When I was a kid my primary goal in life was to find a book that was alive. Not alive in the human sense, but like a thing that would send me to a place not otherwise accessible on Earth. This book should have hidden words encrypted beneath the printed ones, so that if I worked hard enough and discovered the code I would somehow end up inside the book, or the book would take on a body and consume me, revealing a secret set of rooms behind the wall in my bedroom, for instance, inside which anything could be. (As I have said before, I am kind of insane.)
One summer I begged my mom to buy me a box set of a game called Middle-Earth Role Playing from the mall. All that came inside the box, to my dismay, was a half-inch thick instruction manual. The rest of the game was meant to be derived from imagination.
I spent the next few months reading the manual over and over, trying to understand the columns of numbers and attributes rendered in lists alongside countless rules that together created a world that humans could interact with.
Though I never found anyone to actually play the game with, the weird deforming energy that came from simply thinking about the facets of the game was palpable. The possibilities of a world defined by a random number generator, with actions and weapons described without any real story, made my blood pulse a hundred times faster than when I first read Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. The information this book contained was somehow only a window for the world behind it, and only through study, some kind of continual magical unveiling, could I get to what was hidden in the paper. I guess this is how some people think of religion. If nothing else, it made my brain spin and kept me awake wondering what the book might do while I was asleep. This is also no doubt the early cause of my ongoing insomnia.
Penny's crazy-ass book iPad thingamajig. Photo via inspectorgadget.wikia.com.
When I realized the game wasn’t actually a portal, I started looking for something even more gutted, made of code. I remember watching Inspector Gadget and feeling pissed that I couldn’t have Penny’s book, which was full of buttons and little windows and buzzing numbers, with which she could break code locks, override command centers, access remote surveillance of enemies, save her father’s life, and probably play Temple Run. I guess now people would call that an iPad, though I’ve never stopped imagining that the book was not a computer at all, but something comprised of language, made of sentences that together mutate and could force shit around them to unlock.
This appeared next in the form of a ream of errors, created while trying to print out a banner in Print Shop on my home computer when I was around ten years old. The program malfunctioned and printed a couple hundred pages of symbols and numbers barfed in strings, like:
≈b£,« Ä=çgU ≠8¶¥’fﬁ˙ùéˇf[¯h
I felt sure, of course, that this was no error, but a message meant for me alone, sent from some inhuman presence through the computer. I spent hours alone late at the kitchen table and in my bed pouring over the manuscript, circling places inside the mass that I thought might be indications of the infernal transmission. When I wasn’t with it I hid the printout in my closet, where no one else could find it. And though I never figured out a message, I still believe there is one. It is not a set of syllables or words, but something inside me that continues to manifest itself in my organism.
So then what. I was a kid. A bizarre little dork who believed in magic. I grew up and had to act like mostly magic isn’t real. And the internet was born and has grown around us. The internet is made of language, all mutating and full of shit, and though now it is enough to pull the sleep out of one’s face and keep one hungry like some drugface, there is very little magic. I still read a shitload and even sometimes still have faith, feel codes in certain objects, but often wait in wonder for something that will work as hard on me as that accidental error output from a machine.
Some books go further in the way they are errored. For instance, I’ve never been able to stop thinking about Mount Analogue, by René Daumal. The book was left unfinished because the author croaked right in the middle of writing it. What was left is the half-told story of a group of men trying to find a mountain that can only be seen from certain angles at certain times. The book cuts off just as they find the base and begin climbing to the summit, leaving open all possibilities of the world beginning just as it ends; as if the people in the book have found an exit out of it, into somewhere else, such as: into you. The possibility of the blank into which the story interrupts itself becomes so much stronger and more haunting by the fact that it ceases to exist. It makes, one wonder where the mountain is on our Earth, how one can make their own self disappear.
Most recently I felt the familiar urge to decipher something like the error ream while reading The Garden, by Ed Steck. The book’s subtitle says a lot about it: Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulation, as does the fact the publisher refers to it as a dossier, as well as poetry, and as fiction. The Garden consists of six total parts, which shift from reading like a set of logical arguments from a computer coding manual written by Wittgenstein (“A dynamically generated virtual perimeter enables a mirage sequence in a state of confusion.”); to cumbrously described recurring images of two men sitting in a garden, changing tense and perspective from sentence to sentence (“The courtyard is an open space. Entries into the courtyard’s open spaces’ taxonomic history are dual linear.”); to truncated bits of verse about surveillance and damage (“Conjuring catastrophe. / A conversation with oneself envelops. / Font.”); to fragmentary still-frames of what appears to be an accident caught on film alongside the blocks of code that form the image, not unlike the printer-error message.
Over the course of the book, among the oblique references and fragmented damage-talk, a sense or feeling, more so than any sort of argument or narrative, erupts, tendering the feeling that what has been captured here is something more like a map of death than any story. It is a texture that exists between states, and appears only here because someone took the time to cull it out, and bear down on the gross cavity between layers of people and Earth, on which the basis of existence is formed. It becomes, in the end, not a mirror or a toy, but a document of something transient, beyond mirage. It opens and encrypts the world at the same time, leaving more space behind it than was there before. In this way, language can break the fundamental laws of science, and why the hell else would anybody want to talk?
In the meantime, if anybody wants to get a game of Middle-Earth Role Playing together, hit me up.
Follow Blake on Twitter