The new novel from Matthew McIntosh
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Amnesia, mortality, and the limits of language:
a 1,660-page “Allbook” from Matthew McIntosh.
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....
... 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.”
“Glued precariously together from the documentary fragments of a shattered culture and a fractured psyche, as with Eliot's The Waste Land, Matthew McIntosh's huge and riveting theMystery.doc stakes out its territory in the unbroken ground of a new and unsettling American century. Haunted the same way that contemporary life is haunted—by snapshots and forgotten emails; scraps of dialogue and movie stills—this brave and massively accomplished book is both a savage exorcism and a dazzling celebration of the novel and the human heart, each with their endless possibilities. A transfixing statement in a shimmering new language.”Alan Moore ◹, author of Jerusalem
“theMystery.doc may seem capacious but is actually sly, shy, and precise, and Matthew McIntosh is ambitious in the good sense: he attempts something new, with new vitality, and at that, absolutely succeeds.”Rachel Kushner, author of Telex from Cuba
“1653 pages or not, theMystery.doc is light on its feet, it moves at different paces and rhythms as its different narrative voices, photo sequences, blasts and showers of type dance up and down its pages. There are family stories, national and global stories, stories that use human language that don’t feel so human, there are pieces of finding one’s way and losing it. It’ll have been fourteen years since Well ◹ that theMystery.doc appears. One still hopes it won’t be fourteen years until Matthew McIntosh’s next one, though there is much here to carry one for a good, long time.”Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company ◹
“theMystery.doc plumbs life's absurdities and explores its heartbreak, playing with form and convention, teasing meaning and pathos from the unlikeliest places. I can think of no other novel that simultaneously pushes the boundaries and moves the soul like theMystery.doc. ”Ezra Goldstein, Community Bookstore
“theMystery.doc is an incredible experience. The story that Matthew is telling here feels like it couldn’t have been communicated any other way. It’s surprisingly intimate and personal. It felt like these could have been my memories, my photographs, my dreams and experiences. I found it deeply affecting and moving. I am grateful to be one of its early readers.”Robert Sindelar, Third Place Books ◹
“Wow. This is an incredibly ambitious work, amazingly complex and always intriguing. There were times throughout the novel where I was laughing out loud and others where I was on the verge of weeping. I can safely say I've never read anything like theMystery.doc”Keaton Patterson, Brazos Bookstore ◹
“A great delight to read ... poignant in its investigation of loss. The mystery at the heart of the book is nothing less than the mystery and magic of life and death.”Mark LaFramboise, Politics & Prose Bookstore
“theMystery.doc is my favorite kind of book, one that I simply hand to someone with urgency saying, ‘Read this.’ It's an indescribable wonder.”Stephen Sparks, Point Reyes Books
Matthew McIntosh is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Well. He lives with his wife on the West Coast.