A Tenuous Chain

2008 started poorly for me. My schoolwork hadn’t escalated in difficulty and I was having relationship issues. S, who for two years had slept next to me, was bored. Routine had sucked the life out of both of us and by March, when she left, inertia propelled even our lovemaking.

A few rainy days later, I sat alone at my coffee table and vaguely a car hummed closer and closer to my drive, pulled up, and shut off. It was K, my roommate. He came in and I was sucking at a quarter-full jug of grapefruit juice.

“Check this shit out,” he said. From under his arm he plopped a fat, white package down on the table. It was an over-fat shipping envelope, sealed with clear tape.

“That,” I said, “is a kilo of cocaine. You really know how to make a Monday morning feel like a Friday night.”

“Secret package,” he said, referencing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, where part of the fun lies in manipulating an avatar to collect these “satchels”. “I’m not even joking – you know where I found it?”

I lifted the satchel. Within rested something definite, with edges; not powder. I asked K where it had been.

“You know that bridge-thing over Indiana Ave., where the trains go over-“

“The viaduct,” I offered.

“-the viaduct, yeah. It was sitting right under there.”

“No way.”

“Yeah, just hanging out,” he said.

“Well,” I wondered, squeezing the package. “Wanna open it?”
K came around the other side of the coffee table and sat down, resting a Burger King sack on the glass. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “It could be anything.”

“SARS?”

“Anthrax,” said K.

“Bullion,” I said.

“Open it.”

“You fucking open it.”

“Fuck that,” he said, harvesting a loose french fry from the bag. The package gleamed beneath the overhead light, unaddressed and naked. I turned it over in my hands but found nothing, no markings to betray its owner or where that person might live. Two images shot through my mind: first, a homemade bomb. Second: a bar of gold.

The tape was good tape, sturdy and sticky. I tugged at it without luck, finally slicing through with a kitchen knife. Kevin watched.

Books?

Five of them were packed together inside the wrapping. They were small and pale, with italicized title reading “Being or Nothingness”. The title hovered over an imprint of MC Escher’s “Drawing Hands”. The author? One “Joe K”; no surname given, just a floating initial.

Being or Nothingness

“A bunch of books?” I asked.

K grumbled and flipped on the XBOX 360 and the TV. I opened the top copy. Nestled between the cover and the first page was a typed letter. It read:

November 9, 2006

Dear Professor Hofstadter,

Your last e-mail had an encouraging tone that made me happy. I was afraid of making some statement that might jeopardize our good relationship. Instead I went ahead and sent the letters. For the same reason I didn’t acknowledge receiving your articles. I have browsed through them and realize that I have interesting studies ahead of me. Thank you for your generosity.

By now the seven letters should have arrived and hopefully you are a little curious. As you get ready to read “The full circle”, I want to give you a word of caution. When I encountered the manuscript, many years ago, I was totally unprepared. I had found some old typewritten pages carelessly thrown in the corner of an abandoned railroad station, where I had taken refuge after leaving a party that had gotten out of control. As circumstances would have it I started to read and discovered patterns I had to explore.

The manuscript has a reproduction of Escher’s “Drawing Hands” on its cover. Should the text resemble what its cover implies it to be, reading it could be dangerous. Had I sent a copy without comments, it might have caused harm. Our correspondence assures that you have a vision of a writer as you read. Also, by disclosing passages in advance I hope to have intrigued you enough, not to dismiss the manuscript as esoteric nonsense.

Before you proceed, I should mention that the manuscript can be viewed as a religious document. The text can be incorporated into both the Jewish and the Christian tradition, but doing so with too much vigour would be to narrow its scope. Whether it is embraced and cherished or rejected and condemned does not depend on what religious or ideological belief system the reader subscribes to. Deep down it is a matter of faith and choice.

There you are! I have disclosed almost everything I know about the manuscript. It is time for you to address this strange loop. It would please me if you were to give me some sort of feedback. The manuscript has not been made public, partly because, like Conan Doyle, I hesitate whether the world is ready but also since I am not sure that the patterns I perceive are really there. I realize that I might be mistaken and will neither object nor be offended if this turns out to be your opinion.

With kind regards,

“The Writer”

I read the letter twice before flipping to the first page. The words didn’t play over in my head so much as did Joe K’s diction, the sort of near-lucidity in melody and timbre that cast his apparent mental instability into relief. Betrayed here was a mind overwrought, a pair of bloodshot eyes before a terminal in a dark room, the poor bastard unaware that the sun has set on him. A sentence comes, or a word, something worth typing that he’s found in the black and then it’s time to crack a knuckle, ruffle an eyebrow, or give his sparse hairs a righteous tug. If he didn’t get it down it would have been lost, and so the hours bled on for him until the screen went blurry. His knotted legs carried him to bed, where he slumped down wearing the clothes from the day before.

“You have to read this,” I said. “This guy’s half-there.” I held a copy out to him.

“Nah, I’m alright. I’ll pick one up later and look at it. What’s it about?”

“Not sure.” And I wasn’t; about the world there live several computer scientists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, and other technical-field wizards who’ve been trained to decipher the brand of gibberish I found on those twenty-one pages. Somehow, I knew the name “Hofstadter”.

“I’m going to write this Hofstadter,” I said.

“Who?”

“The guy the letter’s addressed to. I swear I’ve heard that name somewhere.” I had. A good friend of mind, P, was co-president at the time of the IU Student Organization for Cognitive Science, the field in which Douglas Hofstadter is a living legend. On a hunch I visited IU-Bloomington’s Address Book page on the university’s web site, where my suspicions were confirmed:

hofaddress

I wrote him. He sent a kind response, even praising a turn of phrase I’d used. Later I discovered he’d won a Pulitzer, at which point I swelled with juvenile pride. He invited me to his home near campus, where we’d speak and I’d deliver the package I’d assumed was meant for him.

An overcast Wednesday found me on his doorstep, nearly on campus, in a neighborhood peopled with tenured professors, professors Emeriti, and other established university folk. I knocked on his wooden door. It glided open, the interior doorknob in the soft fingers of a stunning French exchange student. Hers was the brand of beauty that foments spontaneous perspiration and stammering, both of which characterized my address:

“C-can I…I’m here to meet Mr. Hofstadter,” I blurted. Her accent was sharp yet inviting, like caramel over nougat.

“Come in, please,” she said. Anything, I thought. A narrow mud room opened on one side to a study, and the other a large den/dining area bordered with bookcases. Upon the large mahogany dining table rested the war-strategy game Risk, still in its old box. There were several people in both rooms and they held several key traits in common: each of them were young, attractive French or Belgian women and it appeared that at least most of them lived in that house. I ogled everything, was ogling a student crowned with particularly effective blonde hair, when Professor Hofstadter stepped in from the kitchen to greet me.

‘Andy Warhol’, I thought as I shook his hand. He looked thin but healthy in modest brown shoes, slacks, and a button-down shirt.

hofstadterwarhol

“Are these yours?” I asked. He accepted the ripped-open package and examined one of the books, furrowing his brow.

“You know, I seem to recall this person. It’s been years, though,” he said, “since I’ve corresponded with him.”

“Who is he, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I can’t…well, I think that he said he was a psychologist, or something, and Swedish,” he explained. The Swede apparently had not made much of a splash.

“A Swedish psychologist?”

“Yes. I think he’s a crackpot.” We spoke a little more and parted. He thanked me and allowed me to keep a copy of the book as thanks for my effort in reporting this strangeness. Thus “Being or Nothingness” came home with me. I skimmed it once more. A lowly creative writer, a student even, I rejected the clunky, uneven translation and what I sensed was the overall lack of coherence in the piece; I didn’t like it. It creeped me out a little, and so I showed it to my friend D.

One night I visited her house, which at the time she shared with her lover, Ae. We sat on silken cushions around their low coffee table; me facing the windows and the girls, who faced the kitchen. Above us hung paper lanterns in the Chinese style. D called this corner of their living room “the Opium Den”.

“This is fucking insane!” she cried when she’d thumbed through it. “Where did you get it?”I told her the story of the viaduct. Ae slung her arm around D’s waist and kissed her on the cheek, a move made to gain better vantage. She’d tucked her long, black hair behind her ear and the open book was reflected in her glasses. The girls had made a spicy dish for me and as we read passages aloud the sauce dried on our plates.

I read: “Brace yourself and turn the pages gently as you embark on a strange journey through time and space.”

D read: “I am the Giant Rat of Sumatra.”

Ae giggled at this and read: “I am Joe K – You are Joe K…as quoted from Joe K.” Pages were consumed with carefully chosen Axioms, followed then by a dream description rife with terry-cloth socks, followed by seven pages holding three lines apiece in reference to the seven days of the Christian creation myth. He closes with the Lord’s Prayer and a cautionary afterword against holding “Being or Nothingness” in your hands. Mostly, each page was empty.

Brimming with indifference, I gifted the book to D, who was wholly repulsed by it. She in turn gifted it to Ae, who presumably still has it. “Presumably” because D and Ae no longer speak. They resolved that summer to work for an underground group of homosexual pot farmers called the F’s, who control some of the most prodigious farms in the country on the sly. They left together and came back separately, D first. As we’d become friends first, I sympathized with her (without empathy, but my heart was in it) when she sobbed that their Pagan rituals left her feeling excluded, as she was Christian. Ae had abandoned her to partake of those rituals in the woods, magnifying her loneliness. I helped D pack up her half of the house, but forgot to scan for Joe K’s book.

After parting with the book, two things happened. First, my friend A recorded me telling this story in a video experiment, which can be found on Google video by entering “Godel, Escher, Bach” in the search field. [note: in retrospect, i seem to be even more inflammatory in my jack-assery than I’d recalled. No disrespect intended toward Dr. Hofstadter.]

And then…

A year passed. The book did not enter my thoughts.

April 2009 brought me a message from A, whom I hadn’t spoken to in months. He cited two web sites, Ask.Metafilter and a fellow named Muriloq’s blog, both of which contain information regarding a miniature global community built around Joe K’s book. That more satchels might have reached others outside of Bloomington hadn’t occurred to me in the year since I’d had contact with the work. These web spaces provided a mine of theories and angles surrounding what the book (and more intensely its distribution) might mean. One of the contributors had found the video A had made and had posted it, labeling it a “frat boy rock-and-roll Hofstadter story”. Admittedly I bristled some, the way a person might bristle at the thought of earning any derogatory adjective, but ultimately was fascinated that this community even existed.

I began to dig. One theory claims that Joe K took to viral marketing to promote his book. The people posting on Muriloq’s Blog had considered this, and had found common ground among their ranks: they were computer scientists studying artificial intelligence, philosophers, theologists, an astrophysicist…also, most received the package at their university or college office address rather than at home, implying that the sender could have easily Googled them to find this information. I did not fit either of these conditions and neither did K, A, or Ae. D had graduated with companion French and Philosophy degrees. Also, the posters had all received the package, implying that it had been addressed. Single copies of the book were received in England, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Iran, and other disparate locales.

That the above theory hasn’t been fully embraced makes it easier to accept others: “Joe K”, for instance, being an anagram for “joke”, or a display of mimetics in action, given that such a vast network of people employed similarly had been nonsensically linked. After studying their backgrounds and finding myself grossly unqualified to discuss this phenomenon on their terms, I worked out my own in a way suited to my current station: I logged on to Facebook.

I wrote a public note, adding together the pieces I’d gathered (A’s video and the website addresses) and scrolled through my alphabet of friends, tagging those who I’ve known to be ravenous researchers (generally) and some in fields which align with those mentioned above. Some of them responded, citing interest in storytelling method or the simple novelty of the situation. My present girlfriend’s mother, N, seemed to think that the books had shipped from France.

That the package K had discovered lacked shipping information suggested that it’d been smuggled over the pond in personal luggage. Hofstadter housed several French borders. If one of them had brought the package with them, it would implicate Dr. Hof as the brain behind the scheme. Although I couldn’t imagine myself as belonging to the group of scholars who had also received the book, I began to feel as though my link in the chain, seemingly the broken one, might prove equally as valid as any of the others. On April 25th, 2009, I drafted the tale and threw my hat into the ring.

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10 responses to “A Tenuous Chain

  1. Hey Alvaro,

    That video, while fun, cast perhaps an ugly light on Prof. Hofstadter. He’s a kind man, generous, and after speaking with him recently found that I had unintentionally exaggerated the detail about the women in his house. There were only two: his daughter, and maybe her French tutor. I’m not in the business of slandering people, so I had the video taken down. It exists, just not in the public eye.

    This piece is under construction, and so maybe I’ll tell the story of the video. Sorry to disappoint. 🙂

  2. Pingback: A Tenuous Chain Broken (reprise) | La Luna y su Agua

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