Fax or Fiction?

Jack Thompson's first novel doesn't look like a novel. The unbound heap of 100-plus fax transmissions, electronically dispatched from Thompson to New Times over the past two years, bears little resemblance to Wuthering Heights, or The Scarlet Letter. Little superficial resemblance, that is. But you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, especially when it doesn't have one. With this novel, which takes the literal and figurative form of a series of actual fax transmissions that stretch from late 1989 to the present, John B. Thompson, a 40-year-old Coral Gables resident who relinquished his law practice to write this work, vaults from obscurity into the company of such postmodern masters as John Barth, Richard Brautigan, and Donald Barthelme.

It almost goes without saying that this novel is untitled. Titling, after all, is a self-conscious process, and it's central to Thompson's project to challenge the very idea that the individual faxes are constituent parts of a larger work. But in decoding the transmissions, in which a courageous maverick hero-narrator pits himself repeatedly against the corrosive forces of social sin, the careful reader begins to see coherency emerging from the disparate scraps.

The novel's plot - or, more accurately, metaplot, since Thompson's narrative refers only to other narratives - unfolds against the backdrop of a teeming American metropolis. Religion has failed to captivate the public imagination, and the moral fabric of the city (and, by extension, most of the United States) has frayed. Pornographers peer menacingly from every corner; sexual freedom itself is a perversion. With a daunting diversity reminiscent of Dos Passos's kaleidoscopic USA trilogy, Thompson's cast of characters is drawn from every rung of society's power ladder, from media magnates to public officials to artists to lawyers to sports figures. And all are complicit in the city's plunge into abject disrepair: The famous rap star is a relentless misogynist; the respected state attorney is a lesbian who hires and fires women based on whether they will accede to her sexual demands; the daily newspaper is run by homosexuals. At the center of this maelstrom stands Thompson's narrator, a resourceful and passionate Miamian - and an attorney, no less! - who will stop at nothing to restore moral order.

This narrator, in fact, is named "Jack Thompson," and he appears in every superficial manner to exactly replicate the author himself. It is not unprecedented, of course, for a writer to enter his own fiction; one only need think of Vladimir Nabokov omnisciently turning up a corner of the fictional curtain at the conclusion of Bend Sinister. Authors have even gone so far as to suggest a dual presence, such as Dante's split into pilgrim and poet in The Divine Comedy. This invasion of text by creator has become so popular, in fact, that it has even found its way into pop culture: In the NBC sitcom Seinfeld, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, a co-writer of the series, also portrays the title character, a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld. Nonetheless, this ontological instability - this division into author-Thompson and narrator-Thompson - is profoundly disconcerting. Samuel Beckett wrote, "`What does it matter who is speaking,' someone said. `What does it matter who is speaking.'" It took Jack Thompson's mastery of metafiction to make it matter.

This Thompson-for-Thompson substitution is not the only provocative surrogacy in this labyrinthine work. "Luther Campbell" is the brash young rap star, "Neil Rogers" the controversial radio talk-show host, "Janet Reno" the state attorney, and "The Miami Herald" the local daily newspaper. And the fictional city? "Miami." Such wholesale appropriation of real-world elements, and their subsequent distortion and absorption into the fiction, is a stunning strategy. Certainly there have been fictional works that masqueraded as fact, but none of them has so boldly annihilated all that came before. Only Barth's "Frame-Tale," a Mobius strip that forces upon the reader the self-perpetuating narrative "Once Upon a Time / There Was a Story That Began" infinitely, has attempted a comparable reinterpretation of literature itself.

The serial-fax form represents a tremendous advance over conventional methods of publication. Dissemination via fax means a work is neither sold nor purchased, and further, the faxnovelist is at liberty to choose his own audience. What results from this liberation is an unbridled power. A "chapter" from early November 1991 finds narrator-Thompson fuming over the sale of a rap album he considers obscene. With an unmediated immediacy, he threatens a character named "Ann Lieff," the president of a retail music chain: "If you want to continue to sell this album, then go ahead. I'm not asking you to stop, and I'm certainly not threatening you with legal action if you don't stop. I'm coming after you personally and corporately for what you have already done to violate the state's obscenity law." The passage is more powerful than cinema verite, more visceral than performance art; the promise of retribution is audible in the hum of the fax machine. At a time when traditional forms of narrative have r reached a crossroads, when computers and so-called hypertexts have drained fiction of its lifeblood, author-Thompson confronts the threat of prose ossification head-on. One of the most startling effects of fax-fiction is that it is a work with no stable form. Not all the work's separate installments are sent to each designated reader; consequently, many different versions of the book exist, none complete except Thompson's own. Jorge Luis Borges's library of Babel has never been closer at hand. A chapter faxed on April 14, 1991, for instance, deals with the failure of the city of "Coral Gables" and its mayor, "George Corrigan," to force a magazine publisher out of business. "Dear Mayor Corrigan," the chapter begins, "You and the `City Beautiful' are proceeding against The New Times and their red paper boxes, while you condone and cover-up the publishing of an obscene magazine, Nugget, in our city by Dugent Publishing. Thanks for the additional ammunition." A postscript notes, "P.S. Maybe Janet Reno needs to indict you for impersonating a public official." According to notations by "Jack Thompson" at the conclusion of the fax, copies of the chapter were sent not only to "Corrigan," but to "Chip Withers," "Attorney Sandy Bohrer," and "New Times." Each of these, of course, has a real-life counterpart. There is a Mayor George Corrigan of Coral Gables, there are men named Chip Withers (though you'd hardly believe it) and Sandy Bohrer, and there is a newspaper named New Times. The notion of a work of fiction read only by its characters is unprecedented, and exhilarating.

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