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Some Books Can Watch You Read Them

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Sometimes, when I’m sitting there in front of the computer, naked for whatever reason, I see the eye of the camera and the wires leading out of my house, and wonder whether or not someone is recording...

The author's bookshelf. Each one watches him while he sleeps.

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Sometimes, when I’m sitting there in front of the computer, naked for whatever reason, I see the eye of the camera and the wires leading out of my house, and wonder whether or not someone is recording me from some florescent-lit bunker in Maryland. Thoughts like that are enough to drive some people insane. And being insane in certain ways leads, I think, to better art—or at least opens up the world in ways beyond our control.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that the world right now feels a lot like a theater filled with countless people, each of whom are at once starving for attention, wholly obsessed with their own realm of ideas, while at the same time concerned over freedom and surveillance, solace. It’s like every day the world is split in half, and in each half is an opposing part of your personality, and you can’t remember the one that’s not with you at the moment. But occasionally there are objects that force you to recall the absent part of you, like a mirror with someone else’s face appearing where you expected to see something you recognized.

Two new books, Tristano and Guantanamo, each neither fiction, memoir, or a mirror, but somewhere in between, created that feeling for me.

Tristano, by Nanni Balestrini (translated by Mike Harakis)

Tristano in some way answers the question: What kind of book would a computer write? The major thing here is that each copy is totally unique. The text of Tristano consists of ten chapters, each of which consists of 15 pairs of paragraphs, two per page, and for every single edition of the book, a new combination of the order of those paragraphs within each chapter is shuffled, changing the story with each printing of the book. The number of possible paragraph combinations is 109,027,350,432,000, meaning no copy of the book will ever be the same, and every reader will have his or her own edition, to be read in that way by no one else before.

I will admit that it does sound a bit gimmicky, but there’s an odd feeling in reading something designed to belong to you alone. My copy bears the number 10738, and I felt strangely attracted to the idea that this was a private exhibit, my own iteration of a thing being spread quietly throughout the world. It made me think about who might be holding another copy with another variation, and how that version would feel to read, what they would understand that I didn’t, and what that meant.

Aside from the interesting concept, the writing in Tristano is beautiful, and intricately rendered, if also supposedly hodgepodged from many different places. Balestrini, an important face in Italian avant-garde literature alongside Umberto Eco and Edoardo Sanguineti, has a magnetic knack for stringing together musical phrases with cryptic comments and everyday sounding speech, like, on page 22 in my version:

“There were some flowers in a vase and a long sofa in front of the fireplace. My husband came toward me I was scared he was going to beat me I covered my face with my hands. Then he got into his car parked by the kerb a white car. At the end of the narrow street the traffic lights are stuck on red.”

While the plot, on its face, pretends to be a love story, it does so much more with the ground it stands on that you soon forget you’re in a story at all. Because the text from sentence to sentence within the paragraphs is the same, it is the transitions between each page that vary, and then mutate and disappear, and later reappear again and come together in strange ways, ways that exist only for you, at times seeming so perfect in its formation you forget how it came on totally by chance, not the relic of a product of another doting human, but something stranger.

Guantanamo by Frank Smith (translated by Vanessa Place)

Guantanamo creates a disarming atmosphere much like Tristano’s, if in a completely different sort of world. Where the latter is full of dream language and bizarre collaborations of imagery, Frank Smith’s book is stripped down to bare bones. And yet, hidden in its structure is a kind of suspicious air, just as mutative and singularly memorable as Tristano in the reading experience it provides.

The foundation of Guantanamo takes the bulk of its text from seven transcripts released by the Department of Defense in 2006, comprised of interrogations of suspected terrorists that took place at the Guantanamo naval base. From these, Frank Smith has tapered down the bulk of the records to strange clipped scenes of little windows into private versions of a situation that feels very much like total hell. The viewpoint shifts back and forth from the perspective of the interrogator to the interrogated until it feels like some kind of dislocated voice mashed between the two. Soon we don’t know whose side we’re on, who is innocent and who is to blame. The antiseptic nature of the interview model, modded by Smith to read in bursts of verse, seem somehow at once menacing and whitewashed, like we are skirting around something so fucked it almost has no feeling on the page. I love when something not alive can make me feel like it is hiding something, like I have to read what is just underneath the actual image on the page, and Guantanamo is overflowing with such layers.

The information supplied tells so little of what we know to be the political story, but it is fascinating in how it covers itself up, and how among all the back and forth, the denials of the suspects against the endless barrage of allegations of their work, what little scenes of anguish crop open for a second. “Arabs should go anywhere except Jalalabad,” says one suspect. “All Arabs opposing the Taliban there would have been killed instantly. So what do you think? Should I have stayed, or tried to escape? They would have killed me if I had stayed, just like any other Arab. So I decided to flee. I did not know where to go.”

I don’t know what the truth is, or what comes from these documents. The more the questions are asked, the less the answers seem to lead us anywhere but to the fact that no one knows exactly what they are—no one can see what they have become a part of until they are outside it, and what is good and what is bad mutates the same way language does, while at its center is something no one can control. For all the horror Guantanamo carries, what it does not say and cannot say is by far the most deadly.

Buy Tristano and Guantanamo here and here.

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