How 136 Words from My Novel Became Two Million Words (and Counting)



by Nicholas Rombes

In college I had a physics professor who wrote the date and time in red marker on a sheet of white paper and then lit the paper on fire and placed it on a metallic mesh basket on the lab table where it burned to ashes. He asked us whether or not the information on the paper was destroyed and not recoverable, and of course we were wrong, because physics tells us that information is never lost, not even in a black hole, and that what is seemingly destroyed is, in fact, retrievable. In that burning paper the markings of ink on the page are preserved in the way the flame flickers and the smoke curls. Wildly distorted to the point of chaos, the information is nonetheless not dead. Nothing, really, dies. Nothing dies. Nothing dies.

I’m a little bit familiar with the world of Tumblr, using it mostly as convenient place to post articles, author interviews, film clips, and the like for a few of the classes I teach at a university in Detroit. It was one of my ex-students who emailed me with a link to a Tumblr post that had reblogged a short passage from my novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. At that point, it had only been “liked” and reblogged about a hundred or so times since its original posting here. I’d check in every few days, and was surprised to see that 50 or so people a day were reblogging it. As far as I can tell (by checking the book’s sales stats on Amazon) the Tumblr postings have had little effect on sales, and I can see why, as most of the posts that I’ve looked at seem to be from younger folks, high school and college age, with probably not a lot of disposable income to go to buying a strange book about an obsessive, older gentleman who is hiding away in an abandoned motel in remote Wisconsin after burning and destroying rare single-print films by famous directors.

The quoted passage itself has a curious history. I wrote it during the last editing stages of the book, after our son Niko shared a video of his physics advisor at the University of Michigan. From around 21:00-23:50 Professor Zayas describes the difference, in theory, between information that is seemingly lost when we burn it (it’s not really lost) and when it enters a black hole where, in principle, it is truly lost. I found his description moving and thought about it in relation to human beings. For isn’t the concept of a soul similar? Our bodies die. In terms of “information” we are destroyed. And yet maybe not. Perhaps—like the numbers written on the paper—we still exist, just in some different, incoherent form.

In a strange way, the flow of Tumblr—which I only got a real sense of observing how rapidly the novel passage spread and was replicated—captures a sort of real-time map of a certain sliver human consciousness as it unfolds. The criticisms of Tumblr, that it’s an incoherent stream of random thought where new posts displace old ones so quickly, is precisely its source of fascination. Our moods change, we grow older, and yet for a brief moment we were “into” Top of the Lake or True Detective or the out-of-synch shark performance at the Super Bowl, or Arya Stark’s GIF-ed hand movement in that one moment from Game of Thrones, etc.

“The child walks amid heaps of illusions, which he does not like to have disturbed,” Emerson writes in Illusions, and places like Tumblr or Instagram are where we can secure those illusions against disturbance. They provide a place to remember, an archive not just of individual thoughts and obsessions and aspirations, but of a collective stream of consciousness.

About the Author:


Nicholas Rombes is author of the forthcoming novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio Press) and Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor in Detroit, Michigan.