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A Book Explodes

I did not drastically alter the structure of the book when editing the manuscript after the larp. The story still seemed like a world-machine that I could not intervene in so much as decide how to portray. And the most crucial event that occurred in the book occurred in the larp, too.

I got carried away by the world-building

Image via DALL-E.

The following is the closing essay from Elvia Wilk’s Death By Landscape, out this month from Soft Skull Press.

Hate: a romance

A breakup caused my novel. The relationship was a short, relatively unserious one in the scheme of things, but my heartbreak when it suddenly collapsed was way out of proportion with that unseriousness and brevity. I could not manage to explain what had happened between us—even the simple fact of who had done the breaking up—and, most upsettingly, I could not figure out how to assign blame. The heartbreak felt uncannily inevitable, as if there had been no way for us to act besides our prescribed roles, as though we were playing bit parts in a story we had not chosen to write. For this reason the failure of the relationship stank of much bigger failures on the level of society. I was determined to solve the mystery of what had happened and why. Could we have done things differently?

I set about to solve the mystery through puppetry. I started to write a story. I arranged two characters a little like us in a city like ours in a reality that resembled the reality we were in: mid-2010s Berlin. I exaggerated or embellished the details of our lives, swapped our biographical details, invented a cast around us—a mash-up of friends and acquaintances—and tweaked some aspects of the cityscape. My main intervention into reality was the installation of an artificial mountain on the airfield of Berlin’s well-known Tempelhof Airport (a proposal some real architects had dreamed up years before). I installed the couple in a house in an ecovillage on the side of the mountain. These divergences from the factual world helped me look at the constellation askance, from an angle.

The only fact I stole wholesale from my ex’s life was the sudden death of his mother. This tragedy had, in life, been the catalyst for the breakup, if not exactly the cause. When I started writing, I didn’t expect the story to be published, so I tried not to feel guilty about stealing this fact, which was after all crucial to my investigation. More to the point, I assured myself that there was nothing wrong with stealing for art. During our relationship, my ex and I had once argued about whether or not taking someone’s life as fodder for a book was an OK thing to do. He had given me a book by Tristan Garcia called Hate: A Romance (strangely translated from the original French title La meilleure part des hommes, or The Best Part of Men). One character in the novel is reportedly based nearly exactly on a person who explicitly requested that Garcia not novelize his life. Although he loved the book, my ex thought that Garcia was in the wrong. I also loved the book, and I disagreed. I did not think stealing was inherently immoral, and plus, it was validated by how good the book was. (Secretly, I hoped that someday my career would consist of stealing life for books, too.)

Anyway. The more I tried to get the characters in the story to enact the behavior that would lead to their relationship’s demise, the more I found myself spiraling outward to describe their entire world. How else could I show how death had infiltrated their lives and ruined their capacity to connect with each other? How else could I dissect the woman’s overempathizing and intense projection of her own fears onto the man’s grief? How else could I find out how to distribute fault? To get there I surely needed to first describe a whole society where, for instance, there are no grief rituals to handle death; everyone is in their twenties and thirties and has no intergenerational ties; awareness of climate change forecloses the future imaginary; gentrification is destroying the capacity for creative freedom (which extends to the creativity required for love); everyone feels like they are subversive while role-playing the gender dynamics and social hierarchies they’ve inherited; charity is the only clear expression of empathy; and so on.

I got carried away by the world-building. I told myself that the relationship was still the nexus of the story, its reason for being, but each time I got close to the lovers I found myself zooming out and inventing some new corporate scheme or technological development or subplot. Eventually a friend suggested that, the validity of world-building aside, I was maybe trying to distract myself from the thing I still didn’t want to look at: that wound at the center of it all. I had started writing the story to make myself deal with the inexplicable sadness of death and heartbreak, and still hadn’t dealt with it. Worse, two years into writing a full-length novel, I hadn’t allowed myself any closure for those old feelings, because I was still picking at the wound.

Anyone who’s experienced any kind of grief knows that closure is a dumb myth. Pain might diminish, forgiveness and forgetfulness might be achieved, but there is no explanation, justification, or solution for loss. The more I wrote the novel the more I approached the realization that it would not lead me out of the traps I was investigating. I could only expect it to help me articulate the nature of entrapment. In the articulation, though, I found that I gained the company of my characters, who became private allies—trapped in the same way as I was. In the event that my articulation be published, I might gain the company of readers, too. We would all be trapped together. This might sound grim, but to me it felt utopian.

I started over. This time I followed the couple and gave them the autonomy to grieve and suffer and struggle and argue, although it hurt me to do this to them. I pretended I didn’t know what was going to happen in their lives and tried to discover it along with them. To some extent I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I stumbled upon several surprises. But the lovers in the book still broke up in the end. When I got to the last page I did not feel anything like closure. Unexpectedly, it felt more like an opening. A separate world now existed where many things might go the same way, but other things might go differently.


Xenogenesis

The main character of the novel, unlike me, is a scientist. She is employed by a biotech think tank, where she studies self-replicating cells that are programmed to multiply in particular patterns on command. But she does not work with the real, organic cells; she examines how they behave in a computer simulation. She runs the simulation again and again to predict how the cells will behave. She has no reason to believe the simulation will not accurately predict the real behavior of the cells—but there is always that infinitesimal chance that they will not follow their preprogrammed course, that the simulation will turn out to have been faulty. She can’t help but suspect that there is a mysterious element that cannot be accounted for in advance.

This might be a decent metaphor for writing a novel. Even for those writers who have every paragraph outlined before they begin (not me), there remains a tiny element of the unknown when you set the simulation in motion. You can only create the conditions for something to happen, and plan for that thing to happen, but you can’t ever be completely sure—unless you write the whole fucking book. You have to carry out the experiment.

In the process of running my experiment, I wrote a lot of plotlines and backstories that never made it into the final version of the novel. I still have trouble remembering which were included in the published book, because they’re all equally real to me. This is to say I am aware there are infinite possible versions of the book. In my mind—or somewhere?—the simulation keeps running.

Around the time I finished a draft and was working on edits, my friend Susan invited me take part in a larp she was developing. In a live-action roleplay, or larp, players take on characters and enter a fictional world with set rules and parameters. A shorthand description sometimes used for larp is improvisational theater without an audience. While the kind of larp many people are familiar with involves geeks dressed up like Orcs fighting in the forest, another school, called progressive larp or Nordic larp (for its origins in northern Europe), is driven toward social and psychological experimentation, less focused on winning and losing than on exploration and narrative construction.

Susan’s larp, in the Nordic tradition, was based on some elements of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis novel trilogy, which explores human-alien interspecies sex and breeding, in an allegory for the power dynamics of colonialism. I had only read the first book, and most of the players hadn’t read any of the Butler trilogy, so the larp could not be strictly based on the novels. Susan had plucked a few strands from the novels and spun them into a new scenario entirely of her—our—own making.

We started early on a cold morning in an empty artist studio in the north of Berlin. There were around ten of us, some friends and some strangers. Susan told us the basics and sketched in parts of the books: we lived in a world where humans were slowly being hybridized with aliens who wanted to overtake the Earth, and we had to decide whether we would fight against or consent to interbreeding, which would mean losing the “purity” of our humanness. She let us invent our own characters, get to know one another, and debate the issue for the first couple hours. But the second phase of the larp was mostly nonverbal. We enacted a touching ritual in groups of threes, practicing a form of nonhuman, nonsexual intercourse.

Not only was I uncomfortable and embarrassed by much of the experience, especially the part where I was touching strangers, I was initially unsettled by how far we were straying from the plotlines of Butler’s stories. As a person in the process of writing a novel, I had taken for granted that novels were supposed to be manufactured inside one’s head, sealed and delivered to a reader to receive and swallow whole. But when I thought about it in terms of my own story, it seemed entirely logical to enter the simulation Butler had set in motion and take it somewhere new. On one hand, according to my own philosophy, once books are in the world they are part of life—which means they are available for stealing, just like everything else. On the other hand, I acknowledge that there are different kinds of stealing: for instance, stealing with attribution versus without attribution, stealing for play versus stealing for profit, stealing from above versus stealing from below. Appropriation is tricky work.

But what about stealing from myself? Immediately I had the urge to try to steal from my own story. The more I considered the possibilities, the more endless the options became. I could have players invent their own characters within the world of the story. I could have people swap all my characters’ identity markers; I could have players larp the story before reading the book and then again after reading it; I could run a larp to come up with an idea for a new book; I could record the characters’ dialogue and then import that material into the book; I could write a book about real people and then have them play themselves, or one another. I could make an unknown, independent version of the book by handing it over as raw material to a group and leaving. The book could mutate beyond the wildest dreams of its author.


Static objects

Like a larp, a book is supposed to be a kind of magic circle, a covenant that requires mutual suspension of disbelief, but in its standard form it has only two participants. Author and reader. The author’s thought process might be elaborated through interviews and paratexts, and turned into serials or adapted for other media; there is also a tradition of books being cowritten, or anonymously written, or sourced from oral histories. Fan fiction is one clear counterexample to single authorship, with fandom producing its own crowdsourced multiverses. Some authors revise and rewrite forever, republishing updated versions. And translation between languages is an act of rewriting. But in general, and even in most of these cases, the book has a writer with an implied reader, consumption goes in one direction, and everything that happens in the book happens in the book. It is hermetic; it contains itself.

The author Francesco Pacifico describes a ten-year period in which, through “a mix of chance, poor luck, and my utter boredom with the workings of book publishing” he ended up translating his own novel (Class) from Italian to English, and then reverse-translating the English back into a revised version of the original Italian. He says this process was cumbersome and excruciating, but also enlightening and revitalizing. It forced him to confront his own characters and story again and again—also, his own attitude toward the book, and what novels can and should do. For instance, after round three of revision he says he found at the heart of the book an unresolvable tension between empathy and satire—the first version was satirical to the point of cruelty, the second version was injected with too much empathy to try to temper the satire, and the third was somewhere in between. He does not claim to have found a balance, but instead an acceptance of the elusiveness of the balance. Treating the book as a malleable object offered him a wealth of insight into the lives of the characters, and pointed him toward the kinds of stories he wanted, or felt responsible, to write.

Pacifico: “I asked myself why what I was doing was such a rare occurrence. If all that bounty can be found inside one’s own book, why isn’t self-revision a more common practice?” Directors make director’s cuts. Bands remaster old albums. Visual artists can endlessly modify, reinstall, and recontextualize their artworks. “I’m overwhelmed,” Pacifico says in reference to visual artists, “by the sense of kinship I feel wandering around these artists’ exploded inner landscapes.” Yet once a novel is done it presents itself as the only way it could have been.

Pacifico suggests that this is primarily due to the mechanics of the publishing industry with its roots in the industrial revolution. The conventional novel provides a microcosmic view of everyday life that can conceivably be replicated on a mass scale through industrial uniformity. A commercial novel can feel uniquely tailored to you while reassuring you that you are a recognizable member of a group or a generation. New books are constantly being produced to match the pace of change. Pacifico believes that “this is what explains the desperation in publishing to move on to a new and different product, to the next thing. There is no possibility of reworking one’s own work because there is new work that must be produced.” Each novel should be a world-containing entity that stands for the rest of the world, and each new book must immediately be made historic by adding another new book to the top of the pile. Like other art forms, books could be explosions with fragments and shrapnel and detritus, but the explosion has been tamped down by the commercial production of discrete objects.


The drug

When I had finished the first draft of my book, I applied for a monthlong residency in Vilnius, Lithuania, with the proposal that I run a larp based on the novel while there. Susan offered to join me for a week and design the explosion with me. I considered that the larp might be useful for the editorial process—maybe the players would show me unexpected ways that the characters could act, or inspire some new dialogue. Maybe they would even reroute the story and give me a better ending. A happy ending! But more than any functional goal, I simply desired to give the novel a life outside myself, an unruly form. Rather than fan fiction or translation or any other method of revivifying my text, a larp explicitly distributes authorship among multiple players. The story could become rhizomatic and multiple and simultaneous in a way I could never conjure alone.

Stories are not games, and after two weeks of trying by myself I realized that a direct translation from book to larp would be impossible. We weren’t going to be able to get people to act out the plot—that was not the point. Susan arrived and together we decided that all the world-building would take place during the workshop before the game: I would first explain the setting of the book, the ideas that were important to me, and the questions I had asked myself while writing it. We would give each player—eight people signed up—a simplified character description approximating the book’s characters, with a set of motives and desires. Then we would pretty much let them take it from there.

We decided to utilize the two separate spaces of the game area (a café/bar/art space/restaurant in central Vilnius called Autarkia) to simulate two different life modes of the book: day and night. Upstairs would be work life; downstairs would be nightlife. Susan and I were the game masters (GMs)—a somewhat outdated term that nonetheless gets across the basic idea that we were in charge of running the workshops and game and making sure play kept moving.

We also decided to both take on non-player characters (NPCs). An NPC is like a film extra: a person whose presence is needed in the game but who is not a fully fledged character with a crucial role. As NPCs, our roles were to be corporate representatives of the notorious Finster Corporation, whose dealings were responsible for everything happening in the game/city. We intervened in gameplay regularly by sending emails (passing notes) to characters, giving them secret information or assigning them tasks from their employers. Players were told they could interact with us if they needed information but were instructed not to pull us into the story. It made sense that corporate overlords would be both GMs and non-player participants, like the corporate overlords of the real world, who are typically exempt from the rules of the world they create.

In this particular fiction, one central aspect of the plot is the invention of a drug that induces generosity in the user. The drug is meant to unlock the empathic potential of the selfish creative class by giving them a rewarding feeling upon giving away money or possessions, eventually spreading to a broader scale, with the aim of mass wealth redistribution. In the book, this has unforeseen consequences—as it did in the larp.

In the book, one character is responsible for the invention and distribution of the pill. In the larp, several characters got together to communally decide what to do with the newly invented drug (which Susan and I had introduced in the form of Tic Tacs partway through the game). About two hours into the play, we were in the midst of a nighttime party sequence. An authentic soundtrack of music that Susan and I had gleaned from many memorable Berlin club nights was pounding. We had rigged up some colored lights and a makeshift bar. As GM/NPC, I was working undercover as a bartender, spying for the Finster Corporation to see how the drug was acting on the crowd. Two of my characters leaned across the bar and started a casual conversation with me; they offered me a drink, which seemed harmless enough to accept.

When I took a sip, I saw the Tic Tac at the bottom of the red plastic cup.

I suppose I could have declined to participate, or claimed that in my role I was immune to the influence of the substance. I could have refused to break the fourth wall and stayed on the edge of the game. But where’s the fun in that? They had given me, the author of a story about a cruel world they were inhabiting, the pill that I had invented. It was perfect.

In accordance with the rules of the game, I became compelled to empathize with the subjects formerly under my control. By drugging me the characters overthrew not only the corporate overlords of the story but the game itself. Soon after, I lost the reins of the gameplay and the “night” spiraled into a dance party. The experience of being folded into a game that I was supposed to be the master of pushed me to consider the possibility that writing a story in which a nefarious shadowy corporation is authoring reality is to re-create a system of control. It made me consider that single authorship might often risk replicating the top-down systems that make the real world so unbearable—unbearable to the point that we often treat writing and reading novels as catharsis.


Hyperstition

During the Q&A at my first book launch, after the book was packaged and published, a friend of mine said that she found my book to be an odd hybrid of nineteenth-century social comedy centered on a woman’s romantic drama and masculine systems novel. In retrospect, I have come to understand it in exactly this way: as an attempt at androgynous storytelling that forces individual human feelings into narrative collision with those “background” systems bigger than them. I wanted the thoughts, feelings, and bodies of the characters to mingle, coalesce, and reciprocally influence the financial, political, and climate elements of their world. I wanted the people and corporations and weather to function as an ecosystem, where sometimes individuals were driving the action, sometimes the systems were the protagonists, and sometimes the cause and effect were impossible to discern. I wanted figure and ground to merge or flip, with the goal to neither exacerbate nor diminish the importance of the characters’ feelings.

I did not drastically alter the structure of the book when editing the manuscript after the larp. The story still seemed like a world-machine that I could not intervene in so much as decide how to portray. And the most crucial event that occurred in the book occurred in the larp, too. The couple split up, and for similar reasons. She could not handle the way he could not handle his feelings, and she gave him no room to do so on his own.

In the larp, I watched the couple fight and break up on the dance floor of the nightclub. There I was; there we were. It was me through a double distortion, fictionalized and then brought to life in another body. In the breakup they confirmed, again, the inevitability of something. Throughout the larp I consistently felt the presence of infinite possible scenarios—the multiverse—but at that moment when the universes coincided, when the couple succumbed to the same forces as my ex and I had, I felt an incredible synchrony and sense of time collapsing. In that moment I also realized the extent to which a desire for atonement had driven my urge to write a book. Like Pacifico, I found neither absolution nor indictment in reliving my own story. Just as there would be no closure, there would be no moral resolution.

In order to illustrate the ways that novels can’t help but explode, however people might want to contain them, Pacifico explains an instance of spillover from his fiction into his own life. The couple at the center of his endlessly revised novel in question was based on two acquaintances from his life who were not dating. Years after writing the book, he ran into the two of them in a bar together—and saw that they were now a couple. He had somehow manifested their relationship, or presaged it, or simply recognized it in the making. “This is what writing books is about!” he exclaims. “This is the black magic that is going on.”

Once my own book was bound and published I, too, experienced a proliferation of magic. People whose personalities had seeped into character identities began to do things the characters did; I read about an iPhone app for calculating social capital nearly identical to a satirical app I had described in the book; I heard a rumor (which I never followed up on) that a pharmaceutical company in Portugal was manufacturing a pill that made users more financially generous. I met the architects who designed that fake mountain proposal in Berlin and learned that their initial design sketches had included many of the elements I had invented for the version in the book.

Perhaps strangest of all, I somehow conjured a job for myself. I was invited to be a researcher at a think tank, just as my main character was, and the language of my contract held many similarities to hers. The way the think tank functioned was at times indistinguishable from the way my simulated version did. In the first chapters of the book, the main character is fired from being a researcher and rehired as a corporate consultant; the same thing happened to most of the researchers at the real think tank where I worked. I can only agree with Pacifico when he writes that “writing books is so much creepier than readers know.”

Just as games bleed into life as life bleeds into games, novels exist as part of the world that they pretend to encapsulate and then hermetically travel within. In terms of science fiction or speculative fiction, much has been said about the ability for fiction to predict reality, or in some instances for reality to steal and implement ideas from fiction—even fiction that was meant to critique said reality. I try not to dwell on the mechanisms by which a story (my story) seeps into reality because I know they are not likely straightforward or directional. They are creepier than I can ever know.


Biodiversity

I had been thinking of books as ecosystems, but it was not until mine was circulating in the world that I understood how books enter into and alter existing ecosystems, too. Wai Chee Dimock writes that

literary history has yet to be seen as a mediating network of this sort: imperfect and incessant. Seen that way, as a nonsovereign field weakly durable because continually crowdsourced, it offers one of the best examples of redress as an incremental process, never finished because never without new input. Mindful that the world isn’t what it should be and rarely able to effect a definitive cure, it always has room for one more try.

Dimock describes the inevitable explosion of books in terms of contagion, an especially appropriate concept for the pandemic era. In her book Weak Planet, she proposes that literature creates “contagious sites in globalized ecosystems” that can turn “shared vulnerabilities into shared plenitude.” Literary history and the existing body of literature could be “taken as an ecosystem with weakly defended borders, and with adaptive variants.” This “turns literary history into a history of nonsolitary acts. Discrete texts give way here to input-bearing networks, collective DNA culled across space and time. Such collective DNA, still under threat but newly connected and recombined, does seem to have a shot at the future.” The literary canon that depends on books sold as prepackaged goods is only one history, after all.

Dimock likens the comingling of literary works (if not the preserved and canonized and historicized kinds) to the maintenance of biodiversity. And if you look at literary history in another way you’ll find exploded books all over the place. Books that are stolen and translated and bootlegged and gamified. This is a much more resilient and extinction-proof model for thinking about how literature lives in the world than the dominant one in which a novel sits passively on a bookshelf, opened and closed. The writer J. R. Carpenter, whose practice includes making books, digital poetry, and zines, told me she thinks of the zine as “the cockroach of the medium”—cockroaches being the species that is most likely to survive nuclear fallout.

I’m not delusional enough to claim that a novel is going to explode the value systems, politics, economics, and forms of knowledge that have produced the extinction era, nor that literature will not go extinct if humans do. But on good days I do think that fiction—which might not come in the form of a novel at all—works: as in, it performs a type of labor in service of change, for better or for worse. Its effects are not linear, one-to-one, or necessarily calculable, and should not be measured as such. No cause-and-effect equation can account for them. They are myriad small explosions with far-reaching fragments.

Explosion is one way to think about what can happen to books. Contagion is another. But I often think about it in other terms: as a process of composting. The essays contained in my new book, Death by Landscape, have been decomposed again and again, recycled and used as soil for new seeds, new ideas. Some of them started as talks or pieces of journalism. Others started as midnight emails to friends. I wrote and rewrote them over the course of two years, often starting from scratch after reading a new book or having a new conversation. Most of the texts have become recombinant, with related ideas cropping up like sprouts across them. Nothing there is static or dead. Long after they becomes a book they will continue to dissolve and evolve, with or without me.


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