Pushcart XL: Joanna Scott, “The Knowledge Gallery” from Conjunctions, #63

“You saved nothing?” I asked, unable to contain my disappointment. I’d been hoping that a woman of her advanced age would have a diary or two in a drawer, maybe index cards or even notes scrawled on the backs of those old envelopes used for Baronial Cards.
She idly tapped the tassel on the window blind to set it swinging. “My dear, multiply two by zero and it would be nothing. If, rather, you mean anything, then yes, the last of it went into recycling when I moved here.”

Let’s start here: two times zero isn’t nothing, it’s zero, and if you think zero is nothing, then 1 is the same as 1,000,000. But Eleanor Feal, the author being interviewed in the opening scene of our story, seems to understand the difference between nothing and not-anything, at least linguistically, as she calls NAP agent on her first sentence. Judging from the first sentence, and how it reads the second time around, I’m betting author Joanna Scott knows, too. So I wonder if something else is going on. But… what’s an NAP agent? I’m glad you asked.

If you’re confused, you’re gonna love this story, or maybe hate it. Sadly, it’s not available online. I can’t do it justice, not because I try to be spoiler-sensitive (there’s nothing to spoil; the story is in what happens after you read it, how you try to figure it out, not in any plot twist or character-expanding surprise), but because it’s all still churning around in my head and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it to sit still for analytical parsing. I don’t think it’s the kind of story that was written to sit still.

Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch: sometime between now and 2052, paper is outlawed for ecological reasons, and everything is uploaded to the Cloud. This works out great until, well, you know what’s gonna happen. It happens to our unnamed narrator:

I was twenty-five years old and confidence that all was going according to plan. I agreed with my peers that we were living in a golden age. Except for the endless skirmish in northern Nigeria, the world was at peace. Every question had an answer… Until the morning when I was typing the final sentences of chapter two of my dissertation on my laptop, writing the words –
What words? Maybe something close to these words I’m writing now, surely involving dependent clauses, nouns, and article, an adverb, whatever, I’ll never know because I can’t remember the specific words, only the experience of watching the loop of a b break away from its stem, an o dissolve, an a sink to the bottom of the screen and disappear, replaced by symbols:⊆Σфℜξω, and on and on in a blur where there had once been sentences.

The National Archive Project is formed (aha! So that’s what NAP is) to recover the lost materials, and our narrator’s specialty is the subject of her pre-crash dissertation: Avanti literature. She’s running into some difficulties with this: each author wants to talk about, not his or her own work, but about another author. So our agent’s list of authors grows longer – she’s spoken to 27 writers in the present of the story – yet she has not recovered anything other than a list of names. Notice: she has not recovered nothing.

It’s the details that make this a story about, first of all, storytelling, of course, but also, about nothing vs zero vs absence of what was, about days of future past and past future and what is the present anyway, all in a self-referential inward spiral that leaves me chasing after one element, then another, until I get back to where I started from the center. It’s great fun. And I don’t think I’ve caught the half of it.

The many details lead to a number of comments, which, as hard as I’ve tried to organize them, simply come at me in different ways every time I approach them. So I will just start, and hope a structure emerges. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

I see some logical holes in the story (why destroy paper that’s already been made? but many of our laws are incongruous) but I suspect they are wormholes with meaning rather than oversights or writer’s choices for streamlining. Example: so much of the named technology remains the same (the Cloud, FaceTime, Macs). That’s a tricky point for future stories, because if you have to spend all your time explaining that Arcus (or whatever) is what used to be the Cloud, you’re going to clutter things up. In a novel, you can show a character using Arcus, and the clever reader (the only reader a clever writer expects) will at some point realize, “Oh, Arcus is the Cloud.” But this is a short story, and a rather short short story at that: twelve pages. It could be called a writer’s choice, a compromise in the interests of clarity, and a wise one. But… could it be something else? Could it contribute to the cyclical, spiral connection between past, present, and future, another theme of the story?

The crash scene is wonderful. If you’ve ever been in a communal computer room, you know how it goes: the gasps, the groans, the terror that sweeps the room. I used such a computer room when I finished up college in the mid-80s (hey, so it took me a while, shut up) and this scene perfectly captures those days, in November and May, when twenty of us simultaneously realized the 20-page term paper due in two days was stuck somewhere we couldn’t reach. I’ve heard stories of writers who lost entire novels to a bad hard drive. Getting writers to back up their work was, until the Cloud, like pitching colonoscopies: nobody does it until they have a scare, and sometimes, it’s too late.

Beyond the amusement and self-recognition, I’m intrigued by the text that appeared in place of English on the computer screen, pictured above. The story isn’t clear if those are the only characters, if they’re repeated, if they’re just the first characters and what follows is random scattering of other characters we don’t realize we have unless we really look. But it occurred to me, all of those characters have mathematical meaning. Take a look at the symbols easily available on Word: they include various languages and linguistic symbols, currency symbols, arrows, corners, musical notes. All of the characters shown here, however, are mathematical. Subset. Sigma (summation). Phi, the “golden ratio”. Fraktur-R, the real portion of a complex number. Xi, the perennially lost “x” algebra students are forever trying to find, among other meanings. Omega, the first transfinite ordinal, a countably infinite set (and thanks to MIT’s “Paradox and Infinity” mooc, I have a vague idea of what this means) – and, to those of us who just read and don’t math, the End. Is there some meaning to these characters?

I asked for a math consult (thank you, Purgy!) to see if these characters might form a pun, a rebus, or have some other meaning when viewed by someone knowledgeable about math, but nothing stood out to him, so it could be they’re just random symbols. Perhaps the mathematical sense of all of them is meant to echo computer code. Or perhaps it’s something neither of us has thought of (Purgy hasn’t read the story, and I’m a mathematical idiot). I can see some possibilities – something about infinite self-reference, spiraling inward deeper and deeper until it collapses on itself like a black hole and nothing can escape but black-body radiation, a nothingness that isn’t nothing at all, but an immensely dense something. [Addendum: I pulled out the last stop and emailed the author, who, in her kind response, assured me the characters were random and had no meaning. I’ll admit, I’m a bit disappointed – but those who don’t want to face the truth should not seek it]

Oh, yeah, by the way, black holes crop up in the story, too, in connection with a minor discussion our NAP agent has on crash day with a tech support geek who’s popping doughnut holes as she impatiently waits for him to solve her computer problem:

“I don’t really understand why they call them holes,” he said at last.
“What?”
“If it were up to me, I’d call them centers.” I realized he was talking about the doughnut holes only when he offered the bowl to me, inviting me to take one. “I mean, the holes are what they leave behind, not what they are. It’s like saying their absence. Identifying them with the space they once filled.”
I wanted to say something insulting, but the rest of my day depended upon this techie’s ability to recover my files. I needed his know-how, as did the students who are lining up behind me.
“A whole is a hollow space in a solid body.” He tapped the escape button on the keyboard several times. FaceTime on his Mac rang. “Hang on, will you?” He said to his screen. “On the other hand, there are black holes, defined by such a strong gravitational pull that no matter can escape. They’re interesting, don’t you think?”

It’s not just two times zero, and “You saved nothing” versus “you didn’t save anything”. The story, a story about lost literature, is full of nothing that is the absence of anything that makes it something.

And then we have the Avanti writers.

Another consult, this time on language (thanks, Silvia!): The Italian word “Avanti” means “go forward” or, more colloquially, “get a move on”, but in the distant past, was used in the sense of “before”, probably acquiring the current sense from “going forward from x you find y, therefore x is before y”. I wonder if this is more of the shifting timescape. And, by the way, for contemporary Italians, Avanti conjures up a newspaper, which is also interesting: a news paper. Later in the text, a caretaker says to Eleanor Feals: “Andiamo” which, as any Italian opera buff knows, means “let’s go,” a similar exhortation that, however, includes both the speaker and the hearer. Avanti, to andiamo. You, to we.

In terms of its basic elements, Avantism was as diverse as literature itself. There were mysteries, tragedies, farces, fictional biographies, and biographical fictions. One novel used an encyclopedic structure, with chapters arranged alphabetically by subject. Another built its narrative out of a collage of quotes taken from other Avanti texts. Some authors concentrated on providing rich scenic details; others strove to give their characters an expansive interiority. All of the manuscripts were handwritten. Finished books were produced by expert letterpress printers on wove pearlescent paper, with painted cloth bindings.
What united the Avanti authors, besides the care they took with the printing of their books, was there dystopian imaginations. All the Avanti novels I read, plus those I knew of through hearsay, were set in an apocalyptic future, where civilization had deteriorated either into anarchy or tyranny.…
The Avantis prided themselves on scorning publicity. They had no websites, send no tweets, and were rarely photographed. Their work appeared only in hard copy. Once all publications became electronic, the Avantis refused to publish at all, sharing manuscripts only among themselves. The general public was indifferent. By the time I’d narrowed down the subject of my dissertation, few people had ever heard of the Avantis; fewer still had read any of their books.

These are the authors, then, who, when their work in the Cloud is lost, keep referring our NAP agent to other writers rather than discussing their own books. There’s something very odd about that. It’s not exactly a return to telling stories around the fire in the cave, it’s not exactly a game of telephone since there’s no message being passed along. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m sure it’s significant. A network of nothing, taking the place of that which is now absent. It’s something.

I’m something of a fan of temporary art: Phil Hansen’s tattooed bananas, Kurt Wenner’s sidewalk chalk anamorphics, Andres Amador’s sand pictures, Simon Beck’s snow art. There’s something about the evanescence that makes it feel all the more precious, something about loss that makes the having all the sweeter, something about the focus on the process that shames our focus on results. If we were immortal, we’d have scientists working on a way of achieving death.

I wonder if our obsession with capturing every moment on our always-present cameras blunts the present, makes us favor the past, artificially preserved past at that, rather than memory. Maybe that’s what Avanti is saying: Onward. Get a move on. And then, when our intrepid NAP agent (yes, I do love that acronym) shows up: “Let’s go.” Together.

We expect Pushcart stories to be very, very good. They’ve been chosen three times: once for publication, again for submission to the Editors, and a third time by those Editors. But “good” is such a bad description. Some are good in the “awww… that was really nice” sense. Some are good in the “wow, I can’t believe she did that, why didn’t I think of that” sense. And some, like this one, are good in the “I can’t stop thinking about this” sense. It’s possible, of course, that I’m overreading, or I’m captivated by something that is, to the more sophisticated reader, been-there-done-that. One of the reasons I have faith that this story has so much more to it than I can read is that it was nominated for its Pushcart by JCO; that could mean anything, but it doesn’t mean nothing. Another reason is that Scott won a Macarthur “genius” grant in 1992, so chances are she’s writing above my grade level.

I’ll be staring at those mathematical characters for a long time. Most, I’ve encountered already, albeit at a very elementary level. I will probably encounter them again. Maybe some day, the answer will leap out at me. Or maybe someone will see this, and from a greater breadth of understanding, suggest something that clicks. In any case, I believe there’s something wonderful here, something just beyond the reach of my fingertips. I just have to stretch a little more to grasp it.

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3 responses to “Pushcart XL: Joanna Scott, “The Knowledge Gallery” from Conjunctions, #63

  1. I love how you read – I love how you explain how you’ve read – I love how you write about how you’ve read. You make me find and read poems and short stories I’d never otherwise read (and usually I’m pleased – but, shhhh, sometimes I think your blog is more interesting and better written than the piece it’s about). Blog posts like this one make me wish we were friends and could further discuss this over coffee. That, to me, is the sign of an excellent blog. So really, this is just me saying thank you in a rambling sort of way. Cheers.

    • Louise – what an incredibly nice comment to wake up to, thank you! Chances are we don’t live close enough to meet for coffee, but the internet allows us all to discuss things anyway – you just have to bring your own coffee. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this story (or any piece I’ve written on, really, though as you can probably tell, some interest me more than others, and this one has seriously arrested my attention).

  2. Pingback: Finishing Pushcart XL | A Just Recompense

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