For Years

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

I.e., since the summer of 2001, when you were still writing the narrative on which you are now commenting. Even then, you had a feeling that it, the narrative, was totally inadequate to explain what had happened in Thebes in the fall of 2000, your trip to clean out your grandparents’ house which ended in such disaster for you and Yesim and Kerem and perhaps for other people too, you didn’t know, you’d run away and Thebes was a closed book to you in more senses than one. Trying to explain what had happened in one short narrative was like trying to cover an elephant with a handkerchief. September 10, 2001 found you making notes on the second part of your project, in which you would tell all the stories you’d forgotten or left out of the first part.

The next day you lost interest in your book, in any book. When the air smells of burning bodies, who thinks about books?

You didn’t look at your notes again for a year. You were living in San Francisco again at that point, trying not to get too involved in the weird, dangerous protest movement which your friends Alice and Erin had joined. You were sitting cross-legged on the floor of the front room of your neighbor Robert’s apartment, irritated beyond measure by Dylan’s “Mozambique,” which Robert was playing, as per usual, at absolutely top volume, when suddenly you had the idea to diffuse the line of your project into a digital cloud. It made sense. What you were trying to cover with your explanatory handkerchief was no longer even an elephant; it was the world.

You got all excited about the idea; you researched the available software tools. Maybe you would write a text-adventure game, the way you wanted to when you were twelve years old. Maybe you’d tell your story in the form of—Gog help you!—a blog. Finally, after all the grief you’d been through in the last couple of years, not to mention all the failure, all the dullness, this was something. Your head was full of slow fireworks: this new kind of story was going to be your discovery, your airplane, your continent. You weren’t a failure after all! Your name would be remembered! You, you, you, you, you!

But there is an enormous difference between having an idea and making that idea into something. Before you can even begin to make the thing, which will be a lot of work, always more work than you thought, so much work that, if you knew how much work it was going to be, you would never begin, anyway, before you start, the idea has to undergo a transformation, it has to become something you are capable of doing, or, to put it another way, you have to become a person who is capable of doing it.

When you, when I, first thought of making a hypertext (or “immersive text,” as my editor wants me to call it), I was like what Proust says about the would-be aviators who are so dear to my heart: I possessed the desire to fly, but not the secret mechanism that would get me off the ground. In my case, the lack had nothing to do with technology. I had worked as a programmer for years; the construction of a suitable Web backend was, if not second nature, at least something I could do with the help of a couple of reference books and some open-source software libraries from the Internet. It’s true, the technology I’m using now didn’t exist in 2002 (in fact, it’s very sophisticated, my technology, despite the simple face this Commentary turns to the world), but I could have cobbled something together.

The problem was elsewhere: not on the Net but in my heart. I possessed the desire to fly, but I also possessed the desire not to fly, and for a long time, certainly in the summer of 2001, and again in the summer of 2002, and in the summers and winters and springs and autumns that followed, my desire not to fly was much stronger than any other desire I was capable of feeling. (I wonder if the pioneers of flight, some of them, anyway, had the same problem. The materials from which Otto Lilienthal made a working glider in 1894 were available when Leonardo Da Vinci drew up plans for his impossible flyer in 1488; I wonder if the compromises which resulted in Da Vinci’s flyer and all the weird unworkable machines that followed it were made not with the technical world, but within the hearts, the heads, of the inventors themselves.)

Then, some time between 2002 and now, i.e., December, 2007, I became capable, if not of finishing this Commentary (which is, in a sense, unfinishable), at least of starting it. What happened, what changed? I moved from San Francisco to New York, from New York (briefly) to Montreal, from Montreal to New York again, from New York (strangely) to New Haven. I held several bad jobs and wrote half of two books. I stood helplessly by as Alice and Erin disappeared into Mexico. I fell in love, I looked for people who were lost, I got lost myself, and this Commentary is the story of all of those things, of all those people and all those events, but it is also the story of something else, the transformation of this idea, to write a Commentary, into a thing, which exists as much as anything on the Web exists; it’s the story of the subterranean progress by which an idea carves its way through a person until it finally emerges in the world, for better or worse, for people—you!—to consider.

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