Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Inside Job

It is traditional to begin by pointing out that there are no stories that have not been told, nor ways of retelling them that have not been tried. Still, storytellers persist, seeking the philosopher's stone even when lead type has made way for bits of silicon, and gold is a commodity more profitably extracted from seabrine. They keep piling up words, stray bits of kelp washed up on shore, into an homogenous, undifferentiated mass. For redemptive novelty, a deus ex machina is blithely injected into a thricetold tale. I've seen every hackneyed plot device, every stylistic trick in the book, every character from A to Z and beyond. The spark of life I sought in my readings was false, a glint of pyrite, a cruel trick of the light. And now, bereft of human contact, the real world seems no more than a distant memory. Rather than rereading the tomes I've been through a thousand times before, I feel compelled to relate, if I can keep my composure, how my self-imposed sequestration in the library came about.

I was destined to become a librarian. I'd always been drawn to books, novels particularly: the clarity of the language, the structures and strictures of plotting, drawing inexorably towards its preordained conclusion. The sense of order, of permanence, each volume a cosmology preserved intact. And each new book, a new universe! The idea that these could be amassed into one collection, a record of civilization -- no, surpassing civilization, the richness of its aspirations untrammeled by either the ordinariness of everyday life or the blind operation of coincidence or accident -- was beyond imagination. Limitations arose not from possibility but plausibility, and from each author's ability to convey the sense (through economy of means and the judicious choice of words) that this is not just as it should be, but as it must be.

When I first entered the library, it seemed a cathedral, with its ecclesiastical hush, the stacks lined up like organ pipes. In the middle, an altar under a sign saying "Information", which I approached as reverently as a child receiving first communion. Looking back, it's odd that when I enquired after a job rather than a title, it was almost as if I'd been expected, but I took it as a matter of course, determined as I was to inhabit this fabulous setting. I dutifully submitted an application, met first with a staff librarian and then with the library's administrator.

My eagerness must have been self-evident, for I was taken on at once as an assistant, assigned to the card catalog. The drudgery of maintaining some semblance of order in the catalog was a task reserved for neophytes, a way of paying dues, but it afforded me an opportunity to survey my new domain. The catalog provided the basis for my mental map of the stacks, laying out my new world before me like ancient maritime charts, more suggestive than literal.

The card catalog was a mess, but I was able to put things right in fairly short order. Classification by author and title was easy, but by subject was ... well, so subjective. Sometimes the decimals seemed to be assigned irrationally, and not just for those works that didn't fit neatly into a particular category. Still, I was able to handle these exceptions by virtue of my quick grasp of the system, despite the constant interruptions to redistribute check-ins to the stacks, or helping out at Information. But I had little chance to investigate the books themselves; my time was not my own, and every spare moment brought a new and onerous chore. I felt adrift in a sea of stories, chained to the mast, doomed to hear the siren song but unable to put to shore.

It became clear that I had to distinguish myself, to demonstrate some skill beyond diligence, in order to gain more responsibility for and more access to the books, and the time to make use of them. Fortunately, my efforts handling queries at Information were well-spent; queries on author and title were routine enough, but the most difficult and time-consuming were those which had neither, and were otherwise ill-formed (" ... a short book with a red cover ..."). I formulated an ambitious cross-indexing scheme to include such standard items as publisher and date of publication, as well as the size of the book and the color of its cover, and over time integrated it into the card catalog.

Though this endeavor robbed me of the little reading time I had, the scheme was wildly successful, at least at first. The administrator took notice of my initiative and accomplishment and suggested promoting me to associate in Information services. It was then that I hit upon a plan that would make reading an integral part of my duties: constructing synopses of story-lines and character sketches to further extend the card catalog. My rationale was to address that other bane of Information, the query based on what the book was about. I put this proposal before the administrator; it was granted conditionally, based on the ongoing results of this new program, and my job was transformed.

I was given the title "Head of Special Projects", even though I had no direct reports. (Though I made it appear that I was on the look-out for recruits with special promise, I was able to deflect those that were put forward.) Now I could read voraciously, spared from both the everyday tasks that were the lot of most of the staff, and the management responsibilities that weighed heavily on the rest. My new status did not bring any resentment from my coworkers, but then there was little appreciation expressed for the innovations I had instituted to make their jobs easier. It was as if I had left the staff; except for updating the existing catalog, I lost touch with the day-to-day operation of the library as I delved deeper into the texts. In fact, I made good use of the special security clearance I was granted to come and go at all hours to proceed with the new project.

I concentrated on fiction (including biography), ostensibly since this area accounted for the bulk of Information requests. I was always a fast reader, but I had to pick up the pace to keep up with the flood of new acquisitions, much less describe the library's extant collection. I honed techniques to read lightning fast, and so made considerable progress against the incoming tide. Fortunately (or so I thought at the time) most of the new publications were formulaic; I could dispatch them easily, as I could systematically predict story lines and outcomes well before the critical circumstances of the plot were fully laid out. I practically resolved the whole procedure into a taxonomy of multiple choices, ticking off the appropriate box as each new element appeared in the story. I organized these into a compendium of plot summaries, thematic abstracts, and a character registry; my output soared as I dispensed with book after book, leaving in my wake a more fully evolved and comprehensive index.

But dark clouds had begun to gather on the horizon, had I but looked up from my reading to notice. Information was being swamped by requests of progressively more ambiguous nature or quirkiness of detail. Word had gotten out that Information had the capacity to resolve them, and the new queries came in waves. Even the hits scored against the catalog were often not much help in narrowing down the possibilities, since there was so much commonality amongst them, and so many were derivative of their predecessors; the synopses were not sufficiently differentiated to distinguish between so much indistinctive matter. And as the index had grown more unwieldy, fewer of the staff were competent to use it; increasingly, I became the only one capable of navigating its intrinsic complexities.

The situation became so bad that the administrator called upon me to return to Information to devote myself exclusively to the process of handling queries. I pointed out that resolving the most problematic requests would have required the entire contents of the library to function as its own index, and that the benefits of my indexing system could not be realized unless I was given the chance to complete my work. How could the indexing, now so indispensable to Information, progress if it was deprived of its key resource? I suggested taking a subsequent pass at the synopses, to remedy the vagaries with attention to specific detail; but we were talking at cross-purposes. At any rate, I categorically refused to disengage myself from the project.

Not long after, a memorandum was circulated to the effect that the catalog project was being scrapped, and that I was now to act as a consultant to the regular Information staff, working on how best to retain those parts of the indexing scheme which had proven most useful. Recognizing that it was only a matter of time until I would be deprived of access to the texts, my only reason for being there, I carefully laid plans. Finally, I was making use of all the research I'd been compiling; it wasn't hard to assemble all the necessary materials, and before long, I was ready.

Perhaps through some oversight, my security privileges had not been suspended. After hours, when Maintenance took charge of the library (they were accustomed to seeing me work at odd hours, so my presence raised no warning flags), I checked the administrator's files, and came across what I had feared would be there: a notice of termination with my name on it, undated but ready to implement. I waited for Maintenance to check out, then triggered an alert to draw Security away from the library, leaving me the sole occupant within its confines.

I quickly locked down all of the library's entryways. I had prepared a long, rambling tract, a pastiche of radical sociopolitical motifs, conspiratorial theories and apocalyptic scenarios, but clearly making the point that the library was now in possession of a terrorist faction. Other than warning off any attempt to recapture the library, with allusions to dire consequences (backed by some indications of technical sophistication), the message made no specific demands, but instructed the authorities to await further instructions. At the end, I included a long section of gibberish, designed to appear partially encoded by some complicated cipher, but with nothing underlying it; I knew I would gain yet more time on attempted decryption. I had transferred this counterfeit manifesto on to magnetic tape, which I now posted conspicuously, like Luther's theses, at the main entry.

I proceeded to set devices in place to pass low amperage current through the locks at all the entryways, making them appear to be booby-trapped. As I'd anticipated, the first calls were coming into the library, presumably trying to establish contact with the terrorists. I disregarded them at first, buying time to shut off all of the service passageways and block all the emergency exits indicated in the blueprints from the administrator's files. When I was sure I'd totally secured the library, I answered the incoming call. I didn't say a word; after an interval of silence, I switched on a prerecorded message saying that any further contact would be initiated from within. I then cut off all communications linkages to the outside.

Unhindered now by the pretense of constructing glosses, I began to read in earnest. I read with superhuman speed, racing the clock, knowing the success of my subterfuge could not last forever. But as I ploughed through the stacks, I began to sense something was horribly wrong; as I started each new book, I found myself double-checking to ensure that I hadn't previously read it. I was struck by the sameness, the lack of originality incorporated into the texts, and by the obvious flaws that pervaded them, as if each new work was the malformed offspring of an incestuous tryst of the ones that had come before it. The selfsame plot would be exhumed countless times, repackaged in a shroud of modern trappings, or transposed to distant settings. Stock characters would be tossed into a brackish broth of overplayed themes and dubious motifs; clich├ęs were reserved for dialogue, which was otherwise a litany of the unspeakable. Still, I managed to slog through it all.

Having dispensed with narrative prose, I moved on to philosophy, only to find it a degenerate form of fiction. The rest of the so-called social sciences were less plausible than even the worst bestseller. So I returned to fiction, to concentrate on the "great books", those universally acclaimed creations of the best minds ever to assay the human condition. Many of these books were no more than archetypes for later genres, mere canon-fodder for authors of lesser caliber. But even the core, held up as the paradigm of narrative art, resolved into little more than prosaic games with language: unresolved ambiguities, in the end meaning nothing at all; coy obscurantism transparently pretending to be enigmatic; artificial contrivances and conceits; all in all, a collection of cleverly constructed crosswords. My search for the truth underlying these fictions, my rhetorical quest, has only uncovered deeper lies.

The siege is drawing to a close. It won't be long before Security comes crashing in, but -- no matter. I have achieved my end -- I have become the library -- but in the process of absorbing this ocean of story, I've found there's precious little gold to be extracted from it. I was simply telling myself a story about the profound nature of literature, and mistaking the figurative for the literal, I believed it.

The worst of it is, that in setting down this history, rendering my tale, I realize how banal and inconsequential it is beside the works that I have found so wanting. It is as if Fate had reserved a special punishment for me, remarkable only for its ordinariness -- no, triteness. Nothing remains but to bring my tale to its logical conclusion --

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