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 ... 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 ... 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?
After publishing the widely praised novel Well in 2003, Matthew McIntosh began this mammoth project. It’s a supersize version of Well: same desolate setting and downbeat prose style, same puzzling digressions, same unusual form and expressive typography. But everything here is blown up to Imax proportions ... the failure to achieve one’s ambitions is a theme of this deliberately disjointed book. The workings of memory is another, and in this way theMystery.doc resembles In Search of Lost Time. McIntosh is a slacker Proust, writing about the underclass of Spokane rather than the upper classes of Paris as he attempts to convert memories and experience into art ... I didn’t find the content of theMystery.doc particularly interesting — and I don’t think it’s meant to be, in the usual novelistic sense — but the form certainly is. 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 ... It’s too easy to say theMystery.doc is a 'Waste Land' for the 21st century — and that it would have benefited from an editor like Ezra Pound, who reduced the length of Eliot’s poem — but it is nonetheless a remarkable achievement. Those who prefer an afternoon at a cutting-edge art installation over an exhibit of Victorian art will be stoked.
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 ... 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 ... Two of the most compelling and thoroughly developed narratives in the novel address the loss of family...Juxtaposed against so much high-concept invention and formal strangeness, there’s a clarity to this devastation. These voices dignify personal love and pain, and they suggest at least one source of meaning, even as the novel struggles against the impenetrable mystery, holy or empty, at the center of it all.
It doesn't read anything like a traditional novel — not as quickly, not as smoothly, not as satisfyingly, none of it. McIntosh's second book reads shattered. It reads fragmentary. It reads like trying to unwind Christmas lights from a thorn bush — pinpricks of brilliance hung up in confusion and pain. It reads like a symphony written by a speed freak and performed by industrial robots. All crashing symbols, and between, only silence ... It is a novel that fails in its attempted modernity — its vivisection of the form — about as often as it succeeds. And there's a sense that McIntosh doesn't really care about the ratios. That a lot of it just wasn't meant for you. Does that sound mean? Good. Because I didn't enjoy reading this monster and neither will you. My experience went something like this: I hate this I hate this I hate this Zzzzzz (That's where I fell asleep) Oh, God, there are still 1,400 pages to go? I hate this I hate this I hate this ... And then, for some reason, something would catch my eye. A phrase, a picture, something, and something would turn over in my chest and I'd get it. I'd understand what McIntosh was doing. And I'd love the damn book for making me feel the way that almost no book ever has — for making me feel alive and rooted in this one stupid world of ours with all its randomness, all its awfulness and all its beauty ... [McIntosh] meant you to feel it, and you will. What he's attempting with this novel (and sometimes succeeding at) is writing a story for this moment. One that is just as scattered as we are, just as rotten with memory, just as distracted, just as haunted by the strangest things ... It feels like life, which is a strange thing to say, but maybe the truest thing I can tell you about theMystery.doc.
What kind of experimental novel is theMystery.doc? From the early going it’s plain that the goal of this book is not to entertain but to sow discomfort. The passages are short, splintered and disconnected, sprays of 'random buckshot,' in Mr. McIntosh’s words...The writing throughout is numbed and uninflected, perceiving the world in the unfocused way of someone groggy from too much cold medicine. The mood ranges from puzzlement to muted horror ... The disjecta membra of disembodied voices and absurdist visuals are common in experimental novels that look to give form to a perceived breakdown in conventional narrative or in human relations more generally. But theMystery.doc goes further than anything before it: It reads like the first posthuman novel, an arbitrary sampling of web-searched text and images aggregated by no one for the benefit of no one. Much ink has been spilled pondering what the growing technological divide will do to the art of novel writing. There’s an answer in this book’s near-infinite feedback of glyphs and fragments, but you may have to be a machine to understand it.
It also features reams of pages made up mostly of asterisks. These may be a wink to Edith Wharton’s story ‘The Muse’s Tragedy’. They occasionally represent snowfall, but they are also the snow or static on a television, it seems; appropriately for a book much concerned with technology and its discontents … Even the extent of the book is a kind of awful realism: as if McIntosh is saying ‘too much, too much, too much’ again and again and again. He himself appears as a character, and that makes it even more problematic that the book tries to diagnose itself … theMystery.doc is like a giant scrapbook of ideas for books. Many are clever, many are moving, many are sincere, many are intriguing: but not all of them should be between two covers.
...an audacious, sprawling, messy, and aptly titled antinovel that rarely subscribes to a conventional narrative format ... The volume is comprised largely of fragments of miscellaneous, seemingly arbitrary exchanges and entries from digital and analog sources, including emails and chats, voice and video recordings, photographs, film stills, lines of computer code, typographical symbols ... A strange and unclassifiable work, which brings to mind visually stimulating projects like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It will certainly find a following among fans of literary puzzles.”
A vast, beguiling, but mixed-bag postmodern novel of ideas, misread intentions, and robots, told in words, pictures, symbols, and even blank pages ... Perplexing but often wonderful; while some of this seems written in a self-indulgent private code, what is accessible can be provocative and fascinating.