N. J. Campbell, Found Audio

Found AudioFound Audio by N.J. Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Who is the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigación de Buenos Aires?”

I can tell you without in any way spoiling N. J. Campbell’s Found Audio that this is the novel’s final sentence. It is an odd question on two grounds. First, there is no such institution, as far as I can discern—the official name of Argentina’s national library would appear to be La Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina. Second, “who” is the wrong word: who—that is, what person—could possibly be a research library? But let me not belabor the obvious. The national research library of Argentina is, for the purposes of world literature and its writers and readers, obviously the erstwhile Argentine National Library director himself, Jorge Luis Borges. He is the patron saint of this new novel by debut novelist Campbell. As in Borges’s work, so in Campbell’s, we are in the realm of sublime and oneiric infinities, but mediated ones, ones possibly impossible but for the mass media age, and even then, or now.

I heard of this novel from The Book Chemist and could not resist the implicit promise of a novel that might be a less annoying House of Leaves and a more literary Night Film. I enjoy narratives that locate primordial fear within the mass communications technologies that were supposed to banish the night forever; they create a frisson of metaphysical disquiet that is authentic to my, or our, experience of everyday life in the way that other venerable horror personae and tropes are not. A demon crawling out of a screen is much more frightening to Internet-addicted city-dwellers or suburbanites than a demon crawling out of a forest. Still, such narratives generally seem better suited to cinema, from The Ring to Lake Mungo, than to literature. Prose fiction, as in Danielewski’s cult classic, often has to strain too hard to create the effects of haunted media when its authors do not learn the lesson of Borges (or Poe or Lovecraft) to keep fear-and-fabulism brief.[1] Found Audio‘s publisher, Two Dollar Radio, acknowledges the novel’s cinematic roots in this slightly mortifying image[2]:

Which is my cue for a plot summary: Found Audio casts itself as a found manuscript narrative. In a foreword and afterword, N. J. Campbell himself tells us that he received this manuscript when working as a reader for a small press; publishing it under his own name as fiction, however, he assures us it is authentic. What is in the manuscript? It is the record and transcript of sound historian Amrapali Anna Singh of the University of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, who found herself in a receipt of a strange set of audio tapes that originated in the aforementioned Argentine national research library. The tapes are the recorded narrative of a nameless travel journalist who explains his long quest for “the city of dreams,” an authentic experience of otherworldly extremity-in-place. His quest begins almost by accident with a hallucinatory tour through the swamps of Louisiana with a snake hunter, then leads him to a walled city in China, a village in South Africa, a possible mirage in the Gobi desert, and a chess game in Istanbul. He both does and does not find what he’s looking for—his experiences are mysterious, even supernatural ones, but also possibly dreams or hallucinations. In the midst of his narrative, he also reflects poignantly on the loss of his life’s great love, a woman named Bianca, who left him for a colleague of his—and not just any colleague, but the one who sets the narrator off on these doomed adventures. While the narrator is telling his tale, he is often interrupted by noises and voices—as the sound historian Singh informs us in her footnotes—that do not seem likely to belong to one place, time, or group of people. Are the narrator’s experiences real? And to what weird tribunal is he reporting them? Moreover, why does everyone who seeks to publicize the tapes go missing?

Found Audio is a literary novel rather than a genre one: by that I mean pragmatically that it is more interested in mood, theme, and psychology than plot. Thus it is no surprise that the questions above—and their philosophical implications—turn out to be much more important than the answers. As its media motif of analog recording in our digital age should suggest, Campbell’s novel is about nostalgia, about yearning for a time when the mysterious could still be imagined as a place in the world. The novel informs us three times that “hysteresis” is the name for a certain distortion that magnetic recording is prey to. There is no etymological relation between “hysteresis” and the return of the repressed itself, “hysteria,” but the punning poetic imagination does not know this.

The narrator’s drive to experience the mystery, to go on the outward journey that is the inward journey that is yet again the outward journey, the voyage to and through the oneiric utopia, marks him as the novel’s hero, along with Singh and Campbell, who also refuse to give up on the transmission of the tapes. But the city of dreams remains elusive, and the novel is perhaps also mocking the desire to locate it outside the self—especially when the self is, in the persons both of the novel’s narrator and its author, a white American, and its outside, as depicted in the book’s far-flung settings, is the African-American or African or Chinese or Turkish “other.” (Some readers will almost certainly not find such satire evident or overt enough and will therefore, I assume, provide more of a postcolonial dressing-down of Found Audio‘s colonial tropes than I have.)

As for an aesthetic evaluation of the novel: Campbell has said in interviews that he wanted to experiment with a voiced narrative, hence the recording of the protagonist. Voice, however, can cover a multitude of sins. While the narrative is mostly convincing in its conversational tone, Campbell’s pursuit of speakerly verisimilitude does drain the novel of a certain descriptive vitality. For a tale of such exotic locales and supernal goings-on, there is little evocation of place beyond bare notation, vague metaphors (“His silence carried a weight in its midst”), and even cliché (“dead of night,” “like a dog with a bone,” “all bets are off,” etc.). There is also the occasional distracting solecism, as when both “tenents” and “tenants” are given in place of “tenets” in the space of a single page, for example, or “forth” for “fourth.” Self-parody, like verisimilitude, can furnish fine excuses, but when the sound historian Singh writes that the audio tapes’ narrative is “cliché, undeveloped, and hackneyed,” or when Campbell in his own afterword calls the foregoing story “undeveloped, inconsistent, and insufficiently detailed,” the reader may admire the knowingness without quite forgiving the prose. Though Borges is the novel’s overt sponsor, with his pioneering of the modern writer’s journey through media and language to the infinite heart of mystery, Campbell might have followed Borges in the construction of a more “literary” narrative persona—or perhaps, befitting the narrator’s adventuresome spirit, a more literarily tough-guy one, like those of Hemingway or McCarthy. Otherwise, the novel’s language is sometimes just too slack to induce the unease or vertigo Found Audio is so often striving for.

Nevertheless, the premise is intriguing, the narrative addictively readable, and the themes relevant and ultimately moving. The novel is even informative. One of Campbell’s jokes, I take it, is that his fiction’s mundane locales—such as the University of Dutch Harbor and the Biblioteca Nacional de Investigación de Buenos Aires—are wholly invented, while its Walled Cities and Bayou mysteries are based on solid research. And some scenes are as eerie and memorable as anything in this literary tradition:

Now it’s extremely unnerving when a blind man narrows his eyes at you. If it had been in some other direction, if it had felt like he had been looking to the left or right of me—even by an inch—I would have felt something less than primal fear, but he just stood there with his empty eyes leveled at my eyes. He stared at me for maybe three or four seconds and then he walked out in front of his stand, bent down, and picked up a handful of dry earth. Then he stood up and stared right at me again and held out his other, empty, hand. I thought he was gesturing for me to give him my hand and I guessed correctly, because as I gave it to him, he held the earth over my palm and let it slip through his fingers. Before a single grain of sand touched my palm, it had scattered in the wind.

A fascinating and promising first novel; I look forward to the second.

[1] Staging the return of the repressed at length via printed text—which is to say in literature—tends to work better in a comic rather than horrific mode, from Cervantes to Sterne to Joyce to Nabokov. Insofar as both comedy and horror are the unconscious’s disordered revenge upon the ego’s rational designs, we can still see a kinship between both modes of meta-media narrative.

[2] Saturated in advertising as we are, we naturally think of books, possibly including our own, in such marketing terms; when I first started writing Portraits and Ashes back in 2013, I joked that it was “Lena Dunham meets José Saramago” (forgive me: Lena still seemed relevant then)—but I don’t know if I would actually want it advertised that way!