I stayed up later than I meant to the other night reading all of Matt Bucher’s new book The Belan Deck in one cover-to-cover go. On his website, Bucher describes The Belan Deck as “a little book…set mostly during a layover at SFO” that “centers around a person who maybe doesn’t really fit in at their AI tech job but still needs to produce one final PowerPoint deck.” This description approximates the plot, in the barest sense, but doesn’t touch on the spirit or form of The Belan Deck.
Let’s talk about the spirit and form of The Belan Deck. Bucher borrows the epigraphic, anecdotal, fractured, discontinuous style that David Markson practiced (perfected?) in his so-called Notecard Quartet (1996-2007: Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel). “An assemblage…nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like,” wrote Markson, to which Bucher’s narrator replies, “Bricolage. DIY culture. Amateurism. Fandom. Blackout poems.”
Bucher’s bricolage picks up Markson’s style and spirit, but also moves it forward. Although Markson’s late quartet is arguably (I would say, by definition) formally postmodernist, the object of the Notecard Novels’ obsession is essentially Modernism. Bucher’s book is necessarily post-postmodern, taking as its objects the detritus and tools of postmodern communication: PowerPoint, Google Street View, Wikipedia, social media, artificial intelligence.
At the same time, Bucher continues Markson’s obsessions with artists and death, adding to the mortality lists that wormed through DM’s quartet. Bucher’s updates are odd though, in that they seem to, in their print form, contextualize anew coincidences that were so raw and immediate when they popped up on Twitter and other social media:
Nicanor Parra died the day after Ursula K. LeGuin died.
Larry McMurty and Beverly Cleary died the same day.
(In my memory, William H. Gass died the day before LeGuin, but this is not true. He died almost two months before LeGuin. But I recall teaching selections from both of their work in a literature class in the spring semester of 2018, and pointing out to my students that the empty spaces behind the dashes after their birth years might now be filled in. “An encyclopedia entry demands at least a birth or a death,” notes Bucher’s narrator.)
The encyclopedia, by which I mean Wikipedia, becomes a heroic motif in The Belan Deck. “Wikipedia is the number one result for over 50% of Google searches,” Bucher’s narrator points out, following it up with,
Wikipedia, made by humans, for free, is a better search engine than Google, the most expensive and sophisticated algorithm in the world.
Earlier in The Belan Deck, the narrator points to the “mindless pleasure of going down a deep Wikipedia rabbit hole,” a pleasure that an artificial intelligence, no matter how developed, could never feel. About three dozen pages later, Bucher’s narrator throws a slant rhyme to his previous note on the “mindless pleasures” of Wikipedia rabbit holes, pointing out that Thomas Pynchon had used Mindless Pleasures as a working title for Gravity’s Rainbow. That’s how this book operates: Disparate fragments of information are “Clues rather than trivia.”
The goal is to find the sublime in these connections; Bucher’s narrator repeatedly and succinctly argues that finding the beautiful, much less the sublime, is impossible for an artificial intelligence. The Belan Deck plays out as a discursive, looping, and unexpectedly moving argument for humanity, in all its serious triviality, against the backdrop of capital’s rapid encroachment into the human position in the arts.
“Capitalism is incompatible with being an artist, for most people,” avers our narrator. “Yet you participate!” might come the retort, and it’s true—not only does Bucher’s narrator work in a soulless medium, the deck (trying to inject some soul, some sublime, some humanity into it), he also works for the soulless Belan, a money guy who would love to replace artists with machines. (In what I think has to be a great intentional gag, Bucher’s narrator’s point of contact for Belan is a middleman named Jimmy Chen. I just have to believe that the character’s a take on the Jimmy Chen who wrote and designed on HTMLGIANT for all those years.)
The narrator participates because there aren’t that many other options, as we all know. “Do you understand what I am saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” the narrator plaintively asks. I mean, for me, that’s a Yes, all the time.
There’s much more in The Belan Deck than I can get to here—more on art, artists, baseball, airports—it’s voluminous for a “little book.” (“When we buy a book, we think we are buying time to read” is a line I underlined but could not otherwise work into this review, so I’ll include it here parenthetically. (A lot of this review has happened in parentheses.))
I’ll end with two bits of personal trivia, two coincidences.
First: The day The Belan Deck arrived in my mail, which is the day that I read The Belan Deck, some AI-cheerleading dork went viral on Twitter for posting a series of unasked-for renderings of “what the backgrounds of the most famous paintings in the world look like with AI.” He was roundly and rightly mocked for his endeavors, and I found the general antipathy heartening, but still a small cadre of people who know absolutely nothing about art congratulated his vapidity.
Second: Earlier that same day, I read a passage from Walter Tevis’s 1980 dystopian novel Mockingbird, and found its sentiment largely heartening as well. The hero of the novel, staring at a “dumb parody of humanity” declares it “nothing, nothing at all.” He continues, pointing out that the forces of capital “had given robots to the world with the lie that they would save us from labor or relieve us from drudgery so that we could grow and develop inwardly.” But underneath this false promise was a deep “contempt for the ordinary life of men and women,” a deep hatred of human life itself. The sentiment I find heartening here is in the hero’s recognition and resistance to this contempt.
The Belan Deck isn’t a straightforward guidebook or manifesto or map, but it nevertheless, in its elliptical, poetic approach, offers a winding, thinking, feeling path of opposition to not only the machines themselves, but also the hollow men who would gladly replace artists and creators and thinkers with those machines. It’s also really fun to read. Great stuff.