The new novel from Matthew McIntosh
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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.
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.”
John Dixon Mirisola’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Flaunt. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside, and is currently working on a novel.
On page after page of Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc (Grove Press), redactions black out key words, crucial questions, and even whole sections of text. I don’t know how far I had gotten through the 1,660-page novel before I stopped expecting the eventual, climactic unveiling of the hidden words, the code-break that would deliver me from all my head-scratching. Surely, it was hundreds of pages after the flip-book sequence that begins on Page 73 with a voice shouting, “>HEY” (flip page) “>DO YOU THINK YOUR SAVIORS COMING BACK” (flip page) “>WHATS HE LOST DOWN HERE”—before I stopped looking for whatever it was that had been lost in those black blocks and began to focus, instead, on the strange constellations of voices and images arranged around the voids.
It can be difficult to recognize a work of real vision. At times McIntosh’s book is profoundly un-fun to read. Without warning the text breaks apart into a cacophony of (seemingly) non-sequitur plot shards, screenshots from classic films, and blips of (seemingly) random dialogue separated by long stretches of emptiness or indecipherable symbols. An uncharitable reader could easily fill up all the black and blank space in this book with dismissals. But the author’s formal trickery can’t be written off as merely evasive, pretentious, or coy. Setting aside the reader’s perfectly valid expectations of entertainment and pleasure, theMystery.doc is some sort of masterpiece—obscure or vulnerable by jagged turns, but in every moment energized by a self-assured sense of purpose: the novel knows, even if you are, for a long time, completely in the dark.
McIntosh employs a grand-scale version of the interlocking vignette structure that made his first book, Well, such an exciting and unique debut. ... The novel accumulates meaning the way many mosaic-style works do: by the resonances (or dissonances) created between fragments, and—more mystically—by a kind of sustained déjà vu, which reminds us with echoes of familiar dialogue or repeated photos that no detail is irrelevant to the larger image being composed.
... imagine W.G. Sebald doing his best T.S. Eliot impression—archival photos and plot-less autofiction thrown into a meticulous formal blender. (This comparison to Eliot is one other writers have noted, too, and which author Alan Moore mentions in his blurb for the novel.) Or, think of E.L. Doctorow’s post-modern, post-Christian opus, City of God—one of this novel’s closest literary relatives. Like City of God, theMystery.doc sets itself up as a kind of writers’ sketchbook, filled with iterative entries on physics, alter-egos, philosophy, film, and plans for the composition of the very book in your hands. And like Doctorow, McIntosh never strays far from metaphysical concerns; both authors set off in search of the divine.
Reading theMystery.doc is like wandering through a gigantic art installation: On white walls there are looped filmstrips depicting events in slow-motion and groupings of old family photos; computer monitors are scattered everywhere, most showing message-board postings or cryptic codes; from unseen speakers issue phone conversations or snippets of lectures. You stop for a few minutes to watch actors in the middle of mundane activities. You keep getting ambushed by exhibits on the 9/11 attacks. You pick up various documents, some of which have been redacted in black or look like avant-garde poems. You feel like Alice in Wonderland.
...But everything here is blown up to Imax proportions.
The workings of memory is [a theme], and in this way theMystery.doc resembles [Proust’s] In Search of Lost Time. ... theMystery.doc also resembles In Search of Lost Time in length, but this 1,664-page novel reads quickly. Because of all the illustrations, graphics and sparsely populated pages, it’s like reading a 300-page book.
Art installation, performance piece, vision board: these are odd ways to describe a novel, but McIntosh clearly wants to update that old genre, to give it a postmodern makeover ... At a time when most novels still resemble their Victorian forebears, it’s refreshing to encounter a novel that actually looks like a 21st-century production.
British writer Alan Moore, author of last fall’s longest new novel, Jerusalem, compares theMystery.doc to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is apt. Just as Eliot used a disorienting collage form to represent post-World War I angst, McIntosh does likewise for post-9/11 anomie.
...a remarkable achievement.
“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
“Sui generis genius.”
Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Perfume River and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“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
“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 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
Matthew McIntosh is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Well. He lives with his wife on the West Coast.