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.
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 ... 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 ... 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?
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
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 ... 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 ... Two of the most compelling and thoroughly developed narratives in the novel address the loss of family...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.