“What the project is, only the project knows.” So we learn as this enigmatic tale, Mendelsund’s (What We See When We Read, 2014) debut novel, winds its way to a close.
Percy Frobisher might have done well to turn around when, on arriving at the desert retreat known as the Institute, he is greeted with the words, “Welcome to nowhere.” It’s a nowhere in which, though he does not then know it, he will spend years, a nowhere with plenty of dystopia to it. He prefers not to talk about the project that has brought him there even if, as his greeter cajoles, it’s the purpose of the Institute for people to talk about what they’re up to. Indeed, Percy doesn’t quite know what that project is: a novel, at times, or a Gysin-esque collage, or a set of drawings so precise as to include the world to scale, as in the Borges fable. “I see now that, whereas the design of the project is strong, so much depends on how it is realized,” he tells himself. Percy soon learns, however, that the Institute is an odd place, part factory of dreams, part boot camp to wrestle the elusive artistic temperament into a manageable and measurable thing; says its director, creativity “is more or less a technology” that requires nothing less than total commitment, helped along by a program that mixes therapy with coaching and self-criticism, to say nothing of technological oddities that threaten to turn the whole place and everything in it into—well, call it the simulacrum of a simulacrum. Mendelsund, by day an art director and book-cover designer at Knopf, has a grand time serving up what would seem to be an extended metaphor for creativity, complete with some useful if sometimes strange pointers (“Though the project shall bootstrap its very existence out of its mere possibility, the project shall also be self-liquidating") that would do Brian Eno proud.
Mendelsund’s novel of ideas makes a neat bookend to Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 as a study of creation in the age of the smart machine.