adopted” sentence again. So there’s some vexing unanswered question between the narrator and his folks. I guess. Red room, womb, seems sort of a weak read… the dad is really castrated, weak and withering in the sun, unable to catch up to his wife, forced to send his son out to protect her from Sonny the Singhalese. Why was Sonny telling their driver the only thing that was going too far? And what one earth does Sonny do when he rushes out of the room. Something gross: Drinking a glass of water… His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.
Sonny was the son of a major official and stayed out of prison for his crime, and existed now as a sort of creepy, threatening presence, coaxing people into his house. And what is a bhikkhu? A Buddhist mendicant showing people around the temple, so there’s a connection back to the narrator calling himself a cicerone. I guess that’s what the story is, the tension between why he brought his parents out, what he wanted them to see, what they did see, what they took away from it versus what he wanted them to take away from the experience… so it’s about tourism on multiple strange levels, and showing people things, and the half-baked reason why and never being able to penetrate into the consciousness of your own family, let alone the motives of some bizarre foreign country.
Suggests a structured process of reading and re-reading. The first read is reading as a human, the second as a writer (marking it up), the third re-read is of the last few pages and the fourth focuses on the beginning. Finally the fifth read will hopefully unravel the work’s internal mechanics: the nerves of the story, the most urgent moments.
Ugh, re-reading stories…
Joshua Ferris (of And We Came to the End fame) spoke in class yesterday. He described his reading and writing process and it seemed diametrically opposed to my own. Ferris takes an enormous pad and writes little chunks all over, assembling a narrative from the fragments. Just thinking about writing that way made me uncomfortable (which likely means I should try it). The traditional method of writing, according to Ferris, is to build an idea (he called it a platonic ideal) in your head and then try to get it down on paper. I see writing as more of a thread, and as I write I’m trying to build something up from a spool of text. Ferris isn’t much of a world-builder, and admitted as much, saying there was no way he could get away with such an exotic narrator (a plural “I”) without setting his novel in such a familiar setting (i.e. an office). Another takeaway: Ferris talked about his MFA, saying that the only lesson he really took from Irvine was figuring out how to read without imputing his own aesthetic onto other people’s work. I have been struggling with how to read critically but correctly and that seems to be the key. Our professor suggested John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing (which seem to have vanished in its original form, leaving only bloggy traces):
Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Submission to the spell… if only it were easy