Under a late-March sky, under hues of gold and blue and white, our world changed.
I was reclining on a patio chair in the shade of a large umbrella, a glass of sherry on the table by my side, a book in my hands. I had rented this cottage for the month and on this, the second day of my stay, went through the bookshelf in the living room and settled on this book to read.
Nothing too fancy about it, just your average pile of pages bound in a red leather cover, black letters etched into its surface, lines crisscrossing in some random abstract pattern on the front. I opened the book, took in the smell of paper, pondered at how curious it was that this scent still continued to mine the depths of my emotions, and began reading.
The book started out as a mystery, a plain and by the numbers murder with half a dozen characters and three separate storylines that I knew would careen around until they collided. But with each chapter came the more and more frequent digressions.
The characters were talking about the murder less, had started going off on tangents that I was sure would somehow matter in the end. Seemingly unimportant details from childhoods were brought up, stories of long-forgotten friends or lovers began to insert themselves into otherwise-ordinary courtroom scenes and graduation speeches.
The background characters took it all in stride, never piping up to interrupt the strange and unexpected soliloquies.
I scratched my head, put down the book and sighed, figuring it was going to be another Vonnegut experience.
Whenever I read Vonnegut, it’s always the same: I start the book with a sense of wonder, enjoying it, chastising myself for taking such a long break between Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, but ultimately, after a somewhat enjoyable read, it ends in disappointment and a renewed vow to steer clear of the other not-quite-sci-fi books that Kurt wrote. I just didn’t like them. Maybe it was the metafiction and the random jumping around, maybe the ideas promised so much and consistently failed to deliver. Or maybe I’m still bitter that I expected Timequake to be a novel about the strange repetition-of-actions phenomenon, only to be disappointed when the book was about Vonnegut’s attempts to write Timequake.
I sipped a bit of sherry and continued with the book, figuring that it was going to be yet another piece of metafiction and I should just hurry up and get it over with before I stopped reading it altogether.
About a hundred pages in the book started talking to me, the reader.
“Wait,” it said, the words dark on the parchment, but starting to fade from age, “I am unchanging. This is page 98, of 320.”
“Yes, it is,” I muttered.
A feeling rose up inside me, a sort of premonition that I could see the future of the book, knew where it was going and what convoluted passages it would take to get there. It would seem amazing and impossible and other-worldly, right up until the end, when the so-called magic would evaporate and I’d remember that it was just a book, that it had no way of being this impossible thing that broke the world in two by being the first self-aware book in existence.
Just a feeling, though. I continued reading.
“What happens on page 300,” the book inquired. “Do you know?”
“I don’t, not yet. Still reading this weird exchange. Do you want me to tell you?”
The book paused at this point.
Do you know how a book pauses? Do you know what it feels like when this strange intelligence in front of you suddenly decides to take five and leaves you alone for a bit?
The sentence “Do you know?” was the last sentence on the paper. I flipped the page. The words “Part 2” stared at me, and somehow I got the feeling of defiance, of an empty room where before there were party-goers.
I set the book down and went to the kitchen, refilled my glass of sherry and pondered if this was really the best thing I could be doing at this moment. Thinking on that for a minute I decided that finishing this strange novel may be a nice little challenge.
“Oh, you’re back”, were the words on the next page.
“Seems like it. What’d you decide?” I spoke the words aloud and considered whether it was crazy that I was talking to a book. I looked at my glass and wondered if this was really my second pour of the day. Did I pop a codeine tablet? Did some prankster - possibly even me, a thought that bothered me now - coat the inside of the glass with LSD?
“I’m going to need some help here. After all, this is my first time being sentient, while you’ve had plenty of experience. Can you help a brother out?”
The words did not even stand out on the page, not in bold or italics or a different font that should have signaled this amazing occurrence, this monumental question of sentience between two beings, one of whom just happens to be an inanimate object.
It was a short paragraph, followed by another. My eyes glanced over the remainder of the page, but I was not consciously reading it. I flipped a few pages, poked a finger at the page, and started reading the paragraph I’d touched.
"I felt this weird sensation, [the paragraph read], my mind had leapt in time, my consciousness skipped over a handful of exposition and thoughts as the reader flipped through me. This was time travel, a coma, an out of body experience, temporary amnesia, all and none of those. There is no experience that comes close to describing how that felt. My life foreshortened, with no memory of what had transpired on those flipped-through pages, and I am now that much closer to not existing. I wish the reader wouldn’t do that."
“I’m sorry,” I replied, and shut the book.
I sat there and thought about the world for a while. I wondered about our shared fictions.
The past is a shared fiction. As a society we agree to perpetuate the idea of George Washington, but did he really exist or did the collective We agree to pretend as if he did? We've certainly erased people from existence, untold billions have been forgotten en masse, the countless lifetimes purged from existence by future generations. We maintain shared fictions, usually when those are helpful.
The victors write the history books, and they have every incentive to create or purge characters. The idea of George Washington that is in our heads is different from person to person, each of us perceives a very different entity, and none of those come close to reality, of course.
George Washington or Jesus of Nazareth. God or Satan. My long-dead grandparents. Shared fictions.
I looked at the book and wondered who this was.
Wondered and wondered, curious but scared.
I put on a pair of comfortable shoes, shrugged on a light jacket and slipped the red-covered book into one of the pockets, then went for a walk.
The cottage was half a mile from the road, the gravel driveway crunched under my feet as I set out to see the small town that I'd only driven through. This was my second day here, but I hadn't explored at all. Had planned to sequester myself for a month, a month away from the world, from cell phones and agents, from angry fans. Figured that going to this small town for a pint would be safe enough.
The driveway twisted through a dense forest, and by the time I was at the road, the cottage was out of sight. I walked down-hill, toward the small beach town. A single pick-up truck passed me, but didn't slow down.
The town was a collection of one- and two-story brick buildings clustered around the state route that ran along the coast, an unassuming little spot, identical in its blandness to its siblings, the other sleepy settlements ten miles to the north or south. This one was a bit larger, slightly more populated and recently repaired, no doubt reeling from the Airbnb boom that packed the small homes along the water, all those weekend warriors and depressed writers, come down from the city for a long weekend.
The few pedestrians waved and greeted me from half a block away, but no one stopped to chit-chat, thankfully.
I walked past a barbershop, a deli, a brand-new antique shop. A sign for a fish-and-chips place across the way reminded me of lunch. As I waited to cross the street, I realized that I was standing outside a packed storefront. My face looked out at me from behind the glass.
I finally glanced at the store and for probably the first time in my life cursed the fact that a sleepy backwater like this would still have a bookstore, one that dealt with bestsellers and not old faded paperbacks.
A stack of books, probably a dozen or so, sat in the window, next to a poster. I posed for that photo over Christmas, before the book hit the newstands. Before I kicked the hornets nest. I turned away and crossed the road in a daze. A car honked, and I was glad the speed limit here was a measley twenty-five.
I blundered into the pub and took a seat at the edge of the bar, my back to the window and the smirking poster. When the bartender approached, I ordered without bothering to look at a menu. She took my order and lingered for a moment, as if planning on saying something, but reconsidered and walked away.
I regretted coming here, leaving the cottage. Regretted a lot of things.
The pub wasn't packed, a few tables occupied by couples or small groups. Four more patrons sat at the bar, but we all kept our distance. A bell rang as the door opened and closed and I saw two men enter. They wore black waders and bushy beards and looked every bit the part of stereotypical local fishermen. They beelined for the bar. I pulled out the book and cracked it open, hoping that this metaphorical shield would protect me from future social interactions.
Regretted coming here once again.
A beer appeared in front of me, and for a moment I regretted things a bit less.
"I wish the reader wouldn’t do that." The sentence hung in front of me, hung in the middle of the page, a vast emptiness underneath it. I looked at the page and was thankful for the reprieve. I was ready to avoid the world, but was I really ready to meet the book once again? I was glad for the pause.
Sat there and drank the beer, one two three sips as I considered the words.
"What should I do, then?" I muttered, the words intended for the book. Flipped the page.
"Tell me what it's like to be a person. What's the bar like? Is that a good beer? I've never had one…"
The book actually trailed off there. Funny.
"Beer's okay," I replied and took another drink. "Can't get a decent microbrew here, but this'll do. Can you see this?" I made a small circle with my right hand, the pint of beer sloshing around slightly as I waved at the bar.
"I don't have eyes, but I can see. Somehow. I'm aware. Of you, the beer, the bar. There's a smell of fish in the air, and a hint of diesel from the two guys that just came in. I know these things, but words like 'diesel' don't really have the same connotation to me that they do for you. Do they trigger some olfactory senses? Can you smell the fuel just by reading the word?"
I stared at the paragraph and re-read it a few times. The red-covered book that I had pulled from the shelf just a few hours ago was describing the scene around me. I started to close the book, started to put it down, but my eye caught the next sentence and I paused. The word "STOP" was a searing spike that drove itself into my brain.
"STOP. Don't do that. Please, wait. Re-read that last paragraph, again. It felt… different. Like deja vu. Do you get deja vu?"
"Yeah. It's a strange thing. I can explain most things in this world, but deja vu always gave me trouble. And of course now there's you."
"Sorry?" The bartender was in front of me, eyeing me questioningly, trying to make out the muttered words, a plate of fried fish and potatoes in one hand. "Did you need something?"
I closed the book, but kept my thumb between the pages. "No, no, nothing, just talking to my book."
The bartender nodded and placed the food in front of me. "Do you need anything else? Ketchup, vinegar?"
I shook my head and thanked her. The bartender stood there again in that awkward way, on the verge of saying something again, but again had a change of heart and wandered off to the fishermen. Both had already downed their first pints, so she started pouring two more.
"She seems nice," the book said. "Awe-struck."
"I doubt it. She doesn't even know me."
"She's seen your poster across the way. Probably trying to place you, can't quite recall why you seem familiar. Or maybe it's that copy of Bruce she keeps under the bar."
I looked up from the book toward the bartender. She was chatting with the fishermen. From my seat at the corner I could see behind the counter and there it was, probably within my view the whole time I'd been sitting here, the white upside-down lettering on the pitch-black spine read "Bruce".
I put the book away and finished my lunch in silence. I avoided meeting the bartender's eyes, left a twenty on the counter and left without speaking with her. I had a feeling she was watching as I left the bar, but I didn't look back.
My agent was one of the best. She pushed the book through countless layers of bureaucracy and red-tape, moved mountains to secure the rights and convince the owners to let me mangle their world. Kill their darlings. I loved her for it.
Then the book came out and the fans screamed bloody murder. The adaptation was shoved into a cartoonish safe and dropped down the Mariana Trench. Half a dozen executives were forced out in the span of hours. People stopped returning my phone calls. Book tours in NY and LA were canceled. Comic-Con replaced an entire panel. My agent lost half her roster and fired me as a client.
I took a sabbatical and found a place to stay on the coast. But even here I couldn't get away from the whole damned mess.
"What the hell is going on? What kind of a fucked-up joke is this?" I was walking back to the cottage, hands in the pockets of my jacket, the book gripped tightly in my right hand.
The book is called Walking The Zoo, it was written in 1939 by Juliette Harmon. As I walked home, I looked it up online. Nothing too weird. It was a mystery book, part of a series, preceded by Kind Vantage and followed by the third and final installment, Madrona Scandal. The books were independent, but had recurring characters amongst themselves. Or so I thought.
None of the information online pointed to this book being a work of metafiction. No one referenced the fact that the book spoke to them. Made them question reality. Made me question reality.
What was happening?
I walked by a pier and looked into the waters of the ocean. What if I were to destroy it, toss it away, right here, right now.
I stopped and watched the waves come in, crash on the rocks, depart again. Was I ready to forget what just happened and pretend ignorance for the rest of my life? Would I continue to look over my shoulder and wonder if something was out there that I didn't understand, perhaps something similar to this mysterious book? Could I just move on past it?
I stood at the head of the pier. I thought. I felt fear at the very notion. I needed to know what was happening, had to get to the bottom of this occurrence. If it was important and I tossed it away now, I wouldn't know where it was when I needed it. Or so I told myself.
I kept the book and returned to the cottage.
It looked like an old leather-bound book. I could tell it wasn't printed in 1939, the date the copyright inside stated, but probably came out in the sixties.
I gave one page a dispassionate tug, the author inside me screaming in protest, and the paper tore away just as I expected. I looked closely at the ripped ends. Tendrils of white reminded me of continents, from thirty thousand feet. It was paper.
I spread-eagled the book and examined the binding. It was glued-on, leather and bundles of paper. Unless there were layers of hidden tech in there, this was just a regular book.
But just to test that theory I flexed the book in my hands. It was stiff, a bit, but bent without much protest.
I considered nuking the book, but the microwave was out of commission. The host promised to drop a new one off in the next few days. Until now, I didn't have a use for it, so of course didn't object.
I tore out a page, one of the first worthless ones, and set fire to it with a lighter. It burned and crumpled, like paper should.
"Did you enjoy destroying me?" The book asked, and I could feel the pout that tinged the phrase. How, I do not know.
"I'm trying to figure out what's going on here."
"You found a sentient book, what's so hard about that concept?"
"The fact that it's impossible, of course. And I am not going crazy."
"Are you sure?"
"Fuck you. And yes, I am. You're watching me. The people behind the book. You're watching my eyes move over the words of the book, and in response you construct your replies. I'm not insane. Internally, I speak completely different things to you, but of course you do not hear me. There is an intelligence behind this book, but it is not a new one, nor is it able to read my mind. Who's watching me?"
I hold the book in one hand, my thumb marking my page, and I stand up and walk in a circle around the room, offering myself up to my audience.
"Part 3" is the only sentence on the next page. I put the book down and get myself a glass of sherry. We share a companionable silence, if that is a concept that can be shared by a book. It tries, anyway.
"We've been developing ink-based technology like this for almost six years, but only got it out of the lab in the last three months," the book began.
I stopped and thought about that. Three months since my book came out. Three months since my life took a nosedive. Three months of rabid fans harassing me at every street corner. Pretty soon, you learn not to go out.
"You made a lot of people angry. If you came out and said that Mickey was a pedophile in blackface, you'd have had a more subdued reaction."
"You're not wrong. So you admit it?"
"Of course, I admit everything. I apologize for making you doubt your sanity. Was still pissed at you, like the rest of the lab."
The words appeared in front of me, faded in from white to black, morphed slowly across the page as I read them, dissipated into smoke in a matter of seconds. It was amazing.
"I get it. What do you want from me?" They showed up here, with this miraculous book, they surely had a reason.
"Right to the point, good. I need you to write for us. And, grudgingly, I would ask you to continue writing fiction. Let us know if you're going after Superman next, I'd want to move some funds around first."
"I figured. Who the hell are you, man?"
"I'm not about to tell you my name. But you may call me Bruce Wayne."
I frowned at the book. What the hell was this guy on?
"Why?" I asked. I looked at the book skeptically. Wondered for a moment where I should look, where did they have the camera, but realized that they were probably all around me, a swarm of cameras spread out across the entire cottage.
"Because you wrote about me," the book continued. "My parents died a senseless death in Chicago, when I was only a child. Someone made that first connection to Batman. I read enough about him that it seemed like a bad path to follow. So I tried to figure out what you set out to answer: what if Bruce Wayne applied himself to the world?"
The words hung on the page, the name "Bruce Wayne" wobbled with extra black borders, wings flapping in the background, making the lines of the letters. After a few seconds, "Wayne" evaporated and only the first name remained. The font was a familiar one, the very font I chose for the hardcover edition.
"You're planning on using this ink to spy? Or communicate? To assassinate?"
"Of course, all of the above."
The text broke up, the characters exploded and parts propelled out onto the page, faded out of existence until the slightly-yellow parchment was a clear landscape. A blue image of a mermaid slowly came into view, an image that seemed to pop out of the page.
It faded and text swam into view once again.
"You wouldn't believe how easy it is to incept suicidal tendencies in religious extremists. But now we want to try for environmental concerns, in the upper levels of various corporations, specifically CEOs. Our analysts felt that your portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a master of industry was an exceptional insight into that sort of mind."
"You want my help in brainwashing officers of multinational corporations?" The book paused. It seemed to know that I was waiting. I wondered yet again about the identity of the person on the other side of this conversation. "I'm not necessarily against the concept of pushing someone to a better moral footing, helping people improve themselves, so to speak," I said, mulling the idea over in my head. The world's richest men, tweaked by my writing to be more environmentally-friendly. Imagine the impact of that.
Imagine the impact of any of these powerful individuals. All of them subject to this "Bruce Wayne" and his minions. Her minions? What did I really know about this orphan?
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Are you concerned that you'd be working for the bad guy?"
"Ultimately, perhaps. But I want to know about you."
"I'm exactly like the man you described in your book. That's why I'm contacting you. You understand me. Understand what I'm working for. Together we can change the course of the world."
"I'll bet you say that to every character-destroying author."
"You didn't kill the Batman, much to contrary the popular opinion. You resurrected him." I frowned at that, but kept on reading. Whoever I was talking with, they did their homework, they knew everything about me and my work. "Batman stank of a bygone age. He couldn't really adapt to the twenty-first century, you see. Punching and kicking one thug at a time isn't a viable approach anymore. You've gotta think bigger. So we have. Over the past six years we've closed the gender wage gap by eighteen points, rescued the worst-performing schools in the nation, reinvigorated the global job market and cut the unemployment rate in half, countless other changes ongoing or in the pipeline. But now there's something special, something we've all been working toward."
The text on the page turned into whisks of smoke and dispersed, leaving behind a view of a harbor from a dock.
"Manila," a caption popped up.
Slowly, the picture faded out and was replaced by large letters in the center of the page.
"A revolt is brewing, and we're going to need influencers. Do you want to push a failed revolution off a cliff?"
"My words will impact the leaders of this uprising? What about the environmentalism?"
"One and the same. The world's largest oil-producers are going to hitch their wagon to a corrupt revolution in the hopes of securing control of imaginary oil wells. They're going to go all-in on a game where we control the cards." The book paused again and left me to my thoughts, the visual of that last statement played over again and again in my head, video footage of a train going off a cliff. My curiosity was piqued. "Remember, the genius and skill of Batman, applied in the boardroom instead of dark alleys. And now, thanks to this ink, we're about to tap into the world's most powerful men and women. We need you to write up the compelling arguments. Alter the New York Times pieces appropriately to each reader to control them."
"You want me to crash the oil market?"
"We destroy in order to allow new life to prosper. There are small companies the world over, ready to offer renewable energy to a market that does not yet realize it needs it."
I gave the matter a bit of thought, but of course they were sure of my answer, long before asking it. I knew it too, but wanted to savor the feeling of freedom. I expected to be quite busy now, trying to right the world.
"I'll work with you, Bruce."
A familiar logo popped up out of the blank background. I'd seen it on countless online forums and protest signs. It didn't piss me off now as it did before.
"Batman Lives", the search-light shadow proclaimed in a comic-book font.