The Great American Coming-of-Age novel presented in a multimedia format with music and visual art. Originally published by Entropy Press in 1998 on a CD.
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Originally released by Entropy Press in October 1998 under the nom d’arte “Russ.” A novel in scope, but a collection of short stories in form, the narrative (such as it is) follows the adventures of a male character named “T.” from birth to ~27 years of age. My take on the classic coming-of-age narrative.
“(t)h(i/e)m” (which I pronounce as “the aim”) is a multimedia project featuring visual art and a soundtrack, and was originally distributed on CD. The vision was to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “unified work of art” that would synthesize different forms into a totality whose sum was greater than its parts.
The book is in the form of a website. All the files (including the MP3s of the music) are packaged in a .ZIP file you will need to uncompress. Then, simply open “home.htm” in a web browser and you will have opened the cover, so to speak. Soundtrack of original music is in form of mp3s. (Also included is “bonus-chapter-2015.htm,” the new story written to mark this re-release.)
>> Download the .ZIP file <<
At the time I put together the project, I was living in Boston, going by the name “Russ,” and hanging out with a bunch of artists and musicians who were totally happy to contribute their creations and, in some cases, to collaborate actively. None of these folks had been “discovered” yet so everything was home-grown, so to speak, nothing “major label” about it. All this sharing was marked by nothing more than handshakes (usually over drinks). There’s no royalties to negotiate when your product is free-of-charge!
In 1997, the World Wide Web and its hypertext interface was quite new, and I was excited to explore how this digital format could be used to break away from linear methods of storytelling. So the Table of Contents of the short stories is arranged in the shape of an infinity symbol, with no beginning or end. There is a chronological order to the stories (since the overarching narrative is a biography) but it is left to the reader to figure it out. Four sets of clues reveal the chronological order: one is found in the header visuals for each chapter/story, another in the unlabeled “hidden” song in the soundtrack, one in the Table of Contents itself, and one more in the file nomenclature. All four require attention to find and varying degrees of effort to decipher.
Each story/chapter has a simple graphical header with its title, taken as a pie-sliced wedge from a large photographic collage that was pictured in the CD booklet. Clicking on the header image takes the reader to another page which features the Author’s commentary and sometimes an alternate/rejected version of the story or older stories that are thematically related, sort of like studio outtakes or b-sides. The main story page also includes a link, in red, to a song from the soundtrack when appropriate. The only other navigation is a “contents” link at the bottom, taking the reader back to the Table of Contents. There is no “next” or “back” because the whole point was to write a book without that structure! You could print out every chapter, but there would be no order to arrange them in. The project was always intended to be purely digital, and still is.
The book itself is a riddle filled with riddles: puzzles are nested within puzzles and liberally sprinkled with “clever” word play and allusions to art and literature, both obscure and obvious. I was trying to be very smart, stylistically. In retrospect, I would say I was trying too hard! In places, the result is like a dense thicket of blackberry bushes and about as pleasant to go through (when the vines are not fruiting, I must mention).
Regarding its content and themes, my attempt was to produce a “confessional,” in which the character is unafraid to reveal all his secrets and perceived short-comings to the reader. Unfortunately, the character’s life-stage for most of the book is one in which sexual desire and emotional angst are tied up together like a bundle of kindling, which is a struggle with limited appeal, fictive or otherwise, IMHO.
The book is subtitled “exercise in fiction” because 2/3 of the stories were composed with preset structures that placed limitations on the both the form and content for me as the writer. Specifically, for 1/3 of the stories, I chose a word to be the theme and then wrote out all or part of its dictionary definition in a column down the left-hand side of a piece of paper. These would be the first words of each paragraph. For another 1/3, I chose a line of poetry or a song lyric and did the same thing. The remaining 1/3 of the stories were free-form. This model was intended to illustrate meaning as represented by a lexical/technical or objective approach, by an artistic or subjective approach, and by an approach that was neither/both. I hope that the division-into-three would foster an examining and breaking-down of the concept of dichotomy, suggesting that “truth” (whatever that is) cannot be found solely in the domain of “either side” of anything, nor is the world so simple that it is just “somewhere in the middle.” Heady stuff! And pretty pretentious, too, if you ask me now!
To mark the release of the CD in October 1998, I put on a show at a local rock club in Boston. Bands from the soundtrack played short sets. (Inhale Mary was too rock and roll to play the song they had contributed to the soundtrack, even though I asked them to, but that only increased my admiration for them!) Between the bands, female friends read excerpts from the book, which was amusing since the voice in the text is so obviously male. Originals of the art were hung around the venue and projected as slides onto two big screens on the stage behind the musicians. True to the spirit of Entropy Press at the time, copies of “(t)h(i/e)m” were given away — not sold! — to anyone who wanted one “because art should be free.” This digital re-release is also available entirely free-of-charge.
Re-reading “(t)h(i/e)m” now, I personally find much of the writing to be oblique, sentimental or simply ridiculous. Even unreadable in places. A few gems do stand out, though, namely “a solitary flight,” “in the eons between stars,” “on the town,” and “out of control” (which was co-written with a woman in New Zealand via email). Regardless, “(t)h(i/e)m” was the best I could do at the time, and, as a book and a multimedia project, it was well-received in my little corner of the writing/art/music scene in Boston in 1998. 564 CDs were pressed (each hand-numbered and signed), but only about 50 were ever handed out, as I shortly afterwards left town to travel and ended up moving to the Midwest a year and a half later where I became involved in political activism and set art aside. Sometime in the intervening years, the stash was lost, and I didn’t even have a copy of my own for many years until this very month (October 2015), when one was mailed to me because the original recipient had since died.
I am re-releasing “(t)h(i/e)m” for the fun of it, and hope that people will find some enjoyment in perusing it. (I am happy to share more specifics about how to decipher it, if anyone actually gets into that much. Just write me.) Though the writing has not, as far as I am concerned, stood the test of time well, most of the art and much of the music has.