theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh


Consider yourselves travellers climbing a steep, rough path up a mountain, behind which is hidden a delightful plain; it proves all the more pleasurable the harder the climb and the descent that follows.

                                Giovanni Boccaccio “The Decameron” Introduction (translated by Peter Hainsworth)

You could see any book as a mountain, some more difficult to climb than others, some with easy paths but the riches of your travels make the ascent easy, others short sharp craggy climbs, but the view from the top is not always a “delightful plain”, at times I’ve come across vistas cloaked in haze, others very disappointing, and yet others the landscape peppered with resources. Small mountains can be just as rewarding as massive climbs.

Before even opening Matthew McIntosh’s “theMystery.doc”, you know you are about to embark on a “steep, rough path”, somewhat akin to Mount Kilimanjaro, maybe not the highest peak on the planet but one you need to think about before heading off. Weighing in at nearly 2 kilograms and 1,653 pages, on the surface it appears to be a daunting task.

Self-described, within the book itself, as a “post-post-neo-modern mystery story”, the narrative could be simply described as a writer who awakes, having forgotten himself, he doesn’t know the woman getting dressed in the room, he doesn’t know his neighbour’s name, and on his computer is an empty document titled “theMystery.doc”. Through various techniques he attempts to work out his identity, learning that he is a writer who has been working on his latest book for eleven years. Note: Matthew McIntosh’s first, and only other, novel “The Well” was published fourteen years ago, also by Grove Press.

However, this simple narrative ploy would probably make up only 10-15% of the book itself.

don’t try to analyse it…

just report it. (appears on various pages)

The book replicates our current technology driven lives, holding our attention for short periods of time, with various techniques deployed to shift our attention from one event to another, road signs, neon signs, scrolling replicated on a page, the constant distraction. We have .wav files, interviews transcribed, .avi files, movies transcribed, emails, images from various films, home photos, blank pages, computer code, redaction, and (controversially) a transcription of a 9/11 telephone call to 911. All of this is served in what appears to be no linear order

“A book like one of those paintings, Las Meninas, for example, where the key to the composition is found, in fact, outside the frame.” Luis Goytisolo “Recounting: Book 1 of Antagony”

The further you immerse yourself in this multi-media, work, the further the narrator fades from view, and as a reader you are exposed to reality through seemingly unconnected media. It is almost an instillation.

She said, “The journey is very difficult, and the one against whom you must stand will set many obstacles in your path. But the prize is great indeed.

You must be bold, and good and true, and never fear. The water will get colder the closer you get to the end, but you will not freeze. And the fire will grow hotter but it will not burn you. Everything will appear to turn upside down. The sky will be below you and above will be the ground. The one who tries to climb will find himself falling. But the one who lets himself go will rise to heaven. There will come a light, And then a flash. And then darkness. And then the end will appear to come. But do not be afraid. For the end is only a doorway to another world, the real world, which underlies, supports, and sustains this dull reflection. Always always always remember:

                                              .” (p147)


This is a brutal, raw, “monologue?” of people dealing with ill family members, premature births, still births, saints and beatification, 9/11, terrorist beheadings, and oh SO much more…

A repeated online conversation with a web bot, which takes unexpected spins and turns, reminds you of the increasingly dehumanised world we live in, these small diversions build to a crescendo of intermingling voices, messages and rapid fire images, the end result a lingering sense of sadness.

But it’s not over (p261)

That quote taking a whole page and being sandwiched between two blank pages.

Despite mingling environmental and indigenous messages of hope, and decay, the overarching feeling is one of loss, a loss of the American Dream post 9/11, a loss of parents, children, innocence, and of course memory.

W: Well, like you said before, the book is the map, you know?

M: Yeah.

W: Maps have symbols, which are representations of things.

As the circular references keep appearing before your eyes, the book itself, the one the writer is apparently writing, begins to appear in the text;

It will break – it will break two hundred years of classification of books.

It’s a big book about America.

It’s gonna be a record of America before the Great Fall.

M: I just gotta figure out Eternal Life. And then I have my ending.

Succumb to the rich canvas that is this book, although it looks HUGE, and is difficult to lug around, it is not a book that will take months to read, it is a work that becomes an immersive experience, dwell on the blank pages, observe the different images and their relevance, absorb the textual tricks and visions.

“We’ve heard that you live in town, that you have a drop-dead gorgeous wife who works with Candy’s mom. That you wrote a book about a decade ago that was praised by quickly forgotten. That you don’t talk to your agent or publisher or anyone who ever knew you, and that you dropped out of society and ran off to the boonies to write mankind’s next immortal masterpiece. The next Divine Comedy or Aeneid or Moby-Dick or Thousand and One Nights….”

Do not be put off by the massive bulk of this work, and do not attempt to understand the riches that it contains, simply allow the images, the experience to unfold, once you reach the pinnacle of this mountain I can assure you the vista is exquisite, even if you can only focus on one element of the view at a time, allow yourself the space, and time to take it all in. It will dwell and haunt you for quite some time.

Congratulations to Grove Press for putting together such a cumbersome and complex work, I can imagine the production would have taken quite some effort.

As W. M. Spackman said “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are a lot of hogwash,” this one contains more style and structure than you’re likely to come across in any bookstore.

5 thoughts on “theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh

  1. But really now. I had a look at this in the bookstore and could not help but wonder if quite as many trees had to be sacrificed to bring it to print. Lots of empty space. Your review is curiously devoid of convincing argument one way or another.

    Or is that the point? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Simply immerse yourself in it Joseph.
      I don’t want to call out that it SHOULD win the Pulitzer, because it won’t, and there is only a small audience for this experimental style so I was stuck between a rock & a hard place on my way up that mountain.
      I also didn’t want to specifically reveal any of the riches & spoil it for any reader.
      Help? Probably not…

      Liked by 2 people

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