Where do I begin with this book? Have you ever read something that feels like it’s fresh from a creative writing course? This book is a bit like that.
One day an author wakes up with no memory, next to his wife. He calmly pretends to know her while she gets dressed and leaves for work. He goes out to the yard of the house he woke up in; finds a dead cat. He goes to talk to the neighbor who he thinks owns the cat (she does not). He quizzes said neighbor about his identity, and learns he is a published writer who has been working on his second novel for eleven years. When he goes to his computer to look for his work, he finds only a blank page titled, “The Mystery.doc”.
It gets weirder. The book weaves in and out between the main plot and seemingly random snippets of: conversations, emails, chat threads, a dispatch call with a person in one of the towers on 9-11, and what appears to be real dialogue between real author, Matthew McIntosh, and his relatives. It’s intensely fragmented.
As if all the jumping back and forth in content wasn’t enough, the formatting of the book is incredibly unique. The prose often dance across the page in widely-paced intervals. Sometimes multiple pages are left blank in between passages. Other pages will contain a series of still pictures, or lines and lines of asterisks.
It is purposefully, relentlessly, confounding. Parts of the book are outright confusing, others are disturbing, and there are a few that are exhaustively heart wrenching. Just as you find yourself internally chanting, “WTF?!?”, the book reveals itself. You’ll come across some snippet that indicates the book is about a fractured, post 9-11 America. The story and formatting are intentionally disjointed to reflect the concept.
It’s no wonder, then, the book feels like the product of a creative writing course; like an experiment of literature, or an exercise in what it means to be a book. I felt like I was back at the UW, taking a class on postmodernism with this book the only course material. I can think of very few people to whom I would recommend it. For one thing it’s enormous, clocking in at 1,653 pages. Many readers will be intimidated by its size alone.
Of all the things I’ve read this year, maybe this decade, this one feels especially esoteric. That makes the book sound snobbish and arrogantly overthought. It’s not. Despite the vast dimension of this book (in scope and number of pages), there is something quiet about it; almost humble. And though the book would make such an excellent assignment in a college contemporary literature course that it feels almost stereotypically academic, it is done well enough as to be excusable.
By the end, it didn’t seem like a book about a fractured America. Certainly, that’s in there. However, it wasn’t the prevailing theme. In the end, I think, The Mystery.doc is about loss – Loss of self, of loved ones dead too soon, of national security and personal security, and the loss of a bygone era. It’s a giant, postmodern tome, dedicated to grieving.