audio(book)

Have you ever read audio(book)? It's okay if you haven't. It just means you weren't an MFA student when the book surfaced, briefly, before disappearing from the web.

Having said that, if you've been out clubbing any time in the last five years, you've probably danced to it. Let me explain.

audio(book) was one of those, um, works that didn't have enough fiction in it to be fiction, but didn't have enough of a grasp on reality to be non-fiction. Basically it's a weirded-up analysis of the SGML documentation standard, and about as interesting as that sounds. The first section starts off as a direct plagiarism of a SGML training document from about fifteen years ago, before morphing into a sort of writing exercise, where the narrative spins off every time it hits a word that can be twisted into a pun. Example: the "M" in SGML, "markup", got broken into "mark up", which led to the word "bruise", which led to a rather uptight, distanced attempt at describing rough sex. Not surprisingly, the author had a field day with that final "L", "language". After quoting from Knuth to Derrida, with a quick dash of James Joyce, the section devolved into a mass of angle-bracketed structure tags, with no content in them except for formatting tags.

The second section runs through all the Burroughesque tropes about language being a virus, about humans being symbol manipulation soft machines, about everything meaning nothing and everything at once. The typography and layout gets really creative in this part, or it will if you tell your e-reader to use the embedded fonts. You also need to use the same e-reader the author had — which, surprise, is an obscure model created by a lone inventor's Kickstarter campaign, and which made its funding goal but never caught on with the general market.

The third and final section is an essay, claiming that all data is equal, and that how humans consume it, text or images or sound, doesn't matter. The experience will change with the medium, but the original data is irrelevant. Borges' famous story about the library gets name-checked, but not quoted. There's a lot of suspicious hand-waving about McLuhan — suspicious because all the references come from one source, and only the first fifteen pages of that source. And then yeah, there's some more Derrida, and some hat-tips to Baudrillard's Simulations, which call into question whether the author of audio(book) actually knows what a third-level simulation is.

The essay is short, but it's padded out by about 15,000 words of footnotes, all of which are lengthy quotes from the authors I've already mentioned. Oh, and one lonely Virginia Woolf quote, from The Second Common Reader.

The whole thing got converted to EPUB, and thrown onto a couple of university servers in a quasi-clandestine way. Which is to say, they were in public web server directories, but no-one seems to have bothered making links to them for the longest time. There's an eighteen-month gap between the date/time stamp on the EPUBs and the folders they're in, and the first known link, on a class discussion board at one of the universities.

The original cover image, by the way, is not just a mess of random black-and-white noise patterns, but the text of the book itself with a BMP header string tossed onto the start.

Meanwhile, a WAV file of the EPUB was created by renaming the file extension and adding a WAV header onto the front of the file. The conversion was very brute-force — if you look at the WAV file in a plain-text editor, you'll see that most of the original text and formatting is intact, just with minor alterations for when the audio players froze on the data. The WAV was mixed with some house beats, converted to MP3, and the resulting abomination was uploaded to several music sites. Because it was posted for low/no price and tagged as dance music, it caught the eye of a few club DJs. It became an unlikely hit when they tried using it to clear the floor at the end of the night, and discovered (to their horror, no doubt), that the dancing masses liked it.

And that's all there was, and all there is, to it. If you ever happen to meet any earnest grad student who thinks they've found the work for their thesis, and it turns out to be audio(book), send them my way. I'll try to straighten them out before they do anything stupid — like actually propose it to their thesis supervisor.

Right, the last bit. I should explain how I wound up with this particular albatross around my neck. No, I am not the author of audio(book). I did, however, get pressured into formatting the thing, in all three versions: EPUB, BMP, WAV/MP3. The cymbal pattern on the sound file is my only creative contribution. Otherwise, it was just hours upon hellishly tedious hours of tagging, regular expressions, and saving as. Okay, and I was the one who knew the university sysadmins and asked them for a few megabytes of space. Why? Because at the time, it was easier than not doing it. You have no idea.

The one thing I am proud of is the metadata. The author let it slip that they had no intention of honouring the agreement we'd made regarding payment for my services rendered. That's why audio(book) lacks any kind of byline, not in the text, nor the front matter, nor the cover, nor the meta-data. The image and the audio files are similarly attribution-free. At the time, I had a story ready about the myth of the author, but it never actually came up. I think they liked the aesthetics of the user side and never bothered to check the metadata.

I used my own hardware, so if you look really hard you'll find my name, but I made it so you did have to look really hard. A couple of times a year some hardcore nerd finds me and either writes me a fan note or threatens to expose me (or, more often, both at the same time), and I write a nice, sweet e-mail back explaining that they're wrong. And I can prove they're wrong, thanks to some e-mails I have squirrelled away, but I try not to publicise those. 

The actual author... let's just say we don't talk anymore. I know they badmouth me in private, but they don't do it in public because they can't prove they're the actual author of the files.

So there it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some linear narrative fiction I'd like to read.

Between illness and editing my novel, I haven't been writing any #fridayflash, but this one slipped out. Thanks to S.A. Barton for the inspiration!