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.
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.
McIntosh often appears under his own name in these pages, at work on this long novel, and when asked what it’s about, he answers, “I’m writing about America.” That’s pretty vague, a friend tells “Matt,” and questions him with growing exasperation on what his novel is specifically about, but Matt admits, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” He doesn’t even know whether to classify it as fiction or nonfiction. All he knows is: “I’ve found my mind” in the process of writing the book.
“Oh no,” his friend groans.
A performance piece about the artistic process, during which the author occasionally addresses the audience about his aesthetic struggles and ambitions, is one way to think of this unusual work. McIntosh is certainly shooting for the moon: He yearns “to write mankind’s next immortal masterpiece. The next ‘Divine Comedy’ or ‘Aeneid’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ or ‘Thousand and One Nights.’ ”
"TheMystery.doc" is not in their class, but 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.
By the way, “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.
Another character, Daniel — the author’s alter ego — is also writing a long novel, described as “a post-post-neo-modern mystery story.” Daniel has amnesia, and he’s as puzzled by his surroundings as the reader is. The mystery of his identity unfolds over the course of an event-filled day in episodes scattered throughout the novel. Other sequences appear to be raw materials from the author’s own life, including stills from his favorite movies and television shows, as well as accounts and photos of his dying father, as though he’s assembling a vision board for the novel he hopes to complete.
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. 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. McIntosh and his designer — charmingly called “Mrs. Matthew McIntosh” — have taken full advantage of the advances in printing technology to reproduce the endless variety of digital texts and images we now encounter online. “Form follows function,” the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan famously said, and if the function of McIntosh’s novel is to represent our fragmented culture, then the form is appropriate.
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. Eliot’s poem ends on an enigmatic note of peaceful resignation; “theMystery.doc” ends with 26 numbered but otherwise blank pages, to interpret as you will.
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.
Steven Moore is a literary critic whose latest book is "My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays."
By Matthew McIntosh
Grove. 1,664 pp. $35