The Canny Valley: Between Fact & Fiction

An attempt to explore the varieties of writing that fall outside the well-established kinds of prose out there, varieties of writing that aren’t quite fiction but aren’t journalism or memoir in the traditional sense either, a kind of writing that veers far from the novel but need not be fact-checked to be great. I’m of the belief that there are a number of genres out there that we don’t commonly assumed to be creative endeavors but which are, as well as other genres that have fallen into disused but which might be fruitful to revisit, and genres that exist solely to destabilize our notions of fact and fiction. This column attempts to explore some of those genres.

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Social Memoir

There’s nothing more disposable, more abject, more forgettable, than an Internet meme. They flash up in an instant, captivate instantly, but are inevitably fleeting, and after a few weeks they’re detritus, cast off, barely remembered. I’d wager, for example, that half of the people who were on Facebook in 2009 no longer even remember the meme, “25 Random Things About Me,” to say nothing of everyone else who didn’t have a Facebook account then, and would have no idea what I’m talking about. Thus the curious status of Matias Viegener’s recent book, 2500 Random Things About Me Too, a book based on a Facebook meme that’s already been forgotten, passed out of consciousness. Memoir as post-fad, as Johnny-come-lately.

My last column (which, admittedly, was a super long time ago; apologies about that), was about self-help and advice columns—the point being to take a particularly reviled form of writing and investigate whether or not it had any serious literary value. Viegener’s book is similar, working from an equally reviled-yet-omnipresent cultural phenomenon, the Facebook meme, and turning it into a book-length work which, despite its fatuous title, aims to be a serious work of literature and memoir. At the time Viegener began this project, the “25 Random Things About Me” meme was so ubiquitous that Slate.com ran a feature on it, wherein Chris Wilson tried to unearth “patient zero,” that is, the first Facebook user to post 25 random things about him or herself and then tag 25 friends, thus spreading the meme throughout the social networking site. He was unsuccessful, simply because the 25 things meme actually long predated Facebook, and appeared in a number of different forms (16 different things, 100 different things, and so on), but Wilson concluded that the Facebook meme spread in a mode similar to an actual virus: its rates of transmission where about the same, the median time between exposure and contamination tracked on traditional epidemiology studies, and “All in all, Facebook infections look remarkably similar to human ones.”

A virus’ job is to replicate as often as possible without dying out, which means not killing its host until it’s found a new one. Viegener’s book, one could say, is an attempt to culture that virus, to keep it alive in a single place, watch it grow, study it. 2500 Random Things About Me Too consists, as one might imagine, of one hundred separate lists, each one containing a list of twenty-five “random” things about Viegener, though quickly the project began to expand beyond these bounds. Viegener claims to have begun his lists for fairly banal reasons: “I didn’t really want to do this list, but after I got tagged by a few people I like, I got tagged by a cute guy I don’t really know. So at first I did it to get him to notice me. He hasn’t said anything and besides it’s too much work for someone you don’t know, so now it’s sort of something I do because I started it, and I don’t want to seem like a quitter. Now I really hope he doesn’t read this.”

Those three sentences, which appear in list v as random things #14, #15, and #16, are fairly typical of the style throughout. There are, of course, numerous random things about Viegener: “The best sex? The best sex I’ve ever had was with the worst boyfriend. Yup.” “I don’t like candy.” “I once saw Alanis Morrisette naked at Esalen.” But 2500 of these little factoids would quickly become tiresome, and what makes the book interesting is how Viegener takes a theme, develops and modulates it, and sustains a discourse on those words: “random,” and “me.” A thought will develop over several random things within a given list, and then throughout multiple lists, gradually becoming more complicated and revealing.

What I personally remember mostly about this particular meme when it first went around in January of 2009, and why I refused to participate, is the bitchy instructions, emphatic in their demands, which sounded to me like the kind of rules the popular high school girl gives all of her sycophants. (“Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.”) Viegener, on the other hand, used the meme and its rules as a constraint, not unlike a Oulipo constraint. Oulipo, the avant-garde writing group that formed in France in the 1960’s, wrote explicitly from arbitrary but enforced constraints, believing that in doing so unlikely or unexpected writing would result (the most emblematic Oulipian restraint is the lipogram, in which one can’t use any words that contain the letter “e”). The arbitrary and bitchy nature of the “25 Random Things” rules became a means, for Viegener, to write a memoir under enforced guidelines that allow him to break out of the traditional memoir form. (“You have to wonder how the Flarf writers and the Language Poets feel about all this meme stuff,” he writes at one point, “all these lists, these texts from Google searches, etc. Does it raise the value of what they’re doing, or does it level it?”)

His goal, as the lists evolved into a larger and larger project, was to defuse both the idea of memoir, particularly memoir organized around traditional narrative, and the idea of a central, unified self that lies at the core of most memoirs. “You’re assuming it’s the same me each time I write a line here,” he writes early on. As such, particularly in the early lists, there’s a distinct derision towards narrative: “Narrative is overrated. An addiction for transparency. A simple-minded need for linearity to organize a set of data. It doesn’t have much to do with real life,” he writes in the first list, followed, in the second list, with “One of the worst things about writing is the general expectation that what you say has to make sense.” Viegener stages narrative and randomness as almost opposing forces: “Everybody has random details about themselves. I think many stories are stories by virtue of our wanting to make random details into narratives. Narrative is something created by the reader’s need.”

Rather than a single narrative, multiple, sometimes overlapping, narratives emerge: including a trip to Buenos Aires in 1973; his teaching job at CalArts and its departmental politics; and his project with David Burns, Fallen Fruit, which leads to a trip midway through the book to Colombia. But beyond this, particularly in the early lists, there’s a real emphasis on the “random” aspect of these lists—the goal seems to be to use randomness as a foil against any inherent tendencies towards narrative and self. (“Random: if you’re working at it, you’re not doing it right.”) As such, much of the themes that tend to emerge our themselves related to randomness: sexual hookups, car accidents, coincidences, etc.

This preference for randomness over narrative quickly becomes difficult—“I am running out of random things and it’s a struggle not to turn away from randomness toward stories, strategies, lies, bluffs, extended anecdotes, etc.”—and ultimately, as one might imagine, carried out over such a long duration it’s ultimately unsuccessful. “The more I do these lists,” Viegener writes, “the less I believe in randomness. Everything is part of a calculation of some kind.” If two points in space cannot help but describe a line, and three points in space cannot help but describe a plane, then 2500 points in space cannot help but describe a person. By the twelfth list, Viegener notes as an aside, “I seem to have given up avoiding narrative,” and by the thirty-fifth he writes, “I keep thinking that at key points, like a third of the way through, I need a plot point, like describing Kathy Acker’s death.”

Gradually, Viegener’s memories of the death of the writer Kathy Acker do indeed move from scattered reminisces to a fully developed narrative, even if still broken up across dozens of lists. The individual threads and stories begin to condense around the question of mortality, and the facing of death—not just the death of Acker, but also Viegener’s mother, and, increasingly, his ailing Dalmatian, Peggy. Narratives emerge, and any pretension towards randomness is all-but abandoned: “There’s nothing very random about these lists. I edit them, though, to see random. They are randomesque.”

Kevin Killian’s introduction puts Viegener’s book firmly in the long history of gay memoirs that rely on fragmentation: “For gay men, the truth about our lives seems to resist taxonomy in some fundamental manner.” Without taking anything away from this history or Killian’s point, though, I would caution against too strong a gay/straight binary when it comes to fragmentation and narrative. On the one hand, Viegener’s book bears strong affinities to works by writers who weren’t gay men: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Mary Robison’s excellent novel, Why Did I Ever, or some of the better essays of David Shields. But more broadly, rather than reinforce that dichotomy, I’d rather explode it: I can’t think of anyone, gay or straight, male or female, who isn’t alternately enslaved and seduced by narrative, or who isn’t alternately horrified and reassured by the notion of an immutable self.

But ultimately what sets Viegener’s book apart is that it never forgets—and never lets us forget—that it’s the product of a dumb meme, and at the same time never lets us forget how carefully thought out it is, how sophisticated and layered in its manipulation of said dumb meme. “I am running out of random things,” he writes in the seventh list, “and it’s a struggle not to turn away from randomness toward stories, strategies, lies, bluffs, extended anecdotes, etc.” Elsewhere he complains, “I am very frustrated with this format. The things I’ve been thinking don’t fit. This is not a space for complex thoughts.” But if it’s not a form suitable for complex thoughts, it is a form that rewards thinking on a smaller scale: “When I’m writing about 25 random things, I don’t think about overall structure. I think about either the sentence or about variety.”

This commentary on the form of the book itself, alongside these subtly emerging narratives that take shape almost before the reader’s eyes, are what helps to make the book as a whole so fascinating: the constant push-and-pull, the back-and-forth between order and chaos. And of course, as a structuring device the list isn’t anymore artificial than narrative; midway through Viegener reaches the conclusion that “The list is a bastard form, meant to compartmentalize the wildness of things. The list is the instrumentalization of language.” It’s rare to see a book so openly conscious of its form in a way that doesn’t also feel solipsistic or self-serving.

Perhaps this has to do with the book’s composition, which isn’t quite fully described by Viegener in the book itself, or by Killian in his introduction. What started as a single list quickly grew, one each day, until Viegener decided at first to do 25 and then to do 100. At the beginning these lists appeared daily on Facebook, but by the end of the project the output had slowed considerably; there would elapse several days, sometimes a week, between each list. The time frame of the original is lost, but traces of it remain, creating a kind of temporal noise and confusion throughout the book. (The book takes the form of an endurance test after awhile: “I am so tired of making lists I could cry. I’m tired of trying to get people’s attention. I just want to shut up and go to sleep.”)

In addition, for each list Viegener would tag another 25 friends, cycling through his entire list of friends alphabetically, so that by the end of the project everyone had been tagged two or three times. In addition, of course, to the strength of the writing itself, this tagging helped to ensure a lengthy, engaged commentary that followed each of these lists. Which is to say, rather than each list being something like a chapter, each functions as an episode. Each one was written with a more or less clear vision of the intended audience, and each list, on a more or less conscious level, interacted with that audience, who provided regular commentary and feedback.

One can of course find fictional counterparts to this kind of writing process—most notably the serialized novels of Dickens and others in the nineteenth century, or in the variously failed “twitter stories” of Rick Moody and Jennifer Egan. But I can’t think of a serialized nonfiction work, nor of a nonfiction work composed that was so hyper-aware of its audience.

This was not a book that was written entirely within the author’s own head and then shared with the world, though it was also not a book that was written by committee—it’s both entirely Viegener’s own, and heavily affected by the community which first received it. The final book is best seen in this light, as a production that’s both the work of a singular artist and a work bent by the reception and influence of that artist’s social community, all of whom had a small part in its production. It’s in this manner, more so than its structure alone, that 2500 Random Things About Me Too comes the closest to actually destabilizing a notion the self. Social media, its detractors complain, is all about narcissism, which is true, but then, so is memoir—the two combined, as it turns out, may curiously cancel each other out, as Viegener’s other selves haunt the spaces in between each list.

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Colin Dickey is the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith, and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. He is a fairly regular contributor to Lapham’s Quarterly and The LA Review of Books, and his writing has also appeared in Cabinet, TriQuarterly, The Millions, and elsewhere. He is an amateur hagiographer and a professional phrenologist.

More of Colin Dickey’s The Canny Valley at Used Furniture.

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