Matt McIntosh - 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

Matt McIntosh, theMystery.doc, Grove Press, 2017.
read it at Google Books

A mammoth, shapeshifting postmodern literary novel. Rooted in the western United States in the decade post-9/11, the book follows a young writer and his wife as he attempts to write the follow-up to his first novel, searching for a form that will express the world as it has become, even as it continually shifts all around him.

Amnesia, mortality, and the limits of language: a 1,660-page “Allbook”

Funny, highly inventive, and deeply moving, theMystery.doc is a vast, shapeshifting literary novel that reads like a page-turner. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a big book about America. It’s unlike anything you’ve read before.
Rooted in the western United States in the decade post-9/11, the book follows a young writer and his wife as he attempts to write the follow-up to his first novel, searching for a form that will express the world as it has become, even as it continually shifts all around him. Pop-up ads, search results, web chats, snippets of conversation, lines of code, and film and television stills mix with alchemical manuscripts, classical works of literature―and the story of a man who wakes up one morning without any memory of who he is, his only clue a single blank document on his computer called themystery.doc. From text messages to The Divine Comedy, first love to artificial intelligence, the book explores what makes us human―the stories we tell, the memories we hold on to, the memories we lose―and the relationships that give our lives meaning.
Part love story, part memoir, part documentary, part existential whodunit, theMystery.doc is a modern epic about the quest to find something lasting in a world where everything―and everyone―is in danger of slipping away.

“[W]ith his 1,600-page follow-up to 2003’s Well, [McIntosh] has sneakily mirrored our fragmented culture by cobbling together a miscellany of phone transcripts, lecture fragments, photos, blank pages, and a loose narrative about a writer trying to produce a literary masterpiece.”Week

theMystery.doc is the story of modern America; confusing, intriguing and making little sense . . . It is not a novel as we understand the genre. Matthew McIntosh has tried to reinvent the genre and he has been quite successful in his attempt. He shows new directions to the future novelists . . . tremendously ambitious and original.”The Washington Book Review

“McIntosh’s second book (after Well) is fourteen years in the making, 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.”―Publishers Weekly

“This will get discussed as a big book―check out the page count.”Library Journal

“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

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

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. Among the key tensions here, in fact, is the limitation of language, which is always deserting McIntosh and his characters—and, by extension, the rest of us. theMystery.doc is full of deconstructed or fragmented pages: blanks, redacted copy, internet messages, photographs, bits of code, and images from films. When Margaret dies, for instance, the monitor that tracks her breathing switches to alarm mode, a shift represented by a vivid screeching: five pages filled with nothing but the letter “e.” Immediately afterward, McIntosh presents a photo sequence of the World Trade Center falling, followed by fifteen pages filled, almost entirely, with asterisks—the insufficiency of language, once again, to reckon with loss. It’s a vivid juxtaposition, Margaret’s death in sequence with all those who perished in the towers. But there is no sliding scale for suffering, and anyway, it’s the monumental nature of mortality he is writing about, or against, which gives the non-linguistic material in the book its subtle power.
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.” Something similar might be said about McIntosh, although like Wallace (if not quite the others) he seems intent on undercutting this, as well. “How’s the book?” an old woman named Vel asks Daniel, who doesn’t remember that he’s her neighbor. When he tries to dodge the question, she presses him: “There is no The Mystery! There’s no book!”  
That’s a meta-moment, or it could be, 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? Here, we have another mystery engaged by theMystery.doc, which is less a novel than a scrapbook of slivers that asks us to be cognizant of both its heart and its artificiality, as if we and McIntosh were “two people walking through a city on a warm summer evening taking turns taking pictures with a camera with no film then writing what they’d seen through the viewfinder in a notebook for the other to read.” David L. Ulin

In the press materials for Matthew McIntosh's new 1,660-page brick of a very literary novel, TheMystery.doc, the publisher says not to be fooled by the book's length. Sure, it weighs 4 1/2 pounds, but they cheerfully insist that "it reads as quickly as a novel of a more conventional length."
That is a lie. 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.
Let me start by saying this: It is about a writer who wrote a book once that was pretty good, and then spent 11 years trying to write a very long second novel — written by a writer who wrote a book once that was pretty good, and then spent 16 years trying to write a very long second novel.
Also, the writer has amnesia.
But wait. No, wait. There's one clear thing at the beginning and that's that McIntosh knows what he's doing here. He knows that you'll know what an old chestnut he's roasting, and he leans the hell into it. It gets strange. Then super-strange. Weed is smoked. A professional drain cleaner is consulted. Then a crazy lady. There's a dead cat and hints of plots and schemes and higher powers intervening. The writer (McIntosh's imaginary writer) has told lots of people (including his wife) that he's writing a big, important book about big, important things, but when he goes to fire up his computer, there's nothing but a blank document entitled theMystery.doc.
That's (maybe) 10 percent of the book. The rest is ... Well, the rest is everything else. Literally. EVERYTHING. The rest is conversations about God and artificial intelligence and the Pacific Northwest, excerpts from Wikipedia pages on geological formations and logging and missing persons. The rest is notes from McIntosh about the book. Chat logs with a robot. The death of a father and a premature baby and Sept. 11 and childhood memories. Old photos. Pages and pages and pages of nothing. 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.
Then, five minutes later? Back to hating it. Then loving it again. Then being choked up by the rawness of some disjointed, scattered, creatively typeset memory from childhood given the full, present weight of reality or pages of periods and asterisks meant to be falling snow. Then I would fall asleep again.
So hating theMystery.doc is OK. But I don't think McIntosh meant for anyone to enjoy it in any real sense of the word. I don't think he meant it to be fun or entertaining or even thought-provoking, exactly, because there's something about the weight of it, the layout, the intermingling of multiple stories and POVs that seems to deaden thought.
But he 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 — by a missing person story we heard once, by a voice on the other end of the phone or a death that we handled with less than perfect grace. It is a book that interrupts itself 10,000 times with the random nonsense of daily life, and, annoying as that is, it creates something out of it that feels like pure thought. Like a one-to-one translation of the noise inside your brain.
It feels like life, which is a strange thing to say, but maybe the truest thing I can tell you about theMystery.doc. - Jason Sheehan

A vast, beguiling, but mixed-bag postmodern novel of ideas, misread intentions, and robots, told in words, pictures, symbols, and even blank pages.
After a long absence following the 2003 publication of his ambitious but much shorter novel, Well, McIntosh returns with a sprawling yarn that at first plays with the conventions of the mystery genre; a writer awakens to find that he cannot remember who he is, while a beautiful woman asks gently, “You all right, babe? You look kind of dazed.” He is even more puzzled to find a blank document on his computer—if it is indeed his computer in his own house—with the title “themystery.doc,” which, a helpful friend reminds him, he has described as “a post-post-neo-modern mystery story.” Shades of meta—and with a Schrödinger-ian dead cat to boot. If the reader isn’t similarly dazed at this point, then he or she hasn’t quite appreciated what’s going on in a tableau as blurry as our protagonist’s glassless vision. Now, why can’t he remember where and who he is? One clue is that his head hurts—and, given the diet of drugs that flows through the book, it’s small wonder, to say nothing of the spasms of violation and violence. Like kindred spirits William Vollmann and Mark Danielewski, McIntosh aspires to philosophy; one preoccupation is religion, with small lessons delivered here and there by characters like the plumber who snakes the drain while describing “a system of commerce which was run according to Christian principles,” aspirationally called “Kingdom of Heaven, Incorporated, International.” It being a mystery, the angel of death hovers always in the wings, with tabloid-ish news flashes, photos of the twin towers collapsing, and so forth to remind us of our mortality—and, it seems, our vulnerability in the face of the helpful bots (“Hello, I am Michele, I am the website greeter”) who pepper these 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.  - Kirkus Reviews
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. Particular voices and narratives emerge, vanish, and recur over the span of several-hundred-page chapters. A photo sequence begun on page 325 returns on page 1,600. The story of a drowned couple is told and retold. The Twin Towers fall again and again. 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.

Surprisingly, the novel’s text-and-image format shares very little DNA with the glossy-paged projects of a writer like Mark Z. Danielewski. Instead, 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.
“[The] composition of a mandala,” McIntosh writes, “is meant, as I see it, to encapsulate God by building his universe around him, piece by piece. At the very center, there is often an image / to find your way.” This, near as I can grasp, is the novel’s main project: to evoke fragments of the whole universe and set them swirling around some unifying core. These fragments include a brief history of the cosmos, finally zooming into Seattle circa 2003, as well as a fascinating piece of speculative pseudoscience predicting the discovery of a mysterious “{ } particle,” the quantum foundation of “memory… perception… consciousness”—of all human meaning and of the experience of time. Interspersed with such richly imagined concepts are a deluge of documents—transcripts of conversations with family and friends, pages from Cervantes and Joyce and Ovid and the Book of Job, internet search results for missing persons, photos and screenshots, emails, letters, and hospital records. (At least, we might believe these are all real documents—the sustained meta-fictional dimension of the book aggressively resists categories such as autobiography or nonfiction.) All of these elements, invented or recorded or distorted, become pieces of the book’s universe. Yet at the center of McIntosh’s mandala is no image at all. At the center of the mandala is             —a sacred, unspeakable Mystery, perhaps. Or else: just empty space—“just loss,” as the writer puts it. What matters is whatever meaning he can carry into that space.
Amid such existential uncertainty, the writer’s uncompromising tenderness toward family (I hesitate to say his family) serves as a vital emotional anchor. Next to the narrator himself—whose name, like the author’s, is Matt—the narrator’s wife is the most sustained character in the book. In another novel, her portrayal might come across as overly affirming or too sweet. She never says an unkind word or betrays an ounce of resentment toward a husband with some pronounced man-boy tendencies. (When the two of them start spitballing ideas for Matt’s book, she’ll often say things like, “that’s so cool… that is so cool.”) Where in other circumstances we might need to see some flaws, Matt’s completely admiring portrayal of the person he loves is refreshingly uncomplicated in the midst of utter formal chaos. So when the author shows us a blurry photo of (presumably) the wife lying on their bed next to (presumably) him, peaceful and at ease, we can enjoy the simplicity of their care for one another as she says, “Remember when we went to the Japanese garden? …There was no one there… It was so nice.”
Two of the most compelling and thoroughly developed narratives in the novel address the loss of family: Matt’s niece, born prematurely, dies soon after coming home from the hospital; and his father, diagnosed with brain cancer, physically deteriorates and loses control of his language faculties as he nears death. McIntosh’s approach to these stories is not radically different from the ways he deals with his more esoteric topics. Most of what we find out comes by way of conversation transcripts and other recorded messages, and the documents themselves are broken up and scattered, in part, throughout the account of a “quantum surgeon” freezing time to dissect the “{ } particle.” Yet the family’s story completely transforms the meaning of those documents. No longer some kind of data dump, not just a representation of the “drawerful of jpegs, tifs, pdfs, mp3s, midis, wavs, miffs, mpgs, [and] movs” that will outlast us: the transcripts of a mother tending to her fading partner, or a young child telling her uncle a magical story to cope with the death of her little sister, are heartbreaking. 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. - John Dixon Mirisola

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

theMystery.doc is not your usual novel. It is apparently a novel -- or meant to be seen as such --: it says so on the cover, right under the title. But from the title to its sheer heft -- the over-1600-page-long hardback is uncomfortably heavy -- everything signals this will be a different reading experience, and the presentation of text and illustrations (and non-text ...) confirm that impression.
       As the author-protagonist admits:
It's a very, very different sort of ... book.
       This is a book where what is generally considered the title page -- with the title in a big font and the publisher's name and colophon -- appears on page 1565; there's an earlier one in the usual place (page 11) but there the title is redacted, a black bar in its place.
       How the material is presented is obviously an important part of what this book is, or is meant to be. I say 'material' because it's not just text, but even that doesn't really capture it: there's so much here that is not text -- not just something different (film stills, for example), but non-text, the absence of text. There are probably somewhere around two hundred pages which are entirely blank. White space. Including much of the novel's 'conclusion' -- pages 1631 through 1653 are all numbered but entirely blank; one can assume they still are meant to be part of the novel because they are followed by three more unnumbered (i.e. presumably traditionally 'blank') pages, before the pages listing credits (pages which are, again, numbered).
       Beyond that: there are pages with photographs, many without caption or comment. Black and white, color, and patina.
       There are pages with film stills, often several in succession -- a sort of stop-frame progression. Pages 325 to 336, and 1600 to 1625, for example, present 12 and 26 stills respectively, one per page, of an American flag fluttering on a pole, with no accompanying text save a ★ beneath the final picture on page 336..
       There are two captioned but blacked-out film stills from the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, with an e-mail from Twentieth Century Fox denying Grove a license to use stills from the movie.
       There are many pages with redacted text -- a black bar covering parts of the text, or the entire text.
       There are pages covered entirely with the repeating symbols: ★: and sometimes ★::. From the second half of page 1465 through page 1483, all the 'text' is in the form of those symbols -- though not just an endless series of them, as they are arranged in what look like sentences or paragraphs (though without other punctuation or space-breaks between 'words').
       Elsewhere there are similar -- if not so large -- blocks of ∗: (rather than ★:)-text, with the occasional word(s) mingled in.
       Two pages (268-9) consist entirely of the repeated phrase: "NOW HOW DO YOU FEEL >".
       Space seems as important as text (+), as many pages present only a single sentence or sequence of words/symbols/sentences, spread over the page.
       So, yes, the reading-experience, of reading theMystery.doc, is unusual. There are sections of more or less straightforward narrative here too -- but, as with everything else, they are presented piecemeal, the text soon enough taking on very different forms again. (Print may be static, but one thing theMystery.doc certainly tries to do is give an impression of flux.)
       There is a story here, too, a personal one that, among other things, focuses on the writing of a novel -- of this book. As the author apparently once explained to someone, it's meant to be:
Some big story that's gonna make sense of life and why we're here and answer all the mysteries of the universe.
       Or, in different terms, as the local gossip has it:
you dropped out of society and ran to the boonies to write mankind's next immortal masterpiece. The next Divine Comedy or Aeneid or Moby-Dick or Thousand and One Nights.
       Or, elsewhere: "It's gonna be a record of America before the Great Fall".
       The basic, or most dominant storyline is that of an author waking up with amnesia, and slowly figuring out his life and situation (or at least trying to). He has apparently been working on an ambitious novel for the past eleven years, after having written the novel In Complete Accord. Or not.
       As he eventually notes:
I mean something bizarre is going on. I don't remember being myself. I don't remember being here. I don't remember anything. Someone's playing a big trick on me.         
Another narrative strand that is repeatedly returned to involves dialogue between online sales/customer representatives trying to sell a sort of online service (and trying to elicit names and web addresses) and their marks, who don't exactly play along with what seems to be a very automated process; variations on the Turing test play out, as the automated representatives try to make their pitches. Presented simply in dialogue, these are among the most entertaining parts of the novel.
       There's also personal (back)story, from time spent in England and working on a failed novel titled The Pollutionist, family history, illness, a disappeared woman (at one point redacted text accompanied by authentic
URL), and recent American history, including the September 11 attacks.
       As descriptions of the material suggest, one shouldn't expect theMystery.doc to be a coherent story, not in the simple, packaged way we get most of our novels. Yet in doesn't neatly reflect contemporary cultural consumption and story-telling either. Social media is noticeably absent -- though the internet (e-mails, websites, etc.) is a presence -- and much of the supporting media is at some remove: stills from the UK TV series The Avengers and 1930s RKO pictures, for example.
       Obviously, theMystery.doc is as much about the (re)presenting of 'story' (in its broadest sense) as about telling any story, an attempt to reboot the novel and explore what it might look like in our times.
       The publishers
suggest: "theMystery.doc is a literary work that expands the form of the book, capturing the new ways we interact with text in the digital age", and offer a free digital version to anyone purchasing the (physical text). Possibly, a second or simultaneous reading in e-form complements the text, though theMystery.doc is not, in most ways, specifically geared to e-reading (and the stills are presumably still stills, not film clips); given the attention to layout -- and the vast blank spaces -- it probably works less well in many ways in the e-version too; certainly the effect must be somewhat different. [Relying on a library-copy, I did not have access to the e-version.]
       Because of how the material is presented, theMystery.doc isn't nearly as long as its page-count suggests -- though it's not an entirely quick or easy read (depending on how quickly you flick through the blank and illustration-only pages ...). The variety and change of pace and approach certainly help hold the reader's interest, and there's some genuinely interesting story-telling (and, as noted, that Turing-test-like dialogue), but it's not a very satisfying whole. Somewhat disappointingly, it's also not as thought- and otherwise provocative as one might have hoped. It doesn't really seem to push or even test the boundaries of the novel that far, and far too much of it feels like ... blank pages: not quite enough done with all this potential. - M.A.Orthofer
The new novel so colossal it comes with a built-in ribbon bookmark. At over 1,600 pages, its stature commands attention. But it can easily be ingested within a few sittings; though it takes much more time for digestion and absorption. I turned the last page tonight. Then wandered around my apartment. Took a walk outside. Glanced at some neglected books on my shelves. Aimless in a stupor. Finally I sat down to collect my thoughts. The book has cast a spell on me. Its towering imposition—the scope and magnitude of its reaches; the power and grip of its obsessive assembly—have overwhelmed me. Matthew McIntosh has succeeded in his goal of finding a new form to capture and pass down the post-9/11 American experience.

The title, which mimics a filename, keeps us acutely aware that this is a created artifact—it is as if McIntosh has emailed us his manuscript. A perusal of the massive book yields a striking resemblance to experimental books like Tristram Shandy, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Jonathan Saffron Foer’s Tree of Codes. There is very little conventional narrative for a novel (i.e. neat little paragraphs that stretch for a series of pages). Instead the book is a compilation of phone-call transcripts, newspaper clippings, emails, transcribed audio files, chat logs, error messages, ads, and so on. There are pages-long stretches of photographs, symbols (especially asterisks), and, in some cases, blank pages altogether. Like the aforementioned House of Leaves, McIntosh makes extensive use of mimesis, pushing the limits of the complementarity of form and content. This, in turn, results in quite a bit of white space. But to claim that McIntosh has wasted paper would be to conclude that David Lynch wasted film.
The most striking aspect of the innovative form of the book is its resemblance of a day in our lives. Think about the barrage of information that we consume, whether directly or indirectly. We wake from a dream, the most salient remnants of which are slow to dissolve, replaying in our minds as we grab for our phones on the bedside table. Already we are thinking of the things we must do today, interspersed with the fragments of the dream, while we swipe through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Timehop, Snapchat, et al. Our mind is assaulted with images and opinions, from a truculent political view to an ecstatic engagement announcement. People lament the loss of loved ones. Others post a countdown to their long-awaited vacations. We like some posts, pass by others, even stop to offer a comment or two. A text comes in. We engage in a brief conversation. Eventually we turn on the news and eat breakfast. The latest trends in fashion commingle effortlessly with the latest shooting. At work we commit ourselves to a cycle of face-to-face conversations, silent work, emails, instant messages, Skype calls, a lunch break where we try to stay off our phones and participate with the people around us, and so on. In the evening, we again scroll the seas of social media while binge-watching our favorite Netflix show. Something catches our attention: immediately we are ordering items on Amazon. We remember an article we bookmarked a couple days ago. We dismiss ads and requests to sign up for newsletters. Now, in the midst of all this cognitive stimulation, our minds remain busy with the work of sorting out those constant streams of past and future. One memory and one prediction after another. In a given day we experience a whole spectrum of emotions in response to a massive amount of small tidbits of data. And this, I claim, is exactly the contemporary consciousness that McIntosh has captured in theMystery.doc.
Like language in Ulysses (which a character attempts to read but cannot finish) the structure of the book is itself a character. Yes, there is the expected author-surrogate familiar to metafiction, and the Kafkaesque (minus the bug) wraparound story is that he has awakened with amnesia after working on his second book for eleven years. But the mystery isn’t in what happened to him or what was in his blank file called theMystery.doc; the mystery lies in the form-character. As the author-surrogate says,  “A world in which you have no history is a world of utter possibility.” There is no solid story, no authoritative text (it’s blank!), therefore, like the visitors to Website Greeters, we readers find ourselves employing a mental Turing test to the novel’s structure. (Are you real? Are you trying to tell me something? Or are you just a programmed thing spitting out fractals?) We get the most commentary on the creation of the book in the section titled “The Ultimate Goal”: There is an endless number of potential orderings, but only one correct way.” In one way we could view the book as the result of its author (or, perhaps, an algorithm) finding that “one correct way” of ordering the glut of information he compiled.
A character named Charles says, “It makes me wonder if possibly you’re not writing a book at all, but doing something very different.” Toward the end of the book quantum physics is brought in to play (specifically the strange things that the famous double-slit experiment has yielded). The author-surrogate begins to discover that there is a low-level, quantum particle (below atoms, below quarks) called “{ }.” The chilling realization is that, like quantum matter, our very observation will alter things. In another sense, the author believes that he has discovered a connection to things that has led him to create Platonic Forms themselves. As in the essence of the connections; that which makes them connected. But, as readers, our very observation (i.e. reading) of these quantum particles, the “{ },” will alter the material.
Aside from mental gymnastics and literary showmanship, the book is nothing short of devastating. As David L. Ulin puts it, the book is “one we live with (or through), rather than read”[1]. There is a pressure within the text that makes taking a break from reading it feel like coming up for air. Just as Phaedrus swings the mental knife in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to lay bare the fissures underpinning society’s discontents, McIntosh takes us on a tour of pain, suffering, loss, uncertainty, and addiction to expose the damaged psyche of our collective consciousness. With a head full of a lifetime of ideas, movies, texts, news footage, pictures, music, we have come to a point where there is no longer order (a character makes a comment about the book defying over two millennia of classification science). Our minds are adept at ordering chaos, but we’ve reached a point of entropy from information overload. We are mental informavores without a proper system for dealing with such a capacious diet, and theMystery.doc can either be a challenge or an impasse. - Chris Via

Image result for Matt McIntosh, Well,

Matt McIntosh, Well, Grove Press, 2003.

Critically acclaimed Well marks the astonishing debut of an author with a singular and unflinching voice and vision. Set primarily among the working-class of a Seattle suburb called Federal Way, this highly original novel-told in the form of interlinked short stories- extols the lives of a large cast of characters lost in various modes of darkness and despair. Whether struggling to come together or desperately alone, they grapple with dark compulsions and heart-rending afflictions. As if trapped at the bottom of a well, they search for relief, for a vehicle into the light they know is up and outside.
They search in sex, in drugs and violence, and in visions of Apocalypse and Creation, dreams of angels and killers and local sports championships. Compact, finely wrought, powerfully charged, Well ultimately rises toward the light, in a finale which echoes with the exhilarating human capacity for hope. The result is a mesmerizing tour de force that will establish Matthew McIntosh as a bold and progressive new voice of American fiction.

Snapshots of various troubled couples on the day that the Seattle SuperSonics lose their chance at advancing to the NBA finals. Len and Adda are fighting- Len is in love with Adda (she is "the girl he wanted") but she is torn, and is leaving the next day to spend a week with her fiancée to make sure that breaking up with him is the right thing. Len becomes jealously enraged when he finds out Adda and her fiancée will be sleeping in the same bed, begging her not to touch the man.
Nate and Sammie are also fighting: Sammie insists that a certain girl who is trying to convert Nate stop calling their house. Nate gets tired of Sammie's hysteria and beats her, only to become terrified at what he has done.
A first person narrator recalls his rather pathetic adventures with prostitutes in Thailand, where he made big money at an English language newspaper and lived like a king. He brought a woman over who now resents him for it, and they have a staid marriage while he continues to dream over prostitutes.
Raymond and his wife are at the SuperSonics game and get in a fight when Ray's wife sees he is ogling cheerleaders through his binoculars. He misses it when the team loses at the buzzer.
The SuperSonics janitor comes home to his wife, who is pregnant. He masturbates as he recalls the time he slipped out to watch a burlesque show at the strip joint across the street.
II. Shelly is a Korean 16-year-old boarding school student who likes having sex with strangers in bars and doing crystal meth. She falls a sleep and crashes her car through a fence, causing her mother to cry and call her "A Real American Whore" when she picks her up in prison. She meets an older man who takes her in but finally gets sick of giving her money to drink and sends her home. When her mother isn't home, she goes to the nearest bar.
III. A phone sex patron can't make up his mind what he wants his fantasy to be and the story concludes: "Do you realize what this is costing?"
IV. The story of Davin, a warehouse worker, and Sarah, who are in a band together. Davin is loving and committed to Sarah but Sarah doesn't see a future with him. She gets pregnant and they grow distant. One day Davin gets in a fight with a co-worker and is paralyzed on his left side after being hit in the skull. Sarah takes care of him in the hospital, but when he returns home he begins drinking. One night he picks the 2-year-old up while drunk and Sarah becomes hysterical when the child begins crying. He beats Sarah and is issued a restraining order. Sarah moves out and eventually begins dating a construction worker she does not really love.
A group of guys gets into a game of chicken with a car containing a guy and a bunch of girls. When the guys cut the girls off suddenly, the driver of the latter car approaches the guys in an insane rage and finally hits the driver in the nose.
Santos and his young partner work at a hotel-they go to Denny's when they should be training an Ethiopian who messes up on his first day. The guys get fired for this and Santos, humiliated, tells the young partner about the time he made a buzzer shot in a college basketball game only to have the game-winning points taken away from him by the refs.
A kid drops some pills at the bus station and gets stuck on the Greyhound listening to a vet recount his experience in Guam, where he dug a whole to save himself from gunfire.
SPACEMAN: Charlie is a lonely gay bartender who has started to feel old and fat. Although he loves bartending and meeting people, etc., he loses his job because he has kept drinking on the job after repeated warnings. He laments that he has never been in love. On the night he loses his job he goes home to try to clean his filthy house but ends up vomiting into the toilet, longing for company.
DAMAGE: A young man enters a peep bbbbbbooth with his friends and is struck by his ugly reflection as he looks at the beautiful dancer. When his friends begin teasing the dancer by sticking their tongue out, the bouncers approach them and a brawl ensues. The young man "pounds the Living Holy Fuck" out of the bouncers.
A man begins experience atrocious cyclical spells of pain, incoherence, and anxiety after he dives into a swimming pool one day and hits his head on the bottom. His parents take him to all variety of specialists who prescribe drugs, etc. and eventually he becomes dependent on them, and a drunk. He moves to London to get away from it all and meets a girl who wants to marry him but eventually assaults her in a fit of hysteria. He moves back home and lives a quiet life. When the pain is gone, he discovers that he misses it.
A man finds out that he will die of cancer and spends his day at the Trolley bar, getting hammered and thinking about the pointlessness of it all.
A man walks into a pharmacy with a fake prescription. The pharmacist dials 911 but before the police come he shoots himself.
The gruesome last days of two gunmen-one who killed his family before racing through the city on a killing spree as he fled from the cops, the other a man who shot a city bus driver- are recreated in a frank, reportorial manner.
The narrator, a somewhat pathetic naïf whose father wrecked the home by cheating on his catatonic mother, develops a crush on a girl who works at a fish restaurant. He goes on a date with her but is rejected when he attempts to grope her at her front door. Gradually he becomes obsessed with her, writing her love letters and visiting her even though she doesn't want to see him again. After he threatens to jump off her roof, her father tries to set him straight, eventually punching him in the face. He is offered admission at a fisheries school in Nebraska and goes there to get away from Seattle, but finds it isn't what he bargained for, and becomes bored. He lies by the highway and in a somewhat magical-realism passage two guys stop their car and begin taking his body apart until he has turned into a fish, gasping for air on the highwayside. It starts to rain and he finds himself "there, somewhere, in-between."
A Jesus-loving woman develops a mysterious degenerative illness and is forced to spend the rest of her days in a home, putting up a front of hope but knowing that she is on her way out.
The narrator remembers his first love, a girl without a mother and an abusive father. It is an innocent relationship-the narrator is plagued by sexual hang-ups and the girl cries after intercourse. When the narrator accidentally gets her pregnant, the girl's father storm into his house and almost chokes him to death. Thinking about his mentally retarded brother that his parents institutionalized and about the beatings his girlfriend has taken from her father, the narrator breaks up with the girl because he feels guilty that he can't take care of his own.

In his debut novel Well, Matthew McIntosh has produced an impressive, unsettling portrait of the inhabitants of Federal Way, Washington, a blue-collar suburb of Seattle. This book is less a novel than a collage of voices (mostly first-person, sometimes disembodied) unified by their disparate attempts to overcome (or at least come to terms with) physical and emotional pain, addiction, loss, dysfunctional and withering relationships, and other common, but intensely personal, problems. Most striking is that these citizens are acutely aware of their flaws, describing their most intimate thoughts and stories with a twinge of sadness, as if confessing--but not making excuses--for their actions. Some are hopeful, most are resigned, and there is a sense of entrapment among the characters, a realization that they may not have the strength, patience or even a clue how to change for the better. They tell us their strange dreams, fantasies, describe fleeting feelings of self-control. Of the few, more traditional short stories, "Fishboy" is strongest, wherein a high-school student realizes finally that his obsession with a classmate is unhealthy. In "Gunman," McIntosh creates a faux news report of a bus driver's random shooting, containing a succinct elucidation of what drives these folks to speak: "Why do these things happen? What is it that allows them to happen? We wonder if there is a higher order to the universe. We wonder if there is a higher order to our world, at least. We report that our world is falling apart. And we report that we are falling apart." With the proof in the writing, not the ambitiousness or media fanfare, Well is a hauntingly memorable book from a refreshing, new voice. --Michael Ferch

"I think something inside of her broke, whatever that string is that holds people together, it snapped." "That string" is the leitmotif of this unusual, dark debut novel with an ensemble cast. McIntosh assembles different episodes and voices to create an impressionistic tableau of Federal Way, Washington, a blue-collar town facing the loss of blue-collar jobs and culture. McIntosh's characters are introduced in first-person testimonies and third-person sketches that build matter-of-factly and then trail off ambiguously, like entries in a police blotter-if the police blotter were written by Samuel Beckett. They lead lives of quiet despair, punctuated by bursts of violence, benders and bad sex. Physical pain harries many of the characters, madness others, and almost all are cursed with deteriorating personal relationships. Among the most moving episodes is a long chapter, "Fishboy," narrated by Will, a student at a small college in Nebraska who is studying fisheries. The story flashes back to his dangerous obsession with a classmate, Emily Swanson, and his father leaving his mother. Another beautifully executed sequence, "Border," shows how the suicide of an ex-boxer, Jim, is viewed by his sister-in-law, his brother, his buddies, a former opponent and his mother's friends. The sustained glide from voice to voice is virtuosic, and the writing is dogged-it never gets literary; it digs through the clich‚s and the usual inarticulateness of the stories people tell in bars and grocery store lines; and it stumbles on diamonds in the rough everywhere. McIntosh is only 26, but he is already an artful registrar of the heart's lower frequencies. - Publishers Weekly

Disjointed anecdotes of mostly prurient interest about the ne’er-do-well of Seattle are hard-pressed to comprise a first novel.
McIntosh traces the random beddings and offhanded dialogue of people who frequent a bar called the Trolley near Federal Way: aging sports fans, Vietnam vets, cancer victims, waitresses, and ex-boxers who are often strung-out and usually horny. The chapters grouped as “It’s Taking So Damn Long To Get Here” function as the leitmotiv to these characters’ unnamable longings, which might be summed up by one speaker: “I worry I’m going to be waiting so long I’ll forget what I’m waiting for.” The people drink (and try to score drugs), vituperate, and writhe. Gradually, some patterns do take shape, and a few characters even assume a more fleshed-out dimension, such as the group of male drinking buddies who appear individually throughout, then end up together at the Trolley after the funeral of a friend who has committed suicide (“The Border”). The dialogue of these men, about sports and wife troubles, as they eye the waitress, could have been recorded on a soiled cocktail napkin. In “Vitality,” a young man in chronic pain from a high-school diving accident recognizes that stroking his constant suffering is the one great love and purpose of his life. Elsewhere, “Fishboy,” which first appeared in Playboy and provides the novel with its one well-developed narrative, follows a lonely teenager’s creepy obsession with a girl from high school as he sets off to fisheries school in Nebraska. In “Looking Out for Your Own,” McIntosh defies his sardonic lassitude by offering an affecting portrayal of a gawky young man who pursues an awkward sexual initiation with his girlfriend. These characters in general seem meant less to be lovable than pathetic. But their too-brief expressions of existential anxiety seem merely impressions, lacking a substance sufficient to move the reader.
A half-baked idea of a book fails to allow this writer the venue to prove what he might do. - Kirkus Reviews

The publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813, the publication of Marcel Proust’s The Way by Swann’s in 1913 and the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and subsequent death, in 1963, are this year’s major literary anniversaries. There’s another, however, which has so far gone unremarked.
In Summer 2003 a friend gave me a blue Faber paperback original. The dust jacket featured photographs of hands, blurbs from major American novelists and a portrait of a young author who resembled ex-Chelsea defender Dan Petrescu. The title of the book was Well and, one quiet afternoon in the car park where I worked, I locked myself in my attendant’s shed and began reading. Immediately, I was absorbed by the mesh of voices that narrate each chapter, strange, infectious ennui proceeding to blistering accounts of drug-taking, sex, poverty, illness, basketball. A fizzing jump-shot of a book, set in a decrepit district of Seattle, like a more exhilarating Carver-country, its audacity was reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
I’ve heard Well described both as a novel and as a collection of stories. I’d call it a novel but I also think Sherwood Anderson’s Winnesburg, Ohio is a novel. I like lives overlapping, tangling like those fingers on the cover, in long narrative schemes. More important than formal categorisation, however, is the way that McIntosh’s energised prose reaches emotional uplift in the affirming final chapter. Personally, the attraction was probably connected to geography and circumstance. My car park was in the north, the boring north, and reading about different degrees of desperation at the top left-hand corner of America resonated. Like Carver and Johnson, the author’s empathy with losers appeared to be rivalled only by his determination not to be one.
Much was made in publicity of the six years that it took McIntosh to complete Well. That didn’t sound long for such a strong debut but, although I wasn’t expecting anything new quickly, the years went by with no news of another book, no extract, stories or journalism. During this time, I ceased working in the car park, started working in an office and discovered that boredom could be physically painful. You know when your computer screen looks as interminable as the woolliest sky, your keyboard’s keys bore in to the bones in your fingertips and you feel numbingly recession-proof? Those hours, in that grim, memory-less no-place, tended to be when I revived the search for news of Matthew McIntosh. But the internet came back with nothing.
Until a breakthrough with publication of David Shields’s Reality Hunger. At the back of that thrilling, pretentious manifesto are Shields’s letters to fellow writers about their work. One begins: “The title starts out meaning ‘I’m doing well’, then it comes to mean ‘Well, I’m not sure how I’m doing,’ and then by the end of the book it comes to mean, ‘I’m at the bottom of the fucking well as is everyone.’” Clearly this was Shields writing to McIntosh and Shields, I knew, lives in Seattle. So when I interviewed him about Reality Hunger, I asked: “What is Matthew McIntosh up to?”
Shields explained that he taught McIntosh, encouraged his writing and loved Well. I’d read an interview where McIntosh was asked if his book’s “experimental style” was something he learned on a writing course. “No,” he answered, and went on to say that studying writing was “not a good experience.” I doubt that he was talking about Shields’s teaching. Shields told me that McIntosh was the son of a preacher and connected this to his book’s concern with faith. But Shields had lost touch with McIntosh and had no idea where he was now.
I hope Matthew McIntosh is writing something, but whether he is or not, on the tenth anniversary of his blue-collar, modernist masterpiece, I can say what the late Hubert Selby Jnr was able to say in 2003: “Well still resonates in my heart.” - Max Liu