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.
But how can we be sure Sandy Bohrer actually received a copy of this chapter? Did a transmission ever reach George Corrigan? The certain knowledge that New Times got a fax is the only conclusive evidence that a New Times reader has; any information about other readers is mere speculation and epistemological paradox. Author-Thompson has devised an infernal network of intersecting circuits, and no reader can ever apprehend the full work. Any half-dozen fax recipients recall not Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author but rather six readers in search of a definitive text.
The work, of course, is striking not only for its form but for its content. It has been author-Thompson's good fortune, and certainly a result of his prodigious literary skills, to seize upon a topic worthy of such formal innovation. In the search for a plot that would complement the genius of the faxnovel, author-Thompson has made narrator-Thompson a paranoid and morally hypersensitive conspiracy theorist, a characterization that both justifies the incessant faxing of "Jack Thompson" and provides him with a wealth of material to exploit in his dispatches. Books have been narrated by paranoids before; who can forget Pale Fire? And books have been written about deluded crusaders; who can forget Quixote, or the New Testament? But the degree to which Thompson's Thompson has advanced the theme of literary paranoia is truly revelatory. He squeezes the pus of conspiracy from every pore of America's urban complexion - from free expression, from atheism, from homosexuality, from lingerie. In a fax transmitted this past May, "Thompson" even crows over the apparent public disapproval of a Hate Crimes Bill proposed in "Florida." Analyzing the reasons for this widespread opposition, narrator-Thompson suggests, "The public has correctly perceived that this is a radical gay rights bill designed to legitimize homosexual perversion." To demean a bill intended to protect minorities from victimization is distateful indeed. But Jack Thompson, novelist, must give voice to these irrational impulses. It is what makes "Jack Thompson," narrator, one of the most vividly drawn characters since Kafka's Gregor Samsa.
One might be tempted to think a novel confined to the one-sided ravings of a sanctimonious lunatic would implode into brittle solipsism, especially when those ravings are as full of ominous Biblical allusions to "God" and "sin" as narrator-Thompson's are. But this author is too savvy to let his work fail its readers. Though he must handicap his own powers of analysis, and even fairness, to ape the crippling myopia of "Jack Thompson," the novel is written with a persistent, if petulant, sense of humor. The very format of a business letter is mined for witticisms: "Thompson" is unflaggingly polite even to his worst enemies, even when the subject of a chapter is "Your Removal From Office," as it is in a September 1991 fax addressed to "George Corrigan." Similarly, "Doug Morris," president of a company known only as "Atlantic Records," is mischievously referred to as "scofflaw president" and "nervous president."
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The minor-league wit that Thompson has perfected for his narrator extends even into the rhythms of the prose. Samuel Johnson had the Johnsonian sentence; "Jack Thompson" possesses his own unique Thompsonian prose, especially in his relentless employment of brief and sarcastic rejoinders to punctuate tirades. This pattern recurs time and again, including chapters of December 5, 1990 ("Even your own `expert' testimony did not help. Probably hurt."); November 5, 1991 ("The album cover features 2 Live Crew receiving fellatio from four women in bed. Nice."); and the double-dip pithiness of April 23, 1991 ("If you don't, you'll be eternally sorry. I'm not kidding. Look it up."). The juvenile ineptitude of the correspondence itself becomes pleasurable, recalling Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, which slyly insults publishers who turned down Sorrentino's manuscript by reprinting their foolish rejection letters in a prologue to the novel.
In any work of fiction that uses paranoia as a central theme, the question of credibility rears its head high. The claims of "Jack Thompson," which range from unfounded insinuations of lesbianism on the part of "Janet Reno" to assertions that reports of auto-emissions tail-pipe testing belie a homosexual bias on the part of "The Miami Herald," are certainly extreme. But are they reliable? Author-Jack Thompson provides readers with sufficient reason to question the competency of his narrator. Sometimes "Jack Thompson" is so apoplectic with rage that he cannot even control his spelling: A local newspaper columnist named "Greg Baker" is frequently addressed as "Gregg," and in a reference to NBA commissioner David Stern, "Thompson" inexplicably writes of a "David Stearns." And several times, the tone of the work nearly topples over the line that separates sarcasm from dementia, as in a chapter of July 17, 1991, in which "Thompson" insists hysterically that "Sheriff Navarro's immigration papers indicate he is from the planet Pluto, where the Bill of Rights is not operative."
In author-Thompson's capable hands, narrator-Thompson will stop at nothing. He insults, he threatens, he attacks. In recent chapters, he has even returned to the clever tactic of aping legitimate press releases, a technique that began with the aforementioned "Hate Crimes Bill" chapter of May 1991, and has continued through November 11, 1991's "Immediate Press Release," which accuses the "National Basketball Association" of promoting high-risk sex. It would probably take an entire book to sufficiently address the similarities between this novel and classic crime-fighting serials, especially the Shadow radio program of the Forties and the Fantomas books of Thirties Paris. But the basic affinity could not be clearer, and local public figures are probably leaning forward in their chairs, knock-kneed with excitement over whether characters founded on them will appear in the next installment of the Thompson papers, or the installment after that.
And undoubtedly there will be more installments. The fax-form is completely open-ended, and it is clear that intrepid crusader "Jack Thompson" has more windmills at which he must tilt. In fact, a brilliant new chapter was dispatched on November 18, a piece that denigrated "Luther Campbell" as a "dangerous clown." How will the story develop? What new surprises await? Only novelist Jack Thompson knows for certain. But no matter what the future holds for "Miami," the map of modern literature has already been redrawn. In the information era, "fax" has acquired a secondary resonance, a connotation of hard data, practical business information, and most important, of objectivity. I say "fax"; you hear "facts." But now, with this multiple emission of literary inspiration, all that has changed. Fascinating.