MY (RESPONSE) ROBOT: Skipping Content in Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc

By Sydney Martin

August 10, 2018  By Literary Hub


Skipping Content in Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc


> “I don’t think McIntosh meant for anyone to enjoy it in any real sense of the word. I don’t think he meant for 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 seem to deaden thought.”[1]

> “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.”[2]

> “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…”[3]


Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc is colossal physically as well as literarily, with 1,653 pages full of photographs and chat logs with a robot, missing persons and artificial intelligence and God and saints and death and birth and amnesia and one man who is working on a very significant book—a book about important things and about America and it is taking eleven years to write—but that man wakes up with amnesia and all he has on his computer is an empty document titled theMystery.doc.


Not a whole lot of the novel makes sense.


But that’s okay, because the main focus for McIntosh doesn’t seem to be his content.


He’s making a point bigger than whatever story he’s trying to tell.



>Fewer books are being sold, newspapers are moving online, and bookstores and libraries are closing.

>The literary novel is dying because literary-minded people are unable to see a world that isn’t confined to paper.[4]

>Digital media has not just transformed writing, but the very mind itself.



>Today, there is a conflict between the medium and the message. And the medium always seems to win.[5]


> The features of a story that make it worth telling

>The “point” of a story

>The chance to answer the question “So what?”

>The reason why readers stick with a book for 1,653 pages.


When we think of media in our modern age, print books fall low on the list. Digital media is much more prevalent, with social media, blogs, and video becoming the main way people communicate not only their everyday events, but also their stories. But it’s not just the media that is changing. People’s minds are changing right along with it.


Instead of a depth of knowledge, people have a breadth of knowledge right at their fingertips. They don’t have to take the time to read when they can skim. They don’t have to remember facts or dates or times when they can store endless information in their computers.


If you can’t imagine what something looks or sounds like, you can look it up on the internet for “instant literalism.” The imagination is reduced to factualism with a few clicks of a keyboard.[6]


People don’t read long paragraphs anymore. Their attention spans have shortened. Short blocks of text are what they’re used to from perusing social media and blogs.


Marshall McLuhan is well-known for arguing that the “medium is the message,” and all evidence of communication today is pointing to this statement being true.


The content of a message does not say as much as the medium through which the message travels. Radio, social media, television, novels—all of these mediums influence the ways in which people communicate. All the personal and social consequences of any communication are introduced by the technology itself.[7]


When we think about the tellability of McIntosh’s novel, it is not actually the story itself that makes the novel “tellable.” The mixing of so many stories and snippets of characters and plots make it difficult to figure out what it is all supposed to mean. While it might be worth it to examine the different plot lines and stories—and how they are connected—for those readers who do not have an excessive amount of time on their hands, the content is not what makes McIntosh’s story worth telling (or reading).


Instead, the form and structure of his novel answer questions of “So what?”


We read through all 1,653 pages of McIntosh’s book because he is telling a story with a form and structure that is foreign to us novel-readers. It’s something that a literary novel hasn’t done before; it looks more like storytelling we encounter in our media-rich lives.


McIntosh’s approach to theMystery.doc seems to be an effort to raise the novel’s outdated mode of storytelling from the grave. His focus on mediums of communication throughout the novel, and how those have affected our relationship to storytelling, is truly what brings the factor of tellability to his story.



ANNOUNCER THREE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of Spanish. Ramon Raquello leads off with “La Cumparsita.”


ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramon Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.




MCINTOSH: The son reads a story to his father, and the story is of a knight and a lake, and the son reads of the knight jumping into the lake and he finds himself among a field of flowers, with beauty and birds, the sweet untutored melody, the gentle and spontaneous song—until a woman named Claire walks in and interrupts. Interruptions right from the beginning, interrupting a story within the story. It almost seems like it is preparing the reader—

MCINTOSH: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our explanation of the prelude to the book in order to start the second prelude to the book, which is a picture. A picture of a building, and its transformation into only a husk of destroyed walls and wooden slats. It seems to be a fire that did this, but the picture quality makes it difficult to tell. Let’s skip to a conversation that might be between two people on a telephone, or a live chat conversation with Michele, our friendly local website greeter—

MCINTOSH: Now we are at Chapter One. “It was one of those plots where you wake up and you don’t know who you are.[9]




ANNOUNCER TWO: We are now ready to take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton where Carl Phillips, our commentator, will interview Professor Richard Pierson, famous astronomer. We take you now to Princeton, New Jersey.



MCINTOSH: I’m going to jerk you right out of Chapter One into a tangential conversation between a door-to-door evangelist and the person who opened the door.



On a late October night in 1938, Orson Welles and a team of radio actors debuted their War of the Worlds broadcast. They had adopted H.G. Wells’ story for radio and wanted to create the most realistic storytelling experience possible. With this in mind, the script was written to sound like breaking news reports of a Martian invasion of earth.


The show began with an announcement that the broadcast was a presentation of War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, followed by a short introduction and weather report. The announcer then took listeners to the Meridian Room in New York to listen to the music of Ramon Raquello, before the breaking news reports of a Martian invasion being to seemingly interrupt the program.


Welles used the medium of radio to enhance his narrative. If Martians were invading our planet in real life, all regularly scheduled programs would be interrupted with updates just like in the fictional program. Welles used this knowledge of how information was transmitted through radio to create a realistic fictional experience for his listeners.


Messages are communicated differently through different mediums. Welles understood this, and McIntosh understands it as well.


Throughout his novel, McIntosh explores the different mediums we use in our modern society, and the ways it affects how we communicate.


McIntosh’s choice to include so many different stories and characters in his novel mimics the constant information interruptions we expose ourselves to everyday. We usually are taking in so much information that we hardly ever dive deeply into a subject or a story. Instead, we skim and move on. Or we get distracted by some other text message, email, link, advertisement, phone call, or human interaction. We catch headlines of news stories and the first few seconds of videos when we scroll through news feeds on social media. We text and email while we listen to a friend tell a story. We multitask and refuse to dedicate our attention wholly for longer than three minutes. McIntosh explores what this looks like in print when he whips us from online chatting with website greeters to a series of pictures of a man falling down to an emergency phone call with portions deleted. The interruptions just seem exaggerated because they’ve been put into a medium in which we’re not used to seeing them.


Just like Welles, McIntosh looks at how communication is used with certain technology. And this use of an overload of information and mediums not only emphasizes the constant interruption that we experience in our world, but it also emphasizes the blur between fact and fiction.




>>Is referential

>>Is not a pretense

>>Advances claims of referential truthfulness


>>Has no reference

>>Is a pretense—simulations of real utterances and imaginary universes

>>Advances no claims of referential truthfulness




All art is theft.


Write what you know.


History is written by the victors.


When a writer creates a piece of fiction, they end up borrowing details from real life. When a writer creates a piece of nonfiction that is anything other than a data dump of research, she has to create some of her own material. And even that research is going to be shaped by what she chooses to include or omit, and the context and explanation provided. No matter what, the writer is creating a narrative that is not completely objective.


Our world likes to categorize things into fact or fiction, black or white. But the line usually ends up being various shades of gray. Especially in storytelling.


McIntosh explores this blurred line between fact and fiction throughout his novel, providing readers with elements of both so that by the end we are unsure of exactly what might have been real and what has been made up.


We get prose chapters of a writer who wakes up with amnesia and tries to figure out what his life was. This seems to be fiction, but the writer is working on a book called theMystery.docso how much is fact and how much is fiction? It very clearly is referencing reality in some form.


We read emails that may or may not be from real people. Along with online chats with website greeters. And pictures that had to have been taken in our real world somewhere.


In two pages, we see an email from 20th Century Fox, as they deny McIntosh the right to use still frames from their movie in his book. This is perhaps one of the most explicit moments that proves McIntosh uses much factual information throughout his novel.


And because we are so connected to information through all of our technology all of the time, this is how we tell stories now. We reference other sources, we show videos and pictures, we screenshot text messages. All of these sources become part of our normal act of storytelling. So, of course McIntosh had to include the sources to supplement his words. To show how we use the real world of media to tell stories that are made up of both fact and fiction.




It can be hard to piece together McIntosh’s fragmented pieces of story in theMystery.docThere seems to be no unity, no completeness.


While more traditional types of story elements don’t seem to hold the story together, there is a common thread that pieces together the sections of dialogue and prose and emails and pictures and audio files and online messaging conversations.


The thread is the form of the storytelling itself.


Through the use of different mediums and a disjointed selection of stories that seem to interweave fact and fiction together, McIntosh explores the mysteries of modern storytelling.


He may not be the first one to do it, but he is the first one to throw it all together on the printed page. And by doing this, we can question whether the novel is really, truly dead. It might just be entering back into the conversation.


[1] Jason Sheehan, “You’re Going to Hate ‘TheMystery.doc,’ And That’s OK,” (NPR Books, 2017).

[2] Steven Moore, “Finally, a novel that looks like a 21st-century production,” (The Washington Post, 2017).

[3] Sheehan, “You’re Going to Hate ‘TheMystery.doc,’ And That’s OK.

[4] Will Self, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real),” (The Guardian, 2014).

[5] Will Self, “The novel is dead.”

[6] Will Self, “The novel is dead.”

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (Canada, McGraw-Hill , 1964), 1.

[8] Orson Welles and Mercury Theatre On the Air, The War of the Worlds, (Columbia Broadcasting System, 1938).

[9] Matthew McIntosh, theMystery.doc, (Great Britain, Grove Press UK, 2017), 37.

[10] Orson Welles and Mercury Theatre on the Air, The War of the Worlds.

[11] Matthew McIntosh, theMystery.doc, 641-642.

Previous Article
Lit Hub Daily: August 9, 2018
Next Article

More Story
Lit Hub Daily: August 9, 2018 How one of archeology’s great mysteries was solved: uncovering China’s lost warriors. | Lit Hub On the new episode...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.