Lonely Men Club is a book by Mike Kleine (@thefancymike), running to exactly 100,000 words and constructed in a five day period via procedural generation. In that respect, it belongs to the same conceptual category as NaNoGenMo projects, or text-focused works from ProcJAM, or Annals of the Parrigues. He references Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nick Montfort’s World Clock as influences.
Lonely Men Club represents the thoughts of (a fictionalized version of) the Zodiac Killer. These thoughts concern what he read, bills he received, the color of the sky, his bodily functions, the people he killed. A sentence such as “Killed a foreign woman in Mississippi” sits near “Went to the restroom for seventeen minutes”, and neither of these is more important to the narrator.
This sense of repetition, unpredictability and incoherence, and the lack of discrimination between subjects, are Kleine’s desired and intended outcome, so much so that he’s needed a generator to achieve it. There are typos, I believe intentionally. Sometimes words are jammed together without spaces to create new compounds.
This is a text that is playing with cadence, though individual units of coherent meaning are larger than in Allison Parrish’s Articulations. The latter fixates on a single phrase at a time, often repeating it many times in a single sentence, using that repetition to cluster together all the ideas that might be linked by the word “ever”, for instance:
Forever and amen. And ever. Amen. Every man and every maid never a man and never a maid every woman, every man, every woman, every maid: every morn and every night every morning and every night every night and every morning, in every note and every line for in every line, and in every verse and every limb, and every nerve of every virgin element, — never, never believe never, believe me, and ever believe.
…whereas in Kleine’s grammar the repetitions are less insistent, and individual sentences less impressionistic.
Even the layout of the text on the page, with smudges and imperfections, not to mention variant type sizes, is both an reference to the Zodiac’s ciphers and an accidental (but embraced) result of the process of generating, cutting, and pasting text. Sometimes the text in Lonely Men Club is inverted, white on black. Sometimes it’s scrunched, or in landscape rather than portrait orientation, or falling askew on the page, in a way that reminded me of the dynamic text manipulation of Liza Daly’s A Physical Book project. Sometimes a paragraph simply runs off the page’s edge, losing all the words on the right side.
At the same time, some individual pieces feel quite planned, such as the page which contains only the following, centered:
…a piece which feels intentional, authored, and specific, conveying an experience to do with how the brain reacts to randomness and frustratingly trivial distractions. On another page, there is similar text differently laid out, the CCvcc portion overprinted on itself, which comes across as much more distressing and oppressive.
As Mike explains:
In creating the code for Lonely Men Club, I wanted to plant seeds or ideas into the brain of my version of the Zodiac Killer. I wanted to think of the character as this primitive AI I’d created that was telling me all of its inner thoughts, one after the other. And then my job, of course, was to scramble and write down as much of it as possible, while at the same time respecting and embracing any and all imperfections.
In my own procedural text work I’ve been concerned with trying to make things that reward reading even if they are obviously machine-made. I was looking for ways — especially in the Parrigues Tarot — to generate in a way that would expose or fabricate coherent meaning even where I as an author had not intended it.
Kleine’s approach is pretty much the opposite. He says himself that he doesn’t much mind whether people find Lonely Men Club either easy or entertaining to read, and expects that for many it may be neither. But what he is looking for is a meaning that arises from the texture of meaninglessness. Ken Sparling’s foreword to the book describes it as a text that takes you nowhere for 720 pages.
At the same time, in spite of itself, Lonely Men Club repeatedly invites the reader to compare the significance or resonance of things we might not normally juxtapose. The significance of a killing vs the significance of a minor bodily function is only one of these. Elsewhere we have the two sentences
Watched an episode of Friends. Watched a sunset in Wyoming.
It is evident, if you read more of the book, that the generator has lots of possible things for the narrator to watch, including sunsets in other locations and episodes from other sitcoms, and it is unlikely that Kleine intended anything particular by this juxtaposition. But it does suggest oppositions: natural vs man-made entertainment, the sublime and the perhaps non-sublime, maybe even the cultural separation between Wyoming and New York City.
How to read and react to something like this? Is the pure concept of it all there is — the idea of a work made in Twine, ramming words together at supercollider speeds? By reading a description of the book, have you basically read the book itself, or near enough? I would say not, myself, and it seems that Kleine would also say not, since he put a great deal of energy and care into creating this specific work, and it has qualities that the conceptual description can’t adequately convey.
He might not agree, but I tend to think that with generative grammars, a great deal depends on qualities of the grammar and qualities of the corpus. (I’m addressing qualities I’ve talked about before, in re Annals of the Parrigues, though now I’m applying them to the critical side rather than the authoring side.) For instance:
How repetitive is the structure? Lonely Men Club contains a lot of repetition, a lot of sentences that are plainly built on the basis of the same templates. It does not, as far as I can tell, make any effort to avoid repeating the same literal sentence, or using the same grammar node twice in a row, which is why we can wind up with two “Watched…” sentences back to back.
On the macro scale, though, the book includes blocks that are distinct in style or presentation, or that seem (as with the “static” example above) to elevate a repetitive type of content to a unique meaning. Some pages have one sentence per paragraph, in large type, list-like. Others run all the sentences together in tiny dense type. Some are explicitly doing something other than a diary format, such as presenting a table of contents or list.
How consistently sized are the blocks? World Clock has one paragraph after another, all the same basic size, all with the same structure, a ticking predictability of characters in various parts of the world at various times of day each reading some piece of text and then doing some gesture or physical response. (A very Salt approach, in my invented Parrigues terminology: it is regular at both the large and small scales.) Lonely Men Club is a bit more varied and clearly some elements are of substantial size.
How much variety is there in the individual elements? How evocative are they? Lonely Men Club has a lot of words at its disposal, and a lot of types of action as well. Here, for instance, is a bit that struck me:
It is the word “sometimes” here that turns the paragraph into something to ponder. An isolated summer house in the woods is a commonplace. But what does it mean for such a house to be sometimes deep in the woods? Does the house move, like Howl’s Moving Castle? Do the woods? Is there transport that makes it accessible, but only sometimes? Or, given the context, are we talking more about the speaker’s state of mind, a hermitly attitude that comes and goes? Maybe the house is really an urban apartment, but sometimes during the summer one feels so withdrawn and holed up there that it becomes conceptually isolated.
The sentence could very well be a consequence of the generative process, an expansion of the grammar “It was [temporal adverb] [adjective phrase]”, a grammatical line that most times might produce a sentence like “It was often messy” or “It was always cool and quiet”, but on this occasion has plugged in an adjective phrase that is not suitable for temporal modification.
But the choice to provide the corpus with this range of content — and not to groom it more precisely to guarantee that there will be no such productive “mistakes” — is where the art and craft come in.
At how many different levels does the procedurality operate? Madlibs operate on one level: there are slots, and words that go into them. That is all. Most generative grammars have several layers of expansion. World Clock substitutes elements into a paragraph, and elements into those sentences, I would guess. Lonely Men Club substitutes elements into sentences, but it is also doing visual transformations on the generated text, in a way that feels more like dialogue post-filtering than like a generation feature.
In the bit I quoted above, the way that “-thing” is hyphenated to the next line feels like enjambment; it makes us focus on that “every” a moment before continuing into the safer familiarity of “everything.” But this is a move that (as far as I can tell from Kleine’s descriptions of the formatting) would have come about because of the arbitrary font-sizing of the program he was using. Also procedural, just a different procedure; and the layering of these methods allows meaning to arise from the productive interference between levels.
So. I did not read all the words in this book, or even look at all the pages (though I at least glanced at many of them). I read as much as I wanted to, and I enjoyed the sensation, and enjoyed thinking about these issues of procedural writing.
But that leads me to one other observation, which is that a lot of procedural texts have this quality of not needing to be read completely. I don’t want to call it “bloat,” as that’s a negative word, and it also suggests that some of the words of the text are not needed; whereas a lot of procedural texts really need a fair expanse of content to begin to expose the patterning from which their beauty and systemic qualities can be assessed. (For Parrigues Tarot, it would in theory have been enough to create and publish a single deck of card descriptions, but this seemed really inadequate to the project in some way.) However, once one has reached that understanding, and extracted from the text some favorite tidbits — which might be favorites that another reader did not notice or even read at all — then it feels as though the reading is complete. And, in fact, a lot of the playful pleasure of (many of) these texts is lost if one forces oneself to read completely after one has learned enough.
This is something that I’ve been trying to combat with my own work because I prefer the challenge of building something that is readable from end to end. But I find it a lot when reading other people’s in this space. I don’t think this is necessarily a demerit per se (regardless of my personal artistic practice here). Maybe procedural texts need different reading strategies, just as interactive texts do.
Tangentially: this makes me wonder whether the ubiquitous Twitter bot is not merely a gimmick but really a very natural format for procedural text reading. It makes its patterns and repetitions evident, lining up one pattern-example after another in a column. On the other hand, it doesn’t demand that the reader read “the whole output,” and in fact makes that pretty much impossible, both because of the irritation factor of reading a long stream in Twitter, and the fact that the bot is continuing to produce more over time. Also, it feeds into the structure of faves and retweets, so that when one encounters a meaning that is particularly resonant, there is a way to collect and make use of this item; to put it in one’s trophy case, in a sense.
Twitter doesn’t really suit me for a lot of my own procedural text work because I’m usually interested in building continuities that extend beyond a single sentence or a few hundred characters. And, to be clear, so is Kleine — a one-sentence-at-a-time version of this book, tweeted out, would not work the same way.
Kleine has written about the project — what motivated it, and why he used Twine to build it, relying on Twine as a generator, as one might use Tracery or Improv.
Lonely Men Club was supported via Castle Freak, “a remote residency for Generative Digital Composition.” Castle Freak opens to new applications 16 July through 1 October, 2018, if you’d like to propose a project of your own to them.
Lonely Men Club is available here:
Disclosure: Mike Kleine sent me a free PDF copy of this book to enable me to review it.