Outside the wire, we learned to live—barely, then all at once: hard years in dirt, blockades, lights in the bay and over the mountains. Within the wire, things happened slowly. From here, it looked like a creature deflating, flattening in on itself, the shape growing outward as it lost mass and nearly swallowed us. But it was hollow in the end, and then we were free.
This happened. How and why has been recounted elsewhere, though scholars still argue. For years no tavern or dinner party was free of an argument; people would discuss it with their partners in bed or with strangers in the park. There was no other subject pressing with such force on our minds. In the interregnum—that beginning of history disguised as an end—it seemed that there was nothing more important, no brighter line demarcating oneself from others. There were books and pamphlets and speeches and rallies and fights, but as time passed, no air returned to the husk at our doorstep. It lay inert, drying into dust.
We were consumed by the question: What happened? It would be a long time before we looked out our windows and knew the lights would not return to the bay, would not flash in our mountain passes, that the supply lines would remain lean, but steady, that no one wanted to or could pick up the shattered crown at the collapsed center, and those who lived amid its shards would have to choose what kind of life that would be for themselves.
This is my version of the story, short and flat, but it is not the story I am here to tell. I am here to tell a story in the shadow of this story—a colossal shadow. I will illuminate only a corner of it, one that ran parallel to and underneath it, until the shadow began to pass, revealing what was left in its wake. I will tell you about the writers who refused the question being asked of everyone, and instead looked to the question beyond it.
I can only tell this story because I was not one of them, because I was consumed by the question asked of everyone and could not see the question beyond it. A blessing and a curse. They could not look behind them, but, being behind them, I can look ahead. My process of translation is complex, much of what I communicate must be twisted and contorted to fit in the container we once used and called language, called writing. I used to know it better, but I hope my meaning will not be rendered unrecognizable, and that your understanding is still possible. If you are reading this, you are still inside the wire. I will try to show you something of the life that is possible outside of it.
In the growing studies of the Dolōrem Group I have often been incorrectly included as a—tangential and minor, to be sure—“member.” This last word is key, because any study that uses it has already fundamentally misunderstood the phenomenon they are seeking to elucidate. Nevertheless, as my name has come up, I must begin by setting the record straight.
I was born in Dolōrem, in the lower city, before the interregnum—never mind how long before. My parents (you should know that even at this late date many of the old forms still held, but that would change) moved shortly thereafter to the Haur’on District. We lived in a community block with a dozen or so other families and I walked half a kilometer to school for the duration of my formal education. After an initial interest in mathematics, I chose a path in literature, eventually becoming a bibliologist. When I volunteered for the labor pool, I was assigned to alternating work days as an assistant librarian, a groundskeeper, and a plumber. Seasonally, I would work as usher and custodian at the theater in the district where I lived. Of the works I will discuss below, I came to know some of those involved in their making—those I came to know at all—in this capacity. It is possible some of these personages passed through the library, but my work was of the office-bound variety. I rarely encountered visitors. In my leisure time, I walked around the city, watched old films, and learned to cook. I wrote occasionally, and did, in my younger years, circle among the Dolōrem Group, taking part in some of their works. But, by then, they were already exceeding my own capacities. Their world was moving forward while mine stood still.
This essay is featured in Speculation.
I have learned not to mourn this, because it is only by this stasis that I can chronicle their work. What follows are preliminary notes toward a longer, exhaustive, survey I hope to conduct in my remaining years. The works surveyed below are not “major” works. The Dolōrem Group explicitly rejected such designations, and no attempt has been made on my part to counter that impulse. The complete survey will require further research. I set down below only what I have come to know through personal experience and the first-hand accounts of people I met who were present. These are the works I happen to have come in contact with directly or through very close proxies. This often required what might be called “translation” on my part, and so what you have is an account of accounts, a translation of translations. I am somewhere between the new and old Language. I am among the last in this position. This is my gift to you, from outside the wire, and into it.
Or, I might say, “completed,” “temporally closed,” “trapped in the past.” None of these convey how these works are situated and how the reader—another and deeper translation hole down which I cannot dive—might experience them. It is best to treat these works as analogous to the novels of the past: written, proofed, and published within the lifetime and under the guidance of their authors (setting aside the caveats and complications of literary production as it was organized in the past). They have a life after that, as all works do, but they have been reserved, chosen to remain in stasis. The work of the Dolōrem Group in this category is collective and anonymous in the sense that many “authors” were involved, the audience itself being a key collaborator, with no single personage having a responsibility to the work outstripping that of any other personage. This is not always the case of the Works in Progress and the Fragments I examine later. These works are, for all intents and purposes, Done. They were authored and executed by the Dolōrem Group in the years during and after the interregnum. You may wonder at my lack of accounting for the specific year, but you must understand that, even if I wanted to, I could not pinpoint it. Time has changed. And besides this fundamental point, all of these works were conducted across many years, and assigning them an arbitrary number based on their terminus point—the only sensible way to do such a thing—would fail to account for the time in which they elapsed and were read by those like myself who were fortunate enough to do so. These are the first literary works completed outside of what was formerly known as time.
Dissonance and Harmony
The novel was originally presented in written fragments published across early pamphlets printed by the Dolōrem Group press. There are conflicting accounts of how many fragments were printed and how many copies of each were distributed. The most extreme account comes from someone close to the project who claimed that there were not multiple fragments or multiple copies, but only one document, passed from hand to hand. This account is a notable outlier. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that there were dozens of fragments, disseminated digitally and independently printed, copied, bootlegged, with resulting changes both intentional and unintentional.
Isolated, the fragments seemed an extreme kind of noise poetry. There were no words, only sounds. There was an unmistakable sonic direction in the work if/when read aloud, but the sense, if any was intended, was inscrutable. It seemed to be a sampling of phonemes across the known languages, with some critics and readers claiming the inclusion of entirely original or imaginary sounds that could not be found in any language. After several years of fragments finding their way into pamphlets and public readings (read always by someone chosen from the audience) the first work in progress reading was held. This consisted of three voices reading different fragments—both those previously published and entirely new ones—simultaneously underneath the Musa Bridge. From outside, all that could be heard was a cacophonous echo, but as the readers passed through—of which I can say I was among the lucky few—the acoustics of the underpass blended the voices into something very much like language, but also not unlike music.
My own impression was that this first performance provided the title, the future publication date, and a brief summary of the work to come. These general principles were mostly agreed upon by those who had read it, but there was disagreement about the order of the title words, the formatting of the date, and, most contentiously, the summary. The readers split into two camps, with one camp claiming the narrative to be something like a traditional hero’s journey, an evocation of the Greek epics, but turned inside out, where man controls the fate of the gods, and the last god journeys back to where they came. The second camp, of which I was a partisan, heard, instead, the promise of a polyphonic history, a sprawling anti-humanist narrative stretching across time and following an undying protagonist who guides the reader from the creation of Earth to the beginning of history.
When the final print edition was issued, it comprised six volumes of nearly one thousand pages each, copies of which appeared simultaneously in every library in the city (and on at least a few private shelves, according to secondary sources). Early readers found a nearly endless string of letters and “words”—really, sounds—that in parts resembled the fragments previously published and presented, and even seemed to repeat, with variations, sections of the fragments, as if each copy of the original that deviated (in a minor or major way) had been incorporated into the whole.
Sometime later, a broadside was issued and distributed throughout Dolōrem—pasted on walls, tacked on signboards, flashing on info terminals, left on café tables—informing the reader that the work would be completed on the solstice, and depicting a map of the city with dozens of locations marked. Among these widely distributed broadsides were copies on which the flipside was not blank, but gave instructions to the reader on where and when to “perform” a given section of the work, which they would find provided for them—the excerpt—at the appointed place and time.
When the time arrived, I and a number of companions began to move from point to point, beginning at the Musa Bridge, wandering through the alleys of the lower city, up to the open courts of the Haur’on District, down into the tunnels below the city, and back up again to Memorial Park where, at last, we could go no further from fatigue, despite knowing we had only glimpsed a fraction of the work, which continued without us.
I could hardly describe the work given my incomplete experience, and among my friends and acquaintances spirited debate has continued as to the work’s plot, form, genre, the identity of the protagonist (if any), the setting, even the language in which it was understood. We do, at least, agree on the title, which I confirmed with several personages who I know took part in the work, though they took pains to demonstrate why the title was of no importance to the work itself.
I know of no one who completed the circuit and read the whole work, though rumors persist that someone did, a child by all accounts, who I have failed to locate, but who would—no doubt—be able to illuminate much about the work that remains obscured if, in the time that has passed since, they are able to remember it at all, for, by now, they may be even older than I am.
Capital Volumes 1–5
The Dolōrem Group was among the first, though not the last, to convene a regular reading group of Marx’s Capital during the interregnum. Unlike the other groups poring over Marx’s work—those looking for answers, those trying to match their situation with the one elucidated in Marx’s analysis, those looking to prove the old man wrong at last, those wishing to see him vindicated, those who were lost and, not having a taste for religion, settled for something close to it—the Dolōrem Group was seeking not to understand, but to complete Marx’s unfinished research project.
The early stages were indistinguishable on the surface from the activity of the other groups: they read the text of the three published volumes, gathered, read the material that may or may not have constituted the fourth volume, and talked about it at length. As they talked, they began to gather notes, to add to and elaborate on each other’s observations, and to augment Marx’s theorizing with their own. It is unclear whether the participants had, at this early stage, begun to understand the project they were undertaking or whether they were moving intuitively, spurred by events around them, to take up the work and claim it, not as sole owners, but as links in a chain that was nearing an end. Marx had been read as a political economist, political theorist, methodologist, magician, demon, dead-letter, philosopher, and prophet, but, at last, the Dolōrem Group had read him for what he was: a novelist. With this knowledge, they could complete the story he did not live long enough to tell.
Accounts disagree on when the group became conscious of their project, but all agree that the project’s life preceded the awareness of it. Soon, notes were gathered, collated, and typed up. Copies were made, amendments made to those copies. They began to intersperse Marx’s work with their own, ignoring attribution. As the work progressed, it became impossible to differentiate the parts that had once been attributed to Marx and the parts the group had formulated. But, as they did this, they felt the project suffered from being bound to the page—even as their additions added elements to the work that were necessary, missing from what had come before, what they had begun to refer to as the First Draft—that the page could not capture the energy and honesty study, much as it tried. So, they began to make recordings, spending whole meetings repeating and refining the talking of previous meetings, all the while adding to the story of Capital, which they believed would be a comedy, in the end—all the more so for how close tragedy had come: breathing down their necks, just on the other side of the wire.
In the end, the completed Volumes 1-5 of Capital comprises written texts and recordings that require interaction and improvisation on the part of the readers that both recreate and expand the study of the Dolōrem Group. It cannot be read alone. It has become a yearly tradition to stage these readings across the city. The earliest of these were performed with some trepidation, some caution, as to whether Capital really was complete, was really ended. But with each successive performance, the readers have grown more accustomed to the finished work, and audiences have been known to follow and boost particular study groups for the aesthetic qualities of their performance. This has led to some groups moving to large venues—such as amphitheaters, weather allowing—in order to accommodate the crowds, and there has even been some ironic competition among the most popular groups to see who attracts the largest crowd each year, though no one counts heads. Still, it remains a somber reminder of the World that was, and the readings I have attended or taken part in have been the most moving when in more intimate venues—a house, a workshop, a museum—where the readers repeat the past and close its book so that it may never be opened again.
There was a great deal of chaos in the interregnum, as vestiges of the old World began to fall away like dead leaves. Some things had persevered even outside the wire, either through necessity, ignorance, or cowardice. Without passing judgement, I can tell you that one result of this was the discovery of a vast collection of books after the death of a man who lived in the city. Few had known him, he had kept to himself, and he had no children (though, at that time, matters of inheritance were much changed, even if they were not in their current state). Anything that could not be expropriated on the grounds of necessary redistribution was left for those of us who lived in the city to sort through. Among these were his aforementioned books—the libraries having already taken the few items that constituted gaps in their collections—all of which were taken by the Dolōrem Group either on the day the man’s possessions were given away, or in the following days as they tracked down the few people who had taken books on a whim, asking them to join the project.
Because of the unusual circumstances under which the work began, word quickly spread about the material being used, and rumors began to circulate concerning what the group would make of all of these books. Some even put forward criticism of the group, accusing them of hoarding, even though they held nothing that was not freely accessible to anyone in the city.
Though I know when and where the materials were acquired, I do not know when the preparation of the materials began, how long this process took, or who was involved. But, at some indeterminate point, the books were carefully unbound and each page separated. Then, the Dolōrem Group began composing the novel, by cutting out words and phrases from the scattered pages and pasting them together. The words of Homer were meshed with the language of technical manuals; the poetry of Lorde was combined with the philosophy of Hegel. Diagrams, tables, and illustrations were interposed, like montage, amid the text. Title pages, too, were cut up. And then covers. There is, in the work, a long section that simply pastes together the copyright statements from each book the group used, slowly twisting the language, wringing out the last drops of power from that regime until the litany reads as entirely senseless.
The work was first displayed in an unfinished state, stretching along the walls of the harbor-front train terminal and into the tunnels. As you waited, you could read; as the train brought you up and into the city, the words would rush by in a blur. Each day, you would get a little further until the rush. Over time, the work began to extend further into the tunnels, new panels were added, reaching other stations—words, then blur, sense, then senselessness. Over time, if you commuted enough—and in those days I lived on the train—you began to piece together the whole work, but you also kept going over the same words again and again in the stations you most frequented.
One began to find one’s way around the city by where one was in the novel. As the tunnels filled with words, the branching lines of the trains began to represent alternate paths for the novel, and the reader, to take. In fact, in my journeys it became clear that the Work was not the whole sum of the words pasted onto train tunnel walls, but that each discrete trip—no matter how long or short—constituted a work in and of itself: down into the tunnel and back up again. That was a novel. And the next day there would be a different novel, and even if you took the same route every day you could never hope to repeat the same novel twice. You would be standing at a different part of the platform, or the train would come sooner or later than it did before, or you would try to repeat what you had read but you would notice you had skipped a whole line, or not understood something, and then you would get on the train and different words would jump out at you in the rush as they went by, adding to the work you were reading, which was written by everyone and read by everyone.
Eventually, every train tunnel was filled. No room remained for words. There was talk of moving on to the train cars themselves, of even moving out into the city, coating every wall, bringing the map of words to the surface. But if this occurred, I did not see it. As such, the work seems to me “done.” Even if, on the occasions when I still ride the train, I find an entirely new work waiting below. That it is there, that I can experience it, these are the marks of its completion.
WORKS IN PROGRESS
I consider the works that follow—by design or necessity—incomplete. Many such works are likely ongoing, but have not been recognized as such. Still, like the present survey, these are works that can be engaged with on their own merits, even in their incomplete state. They necessitate less definitive statements and more speculation on my part, though they are more substantial than the rumors and errata that constitute the final section of the survey. Limiting myself, again, to those works I can verify either by personal experience, or by the experience of comrades, no doubt leaves an incomplete picture.
It is notable that the Works in Progress given here are less concerned, at this stage, with collective authorship. They may reveal some friction, a frisson, within the Dolōrem Group, or it may be that under the auspices of Works in Progress, the collective is not yet required to bring its full force to bear on the work. With this, we have reached the limit of the judgement I can offer.
Emilio Braca is a writer of novels. Involved almost certainly with many Dolōrem Group projects, I have it on good authority (his own) that he worked on Cut/Up and that his work on that novel led to the tunnels project. Spending so much time underground changes one’s attitudes about writing. Before working with the Dolōrem Group, Braca was a prolific writer of fiction, and some of his publications even made their way into Cut/Up. For a long time, however, his name merged into the collective and his voice joined their chorus. It has, in some ways, emerged again with this current work, which began modestly, as a small excavation in the courtyard near where he lives. He is said to have taken up digging as a distraction from writing, a reprieve, but more and more he began to dig instead of write. Only, this is not a good representation of how he conceives of it. “The tunnels are the novel,” he has insisted. Digging, then, is writing. I cannot guess how this work will be read in its completed state. I have seen some schematics of the tunnels as they burrow under the city—intersecting with the city’s own myriad tunnels and subterranean passageways—and they do not form any kind of writing, yet, of which I have the facility to read. An acquaintance has suggested that it is the tunnels themselves, the walking in them, that will constitute the work, but I wonder if this is perhaps a false expectation set by Cut/Up. Still, Braca digs, and the project must be reaching a mature state, for I have recently heard that the Dolōrem Group has allocated resources to the excavation of new tunnels. It cannot be long before Braca’s name recedes once again, and the chorus strikes up an unexpected song.
The Author: Living, Dead
The author went only by Li. Born, like myself, before the interregnum, they were prolific, spending their lifetime constructing what must be the longest novel in any language, though it is rumored to have no language at all. Rumored, I say, because no one read it for as long as the author known as Li was alive. They believed in what they called lifework: a single, continuous novel that springs from the first moments of language to the last. At Li’s passing, there were some who anticipated the release of the work, but as it turned out, Li had entrusted the Dolōrem Group to continue the work, stating something to the effect that the death of the author was really the beginning of the work, not the end. There are now two people, aside from Li, who have read the work. These two people will continue the Lifework, under the collective name of Li, until their own demises, at which stage the trustees will double and continue to write as Li. The same operation will be repeated over the generations until, presumably, every living person will be writing the Lifework. Every living person will be Li.
Repetition and Difference
This final Work in Progress may be the longest ongoing work of the Dolōrem Group, though it may eventually be surpassed by the previous entry. It began as a simple retelling of the oldest story anyone in the group could remember. That story has since been forgotten. The story, though, was told and then passed on to the next teller, who told it in their own style and with their own flourishes before passing it on again. The story has been told hundreds of thousands of times—sometimes by people who did not even know they were a part of the Dolōrem Group—and each time has varied from the last. At one point, someone recognized what they thought was Don Quixote, but by the time they heard the tale told again, it was clearly God’s Bits of Wood. When I heard it told, it took me a long time to recognize it: it was the story of how my parents came to Dolōrem. No one else seemed to know it. I have not heard it since.
There is no evidence that the following fragments belong to the Dolōrem Group. Though I cannot absolutely verify them, I remain convinced they are the work of the group. All of these I have seen myself.
For as long as I have lived in Dolōrem—that is to say, all my life—there has been, out my window and at irregular intervals, a voice singing a song I recognize, but cannot place. No matter how quickly I run into the alley or courtyard or street, no matter how stealthy I am, no matter how much I crane my neck to peer out toward where the voice seems to originate, I have never seen the singer, and I have never determined the name of the song.
This, I saw painted on a crumbling outer wall of the city during the interregnum, when I still doubted that the lights in the harbor and beyond the mountains would remain dark:
A HISTORY OF LANGUAGE: the Word, tongue-travelling, now gaps, silence, leaping mouth-to-mouth, ear-sprung, heart-spread, and, thus, ephemeral—but let it be captured . . . [Here, the remaining words were effaced by the decay of the wall, which fell away before the words come to a conclusion.]
Before the interregnum, there was a general strike in the city. I will not bore you with the details of what led to this, but one fine day every worker took themselves to the harbor-front. There was not a single one who labored that day, though some preferred to remain at home with their children, or bask in the sun in the park, or walk through the near-abandoned quarters of the city away from the harbor. We did not care to begrudge them for this because, at the harbor, flags were waving, shipments of useless goods were turned into bonfires, songs were sung, there was shouting, we were disorderly. But those for whose benefit we made this display were far out in the harbor. We could see them, and they us, and while we were grateful to have freed ourselves for the day, to have taken it as our own, we did not want that to be enough. One day is not enough. And just as the evening was coming on and it seemed as if we would begin to return to our lives and labors there was, at distinct points spread all throughout the crowd, the beginnings of a chant of some kind. I could not make out the words, but it began to rise: a short phrase, repeated. And even though I could not understand it, I began to mouth the sounds, and then I began to sound them, as the others around me did the same. I repeated the sounds, these new, strange things in my throat, beyond any language I knew. Like this, we faced out into the harbor, and the echo of us stretched across the water and toward the lights.
I do not know, still, quite what I voiced that day, but I know they heard us, out there across the water. I know they heard us, and were afraid.