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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Matthew McIntosh

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To purchase theMystery.doc

Title: theMystery.doc
Author: Matthew McIntosh
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 1653 pages
Availability: theMystery.doc - US
theMystery.doc - UK
theMystery.doc - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing and certainly different, but not enough payoff

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/12/2017 Stuart Kelly
TLS . 22/2/2018 Jonathan Gibbs
Wall St. Journal . 3/11/2017 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post B+ 24/10/2017 Steven Moore

  From the Reviews:
  • "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. (...) The sad thing is that it is not that very different from many other infatuated avant-garde attempts. Where it does make advances is in its serious analysis of religion. (...) It tries hard to be cutting-edge and it is brave in how it looks at the emotional repercussions of its long gestation. But it might not be a coincidence that Don Quixote, that great book about failure, is referred to frequently. theMystery.doc is like a giant scrapbook of ideas for books." - Stuart Kelly, The Guardian

  • "This is, in effect, an exploded novel. (...) Multiple readings would be required to make sense -- and indeed what McIntosh seems to be arguing is that those rereadings arenít necessary; it doesnít matter that you canít make full sense of the puzzle. Meaning is being endlessly deferred, and thatís just fine. (...) Strangely, the book seems in the end to recast the novel as a private ritual, the clearing of a space for meaning-making. Signification is there, but not necessarily significance. It is a strange kind of achievement, but an achievement nonetheless." - Jonathan Gibbs, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In Mr. McIntoshís emotionless telling, we are all missing persons; his preoccupation is not with death so much as with nonexistence. (...) 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. Thereís an answer in this bookís near-infinite feedback of glyphs and fragments, but you may have to be a machine to understand it." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "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 (.....) I didnít find the content of theMystery.doc particularly interesting -- and I donít think itís meant to be, in the usual novelistic sense -- but the form certainly is. At a time when most novels still resemble their Victorian forebears, itís refreshing to encounter a novel that actually looks like a 21st-century production." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       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, 3 November 2017

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theMystery.doc: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Matthew McIntosh was born in 1977.

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© 2017-2018 the complete review

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