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“By listing random things, I sometimes feel I’m dismantling my mind rather than adding anything to it.”
-Matias Viegener, 2500 Random Things About Me, Too
In my home there isn’t such a thing as a quiet night reading in bed. There’s a bed, and there’s plenty of reading, but the reading is a distinctly loud activity: lots of laughing, quoting, grumbling, declarations of bullshit, the impatient scissor-leg thrashing of sheets.
“The list is a bastard form, meant to compartmentalize the wildness of things.”
Matias Viegener’s book, 2500 Random Things About Me, Too (Les Figues Press, 2012) is a book I’ve taken to bed with me many times. The book written entirely on Facebook—25 daily Facebook status updates over 100 days, some missed here and there—2500 Random Things could be assumed gimmicky and innocuous, associated as it is with the vagaries and kitten pictures of a social network. Composed of Facebook statuses ranging from the truly mundane, (“Uh, I have a lot of favorite books.”) to the intensely personal (“My mother’s ashes stayed in their cheap container for two years after her death. We knew we wanted to scatter them in the woods by the house, but my father, brother, and I were never there together.”), to the immediate and concrete (“Things I could touch from where I am sitting: pens, iPhone, computer and cables, dried rose petals, messy stacks of paper, and a plastic jug half full of urine.”) to the meta (“I worry sometimes that I’m not random enough.”), and the transcendent (“The sun in the pine needles quivering in the wind. What else is more important?)—the book is not an easy read. The swift movement between tones, the brevity of the list format, the poignancy of each isolated status, compelling even when it’s something stupid—sometimes compelling precisely because it is something stupid—enhances the spontaneous, intimate nature of the text.
“Christine Wetheim is opposed to Facebook on the grounds that it represents another orifice through which we must pass things in and out of. She believes we modern people have too many orifices already, and that at some point it all starts to hurt.”
The book itself is long and slender, rectangular like a health pamphlet or travel book. The font is small; each page must be held near, framed by the creases of palms, the bend of thumbs—a close read. The book can be read linearly, backwards, at random, in fits and starts—it’s truly versatile, inviting visits like sips of water, or perhaps, gin.
“I like the words preternatural, pellucid, and limpid, and the phrase gin clear. Words with the same wildness hidden inside them as gin. It’s a known fact that the worst drunks drink gin.”
Intoxicating and immense, reading Viegener’s book is comparable to reading poetry, but not by some long dead guy who spells things funny and is obsessed with lofty literary rules. Random reads like poetry by someone you can imagine eating fish tacos with, or texting the results of a blood test to; someone whose asshairs you maybe once picked out of your teeth, or whom handed you a stack of junk mail and a letter from your mother after you were away for four days—a poet real, stinking, mortal, concrete. Which is very ironic, perhaps, for a book written on Facebook.
“In the hospital one night, Kathy woke up and asked me for the list. When I asked her what list, she said the list to call the animals, to call them back home.”
“It’s like Peggy and I are on a dark road. It’s not really sinister, just dark, and you don’t know where you’re going. You know death is at the end, but just not where the end comes.
“It is only when you fail someone, she said, utterly and miserably, that you are finally free.”
I’ve read a significant portion of Viegener’s book out loud to my partner as we read in bed. “Liam—” I exclaim, emphasizing with a nudge— “I love this book! Listen, first he says, ‘And my favorite sex organ is, of course, the cerebral cortex,’ and then he says, ‘I remember the first game I learned in the United States as a kid. It was tag.‘ And later he says, ‘Everyone is trapped by form in some way, but only some of us are trapped by the excessive consciousness of form,’ and then, just a few pages later, he says, ‘It’s only death that finally comes to define life.’ and ‘Why do Americans love ice cubes so much?’” I stopped when I realized that I’d read nearly every page out loud, and Liam had turned his back to wedge an ear into his pillow and thus snuff out the cacophony of my literary appreciation.
“I’m sorry that I haven’t written you sooner. I’ve been sick. I’ve been traveling. I’ve been buried with work. I’ve lost your address.”
Reading this book is nearly a spiritual practice. The tone shifts from the immediate to the eternal, the ridiculous to the transformative, the judgmental to the humble, swiftly and easily. All the messiness of humans being, constrained by the “orifice” of Facebook, the limited width of the page, the negative space between. You have to agree to go with it, to follow and release the threads of narrative as they emerge: the death of Viegener’s mother; the life, work, and death of author Kathy Acker; the declining health of his dog, Peggy; immigration, colonialism, war. You must accept the banal, the contradictory, the sweeping generalizations along with the profound and beautifully rendered pronouncements of morality and mortality, constrained by temporal and frequently self-deluding consciousness.
“We do tend to think that because things follow one another in time, they are sequential.”
Not that I am particularly good at that. If I earmarked everything in Random that I wanted to remember and return to, I’d earmark nearly every page. Already it’s stuffed with worn bits of torn paper, the page corners creased like the ears of attentive dogs. And I still can’t find everything that I want to find. There are exquisite, fragile things in here—I remember them in fragments—mail trucks, foreheads, hospital beds. I open and search—backwards, forwards. I always come away with something new. As you get older, Viegener says on the near to last status, you start to see forgetting is as important as remembering. Yet I’d memorize this book, if I could. I want an index. I want to read about the mail truck again. I wonder if I made the mail truck up.
“When Kathy was peeing, she said, Oh the sun feels so good on my pussy!”
I have a physical reaction to this book—I like it so much that I literally want to lick the pages. Something sweet, bitter, earthy, rich is offered here, a physicality of intimacy and risk, the trick of constraint and spontaneity—an experiment played out while simultaneously documented, struggled with.
“I’m so tired of making lists I could cry. I’m tired of trying to get people’s attention. I just want to shut up and go to sleep.”
That the book was written on Facebook gave me plenty of pause. I am new to Facebook—a steady user only since 2011. Until recently I found the concept, process, and meaning of “liking” something utterly bewildering. I still get Facebook hangovers, a swelling, headache-y, brain-dead sort of feeling that follows too much scrolling through seeming seas of cute puppy pictures and brief witticisms to catch a glimpse of meaning—a request for help, an admission of failure, a declaration of inspiration or hope. It’s like looking at porn on the Internet: endless, frustrating, revolting, infrequently rewarding, yet compelling all the same. I don’t get Facebook. I don’t get why queer people post so many puppy pictures, I don’t comprehend why some people’s pictures of their painted fingernails get 47 likes while someone else’s post about their dead father is ignored; I don’t understand why we feed a corporation our lives a few character limits at a time, only to receive in return a shallow and inadequate sense of connection, the possibility of digitized validation, and the vast and endless opportunity to compare the trials and trivialities of our lives to those of others, as if we didn’t feel crappy enough already.
“I hear something ticking.”
Reading a book written entirely on Facebook prompted an in-depth study of the context of the form. I read former employee exposes (The Boy Kings, Losse), multiple biographies of Zuckerberg and the company he created (The Facebook Effect, Kirkpatrick; The Accidental Billionaire, Mezrich), a disturbed retraction from a former Silicon Valley idealist (You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier), MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s alarmed criticisms of the digital age and it’s impact on our concepts of connection and meaning (Alone Together). I read a memoir of a mother in Australia who unplugged herself and her three teenagers from all media devices—iPhones, iPods, iPads, video games, cable, internet—and documented the progress and fall-out from defecting from the cyber grid (The Winter of Our Disconnect, Maushart). I read Andrew Blum’s travel book, Tubes, enumerating his world-crossing attempt to locate the physical internet—its wires and undersea cables, its numerous dark hallways of industrial fans and blinking lights. I read about Microsoft, Google, monopolies; celebrations of the internet as a medium of revolution; declarations of Facebook as a supra-government governing body; warnings of neurological re-wiring, degrading skills sets, decomposing social fabrics; the dire and ever-present possibility of governments or corporations to use the information we feed to the web to manipulate and control us.i
“Peggy’s natural impulse seems to be to get under the covers with me. The bed is like a womb, but also a veil between being asleep and being awake.”
Not infrequently I paused in my research to marvel at how I had missed so many massive technological and cultural shifts. In 2008, people still wrote me letters, traveled to visit me in person, and left me messages on my answering machine—which was connected to a real, honest-to-god land-line. I had dial-up Internet, or none at all. I didn’t know how to text. A single parent living off scant resources in the backwaters of rural Georgia, I couldn’t afford to keep up with the currents of technology, and I didn’t care to. My life changed swiftly when a friend added me to her cell phone family plan late that year. I then learned the ease of sending a few texts versus the uncertain trials of actually speaking to someone, and I became that person—the person who texts everything—break ups, existential questions, requests for sex or a glass of milk, even to people residing in the same building as myself, as I hunched there in my bedroom chuckling over the green glow of a few pieces of metal and plastic. I was titillated, and totally hooked.
“Speaking of alienation, one of my favorite loan words is ostranenie. It’s Russian for making strange, like the German Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect.
The thing about any alienation effect is that to work it requires something familiar.
Facebook took a lot longer to sink in—it didn’t stick until I needed (“needed”) it for my job. And now I check it daily—multiple times daily—sifting through puppies and political exhortations; pictures of people striking dramatic, ponderous poses or grinning with exultation in a shaft of sun; resonant quotes of authors and political figures superimposed over scenic natures shots or vintage style drawings. The scary part for me, now a year in to the social network, is that it is starting to make sense. I “like” without that wry, slightly embarrassed feeling that I used to get when I tapped twice on a smooth surface to express my appreciation of something. Last week I almost “liked” a picture of a kitten being bottle-fed milk.
“There’s a kind of terror in your own mind.”
And now I’ve read a book written on Facebook. An excellent book, a book that I want to lick, a book that literally leaves me elated every time I open it to peruse.
What does that mean—for me, for literature, for Facebook?
“Someone tried to give me a Pooh Hug through the Hug Me application on Facebook. I don’t want a Pooh Hug. Nor do I want an Easter Egg, or a ‘plant’. And why is everyone poking everyone else? What’s wrong with hello?”
Technological advances yield new liberties for some and deepening disparities for others. Assumptions about bodies, abilities, priorities, access, and worth become locked into the function and design of new technologies. Reading and writing are technologies. The Internet is a technology. Value judgments and assumptions are inherent to each. Literature has its own violent history of access, ownership, primacy, and force, replete with sexism, ableism, classism, and racism as written traditions colonized and extinguished or replaced oral traditions, and a whole mess of isms went into who got to learn to read, who got to choose to not learn to read, who wrote histories, who owned books. In a world where many people read more than ever before, yet have shorter attentions spans and reduced abilities to process large chunks of information, we should remember that reading and writing are tools inextricable from power.
“When you list things every day you create both a ritual and a vacuum. Every day you fill the vacuum, and every next day it’s back.”
“The list becomes a kind of new orifice. First it feels enormous, like a new planet or a whole new wing on your house. Then it feels very small, like trying to squeeze a sofa through a cat door.”
Now that we have this power, the power to read instantaneously everywhere everyday, what do we do with it? What does it mean? Perhaps I should text my partner this question: What does it mean that we have the power to read, write, and know about random things happening the world over, almost immediately after or as they happen, yet we spend large chunks of our time perusing kitten memes on Facebook? And would you like to have sex tonight? Will you bring me a glass of milk?
“ When my mother was dying, I pressed my forehead against hers. She was in a coma. I think she knew what I meant, though.”
Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me, Too may be an answer to that question of what we do with our powers of digital text and connection. As our brains rewire, immersed in the great weirdness of cut-n-paste cyber space, social networks, and 24/7 technological tethers, perhaps we can take the engineering constraints of the mediums to make profound and shockingly intimate art. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter, and other such social media technologies can be utilized to create constrained works similar to sonnets, haiku, or sestinas, only collaboratively and in the irreverent absurdity theater of a Facebook newsfeed.
The question then, is, who owns them? The writers? Twitter? Facebook? And will they continue to be printed, have bodies, leaves, spines, as Random Things has?
“My mother entered my head through my forehead. I invited her in. Kathy, too. Eventually all the dead people I know will live inside me. And then I will go live inside someone else.”
I would not have read the a book written on Facebook if it had stayed on Facebook. I’m glad I actually had no way to “like”, comment, and therefore track the lost mail truck status, or digitally affix it to my Facebook timeline to showcase my reverence for it to future potential friends and employers. I can always return to the book in hopes of finding it again, if it’s real. I won’t puncture the mystery of it in 10 seconds by tapping Ctrl+F and typing “truck”. The lure and mystery may linger for months or years as I slip in and out of attention to the text. If I find it, I can crease the actual page and mark it with a dried flower I picked along the sidewalk, or write in gaudy fuchsia ink in the margins. I want a long-term commitment to a physical book that is greasy with my palms and stinks of yogurt spills, beer, ink. I want a physical book that I can thwack my partner with when he complains too loudly about me sharing my revelations, a book that I can carry like a stone with me where ever I go, a carrying that is light and liberating, reverent, not anxious and compulsory like the cell phones we adhere to our bodies as talismans against danger—another vacuum, another orifice, another cat door habit to squeeze ourselves through,
“Two years ago, I sat with my 95-year-old aunt in the hospital. She was very sick, and delirious. She told us something was missing. First we thought she said Schwein, pig, a missing pig, but then she said no, Stein, the stone, where was the stone? She told us she wanted the stone, but we told her it was already there, under the table, and that was enough for her. Then she stopped asking for it.
This book is beautiful and contradictory in the unique way that random, unexpected things can be. If Facebook and other corporate quasi-governments will continue to shape our future, diminishing intimacy and privacy, bringing Foucalt’s internalized prison live and streaming to the Newsfeed, then our path is perhaps as dark and uncertain as Peggy’s; we never know when the drop may come. If this future is the future that Viegener’s aunt faced in the hospital, then intuitive, innovative art, art like Random Things, are the plants that will flourish in the cracks of the path, the stones and missing pigs that we already carry with us, in us, so innate we are sometimes grateful to let go and forget.
2500 Random Things About Me, Too
By Matias Viegener
Les Figues Press
Paperback, 9781934254356, 255 pp.