A Real-Life Glitch In the Matrix
- 853 wds. long
You remember the scene, right? A black cat crosses the red carpet in the hallway, hisses, then continues on its way--only to vanish two steps later and reappear five steps behind. With a brief digital blur, it reenacts its most recent past. The protagonist is startled. So are we. "A glitch in the Matrix," we are told. A memory hitch, a redraw jitter, a fault revealing the computerized nature of the fictional world.
Meanwhile, in the "real" world, the Matrix glitches again. John and I are in Chicago, visiting the Field Museum. In the Africa exhibit there stands an elephant tusk from a royal altar in Benin, a spiraling story carved into its six or seven foot length: the Oba would have commissioned this work to commemorate his father's reign. As a work of literature, it grabs our attention, because (the informative plaque tells us) there is no single translation. The iconography is properly interpreted as overlapping layers of story. Like a sedimentary rock, each narrative strata resembles the one beneath it but differs here and there in key ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt.
At the time, we understand this to mean that a single reading contains these multifaceted interpretations. That the tusk always contains in its deliberately broad-reaching icons several related stories, each considered true, each accessible in the carving, from the point of view of a member of the court in a given generation. Researching it now, I think maybe I misunderstood; articles such as Barbara W. Blackmun's "From Trader to Priest in Two Hundred Years" (Art Journal; June 1, 1988) seem to imply that the layers of varying interpretation were not designed from the beginning but rather accreted over the years. The ambiguous nature of the icons and the prioritizing of "cherished values" over "linear, factual recording of past events" allowed successive generations to seamlessly reinvent the story, changing the past to better suit the values of the present. Nevertheless, at the time, John and I were both enchanted by the idea of multiple narratives coexisting upon the same "page." Both of us wanted to tuck the paradigm under our arms, spirit it home, and infuse it into our respective relationships with storytelling.
Like most museums, the Field Museum strives to be interactive. Some of its exhibits include hands-on demonstrations. Some are labeled with pop-up books instead of plaques. "How many languages are spoken on the African continent? Lift this page to find out!" Tools from our childhood classrooms, prompting us to respond as children ready to learn. In this spirit, a three-ring binder was affixed to one of the shelves bordering the exhibit case. "Flip through the pages to see different possible stories this tusk could be telling."
So I did.
But each page was identical to the first.
Only one story was being told. Repeatedly. With word-for-word accuracy.
In fiction, I do weird. I love to read it, I strive to write it. And I'm in the habit of believing it. When I think I'm seeing oddness in the world around me, like everyone else I insert a logical explanation: "Administrative glitch. Or maybe it's supposed to be 10 copies of the same thing. Whatever." But before I get there, the weirdness gets there first.
"A glitch in the Matrix. The world is throwing duplicates, like a computer running too many processes. When I look up, I'll see a line of duplicate carved tusks in identical glass cases stretching off as far as the eye can see."
For just a moment, I know this to be true. Then the logical explanation cuts in and restores order to my world. Safe, predictable, comforting order. Boring order.
So two months later I start writing the story in which the weirdness usurps the boring. And the weirdness, as it turns out, has layers of weird lurking underneath, weird strata imperfectly mimicking even weirder strata.
This should be fun.