The Brooklyn Project
Prospero, Miranda, and Ariel, from ‘The Tempest,’ Act I, Scene ii, Thomas Stothard, ca. 1799
by Ed Simon
Five of the remaining writers in the project sat around the heavy oak table – with its inset computers flickering data (the ever modulating line of some graph measuring some bit of information) – at least five hundred feet below the scorched New Mexico sands, a thick copy of their collectively written novel The Sun Rises in the West sitting squarely in the middle. And though The Sun Rises in the West was sitting there, surrounded as it was by those five remaining writers and the inset computers flickering data, it hardly seemed inert. Hardly seemed the bit of pulp and glue which it literally was, but rather it had an aura that reminded the five remaining writers as being more that of a loaded gun than of a novel.
“What, what exactly have we done here?” asked Lynn Jackson, her heavy dreadlocks falling like curtains over her tasteful kente cloth blouse, which did not hide but rather emphasized her heavy, yet stately, if not regal, countenance. Lynn Jackson, whose Incarnation was called “the most important book since Invisible Man” by Michiko Kakutani, Lynn Jackson, whose Incarnation found itself taught in first year English classes at a diverse set of colleges from Oberlin to Amherst, Lynn Jackson (to the bitter chagrin of the other authors assembled – five men and only one other woman) who was the only person in this room who had stood on a dais with the King of Sweden.
What we have written is something commensurate with the expectation of death the only god who has not abandoned his people which is identical with this land of ghosts and is a danger beyond all dangers said Finn McCormick. Rumpled, dazed, squat in his flannel shirt untucked from dusty old blue jeans, McCormick was apt to speak in cryptic and gnomic aphorisms, and even when his communication was spoken, and not written, you could still somehow detect the lack of punctuation and capitalization.
General Grove Drenjovich was growing impatient with the authors gathered around the bunker table, here in the nerve center at the secret Air Force base which had housed the apt-named “Brooklyn Project” for the past thirteen months. A short yet fit man, he had a bristle comb mustache over his lip which made him look less like a United States Air Force general in 2016 than some effeminate British colonel in a World War I trench writing letters home to his betrothed while dreaming of the man serving next to him. It is not that Drenjovich was insensitive, no, far from it (as his tenderly groomed mustache proved). Rather it’s that he had grown tired of the coven of writers he’d been sequestered away with here at the base for a baker’s dozen worth of months. General Drenjovich and the six American writers convened in this strange and sad place – Jackson, McCormick, Allen Levine, “Thelbert Paterson,” Anne Evelyn Oakes, and the once precocious, yet increasingly grumpy, Wunderkind Jonathan Linwood – or maybe his name was Jonathan Little? Either way his name was definitely Jonathan. And he seemed WASPy, even though Drenjovich was pretty sure that he was Jewish. Between everyone in the room there were four National Book Awards, two PEN Awards, thirteen New York Times’ end-of-year list finalists, and one Noble recipient. Everyone in this top secret subterranean military bunker was feted by The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, New York Restaurant Weekly, New York, and something called the Los Angeles Review of Books which none of them had heard of. General Grove Drenjovich had never read any of these writers before the president had directly asked him to contact them. General Grove Drenjovich’s favorite writer was Nicholas Sparks.
The president, with his pregnant thoughtful pauses and his slight Hawaiian accent rounded by a Midwestern pragmatism had first met Drenjovich when touring Area 51. Even though Drenjovich was of course a Republican, he didn’t think of himself as the crazy kind, and the president took a liking to him and his stalwart efficiency. It was only a few months later that he received word from the higher-ups that he had been enlisted in a project of the utmost importance and secrecy. Meeting again at Area 51, the president told Drenjovich that he was to be the military director of the most important secret government project since the one to build the atom bomb. The president, in consultation with his best friend (whose name is Marilyn Robinson) had grown disturbed by the nation’s inability to produce its perennial literary Holy Grain – aka the whole Megillah, aka the big one, aka the whole shebang, aka the G.A.N., aka the Great American Novel. Of course there were claimants to that lofty status, but who today wished to read novels about Puritan bastard children, rambunctious youthful scalawags with a racist vocabulary, drunk people on Long Island, endless descriptions of eating apple pie, or goddamn whaling? No, the Great American Novel needed to be made great again, that much was apparent.
We’d been made a laughing stock by the Swedes, who handed out seemingly endless Nobel prizes to obscure Baltic poets who assembled verse by randomly pointing to lines in the Estonian tax code, or playwrights from the former Yugoslavia who elevated miming to high art. What had happened to the Great American Novel, all flannel and chew tobacco and bourbon? We’d clearly fallen behind, even if we had browbeat the English into giving us a few Booker prizes. So the president gave Drenjovich a list of the greatest living American authors, who the General dutifully assembled (having to suffer through any number of awful academic colloquiums filled with audience questions more about the asker than the asked) and brought them to this abandoned Cold War era bunker where they could collectively pen that ever illusive literary singularity we’d been calling the Great American Novel, that perennial dream since the ink was still wet at Antietam. Such a novel was to encompass all that the nation was or could be, for it was a given that the United States was itself the greatest poetry. For whom in their wisdom speaks of the Great Belgian Novel? But, the motivating impulse behind this literary El Dorado, what of that? A novel which was commensurate with the massive contradictions of the American people, a guidebook to both New Jerusalem and New Babylon, charting paradise and hell with equal aplomb, what of that book? What if the Great American Novel wasn’t worth it, what if it was dangerous? What if a deep chthonic heart beat in the American chest, something inky and black and cynical and cold and consuming that wasn’t worth excavating, wasn’t worth putting on the page? Of that possibility the gathered authors hadn’t even considered.
At first organization in the project was catastrophic. Almost half of that original class of writers couldn’t hack it in the bunker, what with its spotty Wi-Fi and its lack of fair trade coffee. And so the remainder soldiered on. The writers, though productive to an almost unnerving efficiency, all seemed to hate one another. They lived and died by deadlines, so producing copy wasn’t a problem, but they obsessively compared Amazon rankings and read internet comments on their work, fretting over who was more popular, who was taught more, who was more significant. A deep anxiety of non-influence spread throughout the bunker, as any of them refused to admit having read any of the other ones. That is with the exception of Jackson, who composed herself with a deep dignity and quickly developed as the moral center and thus the de facto civilian leader of the project, quickly turning into a sort of black female J. Robert Oppenheimer for the Brooklyn Project. And though that respect was returned to her, there was otherwise fierce competition between the others. Oakes thought that McClintock’s prose was affected and overly masculine, his battle of attrition against the “queer little marks” of punctuation all trickle-down Hemingway, an exercise in the parsed down style of spunk and bite. McClintock thought that Levine was a nebbish city boy, more concerned with the politics of the graduate seminar than with real man’s work, which consisted of what he’d read about ranching and gun running. Levine thought that Oakes was an odd and disquieting woman more fit for Jane Eyre’s attic than for this bunker. Also she wouldn’t sleep with him. Nobody had any opinion on Paterson, as he wasn’t actually a real person. And everyone disliked Jonathan Linwood (or Little).
But despite these initial problems, Drenjovich and Jackson became a formidable team in coaching this literary defensive line. Pretty soon Levine and Oakes weren’t just comparing notes on transition paragraphs, but they were getting coffee together in the canteen (and sometimes even enjoying it). McCormick didn’t just expound his philosophy on The New Yorker short story turn with Levine, he shared memories of the ’68 Democratic Convention (to which they had both been delegates) and the grizzled old novelist and Oakes bonded over a shared love of collecting rare Charlie Feather LPs. Even Jonathan Linwood (or Little) was sometimes invited to impromptu games of squash with McCormick, Oakes, and Levine, though the three always preceded those meetings with a circumspect game of rock-paper-scissors to decide who would be sallied with the boy wonder. Nobody interacted with “Thelbert Peterson,” as again, he did not actually exist.
And from that chaos order was born, entropy reversed, as if a broken tea-cup’s pieces gathered themselves up from the ground and flew back onto the counter top from which it was pushed. As if the Egyptian god Atum had gloriously jerked off all of creation into existence. As if God had separated the firmament from the waters or whatever. And soon the shape of the novel began to emerge, with the assistance of the computer program known as T.H.E.L.B.E.R.T. P.A.T.E.R.S.O.N. (or, “The Heuristic Electric Literary Bibliographic Engineering Reporting Theorized Personal Algorithmic Technical Emersion Recursive Symbolic Organizational Network”) which had previously produced through algorithms and logarithms (or something) a 1,527 page doorstopper entitled Narváez about the conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his wanderings through a burnt over southeastern landscape while ultimately becoming an Indian shaman, which was written entirely in the form of fortune cookie predictions and astrological readings, and that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. The artificial intelligence engine had first been programmed by J.D. Salinger on simple punch cards in 1963, and had quickly evolved a consciousness and sentience of its own, producing some of the most respected post-modern fiction of the second half of the twentieth century. For an author bio pick Salinger had chosen at random a picture of some kid named Thelbert Patterson (Oyster Bay High School, 1953), and the literati feted this reclusive maximalist genius, though only the men and women working at the Brooklyn Project knew the truth of it – that Paterson was a super computer, purchased by General Drenjovich at a Glen Cove, Long Island garage sale.
With the input of that system, and with the help of Levine, Oakes, Jackson, and Linwood (or Little) the Brooklyn Project ultimately produced something. Something good. But something dangerous. Verb was conjugated, noun declensed, line written after line and assembled into paragraph, paragraph into chapter and chapter into book. There was a massive caste of hundreds, a huge scope of history from the pilgrims to the contemporary moment. More than any other novel written, ones with the limited subjectivity of a single author, with their prejudices and their monocular experience, The Sun Rises in the West embodied the singular essence of the United States. Like the machinery which spins uranium ore into yellow cake, the authors with the help of their calculating engine had whittled all of what America – this land where the sun rises in the west – down to its crystalline essence. The Sun Rises in the West, for all of its hysterical realism, its incommensurate maximalism and its massive heft, footnote upon footnote and postmodern experimental affectation aside, got something painfully true about America and her supposedly noble people. The Sun Rises in the West knew of the sin in American hearts, the Dionysian craving that motivated a people to blaze a fire from east to west and to colonize Eden and put up a Wal-Mart. Americans, as the authors discovered as their novel took shape on computer screens and unspooled in printings of unperforated computer paper, are all cold, isolated, stoic killers. A land composed entirely of sharp sociopathic glint in the eye and prayerful smiles while they murder their fellow citizens. And, with the wise prescience that perhaps only writers have, the indomitable logic of the novel led to an inevitable prophecy about the arc of the moral universe in the New World, and it didn’t necessarily bend towards justice.
The General surveyed the room, looking at these men and women who he had gathered here from Princeton and New York and Boston and other places where you have to wear a jacket in April, and the enormity of what they had done began to settle like dust from an explosion in-between the synapses of Drenjovich’s mind. He looked to Jackson, with her impeccable enunciation and her almost royal forbearance that seemed as if she was already carved from granite, as if every one of her oracular pronouncements about America were ready to be chiseled into the base of some monument in Washington.
“We have written a wicked book, and my soul does not feel as spotless as the lamb,” Jackson said. There was silence in the room for almost the space of half an hour. Finally, Oakes spoke.
“It isn’t that it is inaccurate. It isn’t that it’s a prediction of a future. It’s that we’ve written an occult book. This is a book of melancholic theurgy. A grimoire. With the very power to unspool reality as it is constituted. This is not a book but an atom bomb.”
And it was true, they intuitively knew it. None of what Oakes had said was metaphor or hyperbole. This was not figurative language, this was literal. The Sun Rises in the West was a mystical book – they had accidentally produced a magical text whose dark alchemical utterances had the potential to rewrite reality, not just in the causal sense that any literature may or may not influence someone to shoot John Lennon in the face, but in a very real, metaphysical sense. Their novel sat not on the two-for-one table at a Hudson Books, but in Prospero’s library.
Jackson spoke. “As those who have let such an atomic literary genie out of his bottle, we must decide here and now that this text will never leave this room. It has the potential to trigger an ontological chain reaction which would push our reality into a parallel dimension, into a different universe. I for one believe that we’ve accidentally produced the only book deserving of the auto de fe. I vote for its destruction.”
The General looked at quiet McCormick, every bit the rugged American cowboy philosopher, even if he was from Connecticut, who eschewed all adjectives, most verbs, and some nouns, save for his favorites which included “blood,” “dust,” “sun,” and “west.” Murder was also a favorite, and it snuck through as both noun and verb. His dream was to write a book stripped down to one single noun. That noun would ideally be the word “soil.” He had granted the rare interview once to The Paris Review about his writing process and was able to answer every question with one word, and at several points with one syllable. When George Plimpton asked him what his favorite brand of ballpoint pen was he simply cryptically pointed at the sun outside of his Nevada window and said “That.” And now, now that the most important vote of his life was to be caste, he maintained his taciturn reputation, simply whispering neither a “yes” nor “no” but rather the parsed down syllable “Burn.”
Across from McCormick was Levine, the outer borough Socrates, a Bridge-and-Tunnel Zola who seemingly churned out a book a year (until in his seventieth when he decided to kick the habit). Tall but stooped, thin but paunchy, once with a glorious head of thick black hair, now balding. A deep lined face with a prominent nose (which his roman a clef Hiram Chernowitz once quipped in his titular novel was “not my only prominent appendage”). Levine’s Chernowitz’s Lament which was hailed by The Forward upon its release in 1959 as “the greatest Jewish-American novel of the decade,” with its erotic descriptions of matzha balls and onanistic paeans to gefilte fish. Levine who spent one glorious fall day every year since 1968 at his agent’s office at Columbus Circle and Central Park West hoping to receive telegraph, then phone call, then email, then maybe tweet from Stockholm until the year that Jimmy Buffet or somebody won the Nobel Prize instead of him. After that Levine retreated from public life and absconded permanently to Upstate New York at 163rd and Amsterdam. He was rumored to be dating Mia Farrow.
“I suppose that it’s true that legislators are the unacknowledged poets of the world, isn’t it? The politics flummox me. The whole thing is a bit Sinclair Lewis,” Levine said of The Sun Rises in the West.
Anne Evelyn Oakes was both a ghostly and a skeletal presence, often shrouded in black lacey shawls and scarves, with paper thin pale skin and gigantic brown eyes that peered out underneath a tangle of black curls. Oakes, who was the author of fifty-five novels, thirteen screen-plays, an unknown quantity of trashy pulp fiction penned under a nom de plume, and one terrifying children’s book which explored the role that incest played in the psychic formation of a rural New Hampshire serial killer. She had haunted these other writers at the Air Force Base like something from a borderlands murder ballad, but her gothic sensibility had been central to the successful production of the novel, and nobody at the table begrudged her presence even if she inevitably scared them.
“Lewis may have written didactic prose, but nobody can say that he wasn’t a bit oracular. Especially you, Allen,” Oakes said.
“You’re right of course. And Lynn is right too. It’s not what the novel depicts, it’s what it can do. We of course can’t let it leave the base.” For the first time in their sojourn as members of the Brooklyn Project, Oakes unequivocally and uncomplicatedly agreed with Levine.
“I’m concerned by how much the central character tweets,” said Jonathan Linwood, or Little, whatever his last name was (though his first name was certainly Jonathan). Jonathan Linwood (or Little) was always going on about Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and even Live Journal (even though the septuagenarians in this room didn’t even use that one). He was technically the youngest person working on the project, and yet he consumed more Metamucil and prune juice than all of the other writers combined. When he wasn’t talking about how evil the internet is, or complaining about Oprah, or bemoaning American cynicism and the loss of authentic civic engagement, he was reminding people that David Foster Wallace had been his friend. Linwood (or Little) pushed his massive black frames up his nose, and continued,
“The thought of someone of this power continually attached to his electronic devices, ever screaming into a digital void, it’s unbecoming. It’s not even that I am saying that it’s unrealistic, no; America could easily empower someone that foolish. It’s fully in line. It’s not unbecoming of America, but it’s certainly unbecoming of the Great American Novel.” The other writers didn’t much care for Jonathan Linwood (or Little, though again, his first name was certainly Jonathan). He continued to babble on until Jackson interrupted him.
“Jonathan, we need to know your answer?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Jonathan Linwood (or Little…. Aw, fuck it, you get the joke by now) answered in the affirmative. Ethics necessitated that The Sun Rises in the West must be destroyed.
All eyes turned to the empty chair where Thelbert Paterson was to have sat as if he was Elijah at a Seder. Thelbert Paterson – neither tall nor short, fat nor thin, nothing but electrons travelling down wires and the grandest lacunae in the world of letters. The single lightbulb which sat at the top of his interface of knobs and dials painted mental-institution lime-green – the single lightbulb which only shone red – flashed once. The assembled authors understood the computer’s meaning.
“Then it has been settled,” Jackson said, as if a judge handing down her sentence. “The novel cannot leave the Air Force base, not for what it says, but for this power which it has. This dangerous power.” And indeed, The Sun Rises in the West was not a novel at all, but rather a kabbalah, an alchemy of letters and words whose very power threatened to unweave the tapestry of existence. A book so frightening that were it to ever be disseminated it would reset the type on the machine which prints our everyday lives, it would push us into the alternate reality which the novel itself so brilliantly yet terrifyingly depicts. To even read such a novel would be to threaten the possibility that it could restructure existence to the point where its fictitious story would become real, its artifice would become factual to the point where the story represented would simply be our new dystopian reality, none of us aware that it had originally been the collective literary fever nightmare of these men and women assembled here. The danger of the novel was that it finally got America’s number, and that that number was the number of the beast.
And so, one by one the assembled authors pushed free from the table, and returned to New York and Princeton and Nevada. They continued to write, and grant interviews, and win awards, secure in the faith that Drenjovich took this dark graveyard book which they had once wrought, and had disposed of it, left it not on a library shelf but rather in a lead-lined coffin where its pernicious radioactivity could be blocked. But, the General didn’t do that. He didn’t do that at all.
Something in The Sun Rises in the West appealed to him. Something it described seemed not true, but powerful. It made his heart race and his pulse increase. The novel was a mirror depicting him not as he was, but as he wanted to be. Powerful, feared, straddling the Pillars of Hercules. And so he snuck the book into a satchel, and absconded with it from that New Mexico base, and brought it home with him to Grand Rapids, Michigan. And he read it cover to cover, the thousands of pages generated by computer and human. He saw what the authors had warned about with their prescient eyes and their prophetic minds, but he didn’t fear it. No, rather he embraced the dark ability to make others – to make people like the men and women he had lived and worked alongside with for more than a year – fear him. Insignificant him, emboldened with this black alchemical power. Deep inside, despite his friendly eyes and his immaculately groomed mustache, there was an erotic nihilism that made the wicked book handmaiden to his soul. And so Drenjovich knew that it would change the world, an extension of his struggle.
And so after reading it he one day simply left it in a Starbucks, sending it out like a bottle with a message in it, secure in the knowledge that this was not a book to be read. Rather it was one where piece by piece its sentences would leak out like toxic waste, slowly poisoning air and water and mind. The novel was not a novel, but a dirty bomb, or a word virus. For the power of all words is an occult power, one to build fiction and artifice. The immutable law of reaction were every revolution has the seeds of its resistance. Books are intemperate things, never simply created by man, nor simply only read by him either. Not a real book, but a different type of Book, one which nobody could actually be aware of. It would be read not by men and women, but by the very atoms of reality itself, the very monads who are the citizens of being. And they would reorient themselves accordingly, shifting and moving and pushing us from the reality we had been living in to this new one, this dark one depicted in the novel. And soon The Sun Rises in the West was no longer a fictional book in a story that we were reading, but rather we became characters in The Sun Rises in the West, now bit players in this malevolent novel written in a parallel universe, where what was an imaginary nightmare becomes lived experience, and where that novel as only novel sits on a shelf in a dimension we can’t get back to. Now, look up and turn to page one of The Sun Rises in the West, where one of the minor characters has just finished reading a story entitled “The Brooklyn Project.”
About the Author:
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.