From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 24 August 2009

Nobody gathers anymore. They merely log on

When the highly anticipated email finally came down from the mountain (in other words, from the Director’s office computer), it was short, to the point.

The paper is available.

One could say that everyone immediately ran to check it out, gathering wherever it was that whatever it was could be found, commenting wildly in a thrilling shared community moment. One could. But that would be silly.

Nobody gathers anymore. They merely log on.

And there it was, on the net, on the server. In the folder “Manuscripts in Preparation - Center Wide”. To make sure there was only one file in it. “REPORT - version 32.0 - Final?!”. The goal for today consisted of removing the question mark (and its ironic exclamation escort) from the file name. All researchers were asked to read through their contributions, send in any last-minute crucial corrections. Previous emails had been quite clear on this. The key words were “their” and “crucial”. To his infinite dismay the Director had learned that contributors were especially keen on correcting one other, and on resenting one others' corrections. That was why, among other reasons, there had been thirty-one previous versions. Each login password gave write-access to only certain parts of the document, with all the others supposedly locked. To make sure this was clear, the pages were banded with a multitude of colors, one per author, signaling clear limits of intervention. It felt as if the Director's children had had a go at it with sure-handed crayons. Or that it been censored by too many different agencies.

It was understandable. This was the Report. The big one, the trendsetter, a veritable quote machine for months after it would be published, cited in government offices and newscasts, included in drafted laws and recommendations, translated (poorly) into dozens of foreign tongues, its gospel ever spreading. To be praised in one talk show, and be ripped to shreds (literally) in the one five channels over. Its simplified magic slowly trickling to the everyday talk on the streets. The bible all others had to either follow or improve upon. It was the latter possibility that made Directors very nervous, worsened their ulcers, caused them (eventually) to resign. Staying on top was much harder then getting there, and every year the Report was meticulously combed through by dozens of eyes, half of them looking for Revelation, the rest for mistakes, incongruence, things that didn’t add up. This was humanity in a nutshell, revere or destroy; sequentially, simultaneously.

By rights, the older Reports should have come into more scrutiny. Those could be dissected retrospectively for predictions and trends that had been validated by time, and for all that had not. Mercilessly. That was rarely the case, however, discounting some oddball media outlets and a couple of dismissible blogs. The past had become some sort of quaint hobby: no time like the present, especially inasmuch as it was believed to look the future square in the face. The truth was probably that everyone tacitly acknowledged that no Report could withstand such scrutiny, so why bother?

Therefore each author of the current Report re-read for the umpteenth time an assigned section, perhaps leered a bit into someone else’s contribution, just out of idle curiosity; certainly took in both the Introduction and Conclusions, and not without a modicum of awe. In untouchable pristine white, those were the realm of the Director and his team. In typical fashion, it was always a marvel for authors of fragments to admire how a whole could be construed. And make sense. And be more than the sum of parts. Interestingly, two questions were never posed by any of the contributors at this late stage. Would the report still make sense if their part were simply removed? And how accurately did those neat bullet points at the beginning and end (for all intents and purposes the only parts many people would ever read) really sum everything up? It's always the relevant questions that seem to escape, unscathed, unasked.

Another point of common attention was the author list, which usually took up at least the first few pages. Usually presented only late in the process, as a fait accompli, it was the other thing that gave Directors ulcers – less serious but potentially more deadly, as they were always personal and it took a year before any slights could be corrected in a new version. There was no fixed rule for authorship. Hierarchical sorts of Directors listed by rank (real or perceived). Contribution Directors, in turn, tried to measure the actual input of each author, rewarding order accordingly (those never lasted too long). Alphabetical Directors just gave in. This year the order was actually reverse alphabetical, the Director preferring to be first author, instead of last; if your name starts “Zy” you will probably always make that choice.

There seemed to be a lot of authors this year, really a lot. The hidden cost of ultra-specialization? Fear of neglecting any angle however minor, basic distrust of the individual, just another way of adding gravitas to the final result? Who knew? Would anyone even notice the names in the middle, the limbo to which most of the researchers currently doing color corrections were banished? How would you be able to tell? More importantly, was that part of the Manuscript locked to prevent changes?

It was not, as it turned out: only the Introduction and Conclusions could not be edited. The Director was probably making sure that everyone was listed before tinkering, and who could blame him? So, if names were to be added somewhere in the middle, which names could they be? As authors read idly through paragraphs known by heart, they mused about that middle author limbo. Maybe not all of them. Very well, perhaps just one. Disillusioned? Expiring contract? Bored? Weird? A planted saboteur? It doesn’t matter. Someone with time for names. And really, how much thought actually ever goes into such author lists?

Initials and a last name, that was the only rule (space constraints prevented full first names). Would C. Cola or S. Up or P. Hut be construed as product placements? If so, could some sort of payment be arranged? No, this was cheap – a minimum of class, please. Homage, perhaps? G. G. Marquez, S. Merrit, A. Mann, H. Pratt, L. Margolis, T. Reznor, S.J. Gould, M. Davis, F. Schuiten, N. Gaiman, F. Bacon, A. Moore, B.B. King (not B. King). Quite good, reasonable options. They would fit right in, and sounded like authors the Report could, nay should, include. P. Auster or F. Zappa too, but those would be too close to the ends, always a dangerous position. W. A. Mozart, or L. v. Beethoven would be asking for trouble; perhaps A. Vivaldi, or G. Mahler might work better? Although bland name-wise, the author felt S. Penn or M. Pfeiffer or C. Eastwood were too risky, would set off alarms and inspire a quick look at the directory. Even M. Scorcese or A. Tarkovski, or L. Messi or C. Ronaldo or J. Coltrane or A. O’Day or H. Murakami or J. Saramago might be dangerous; what if the Director was a film buff, a soccer fan, a jazz aficionado, an avid reader? S.D. Dogg, A. Winehouse, F. Kafka, K. Kong or S. Pistols, although also very appropriate (for different reasons), were too much of a giveaway (it was true that other names listed, presumably attached to real researchers, sounded even odder). Others were too obscure, too smart-ass, even for the author. Perhaps E. Bunny and S. Claus could have contributed? It often felt that way. Who else?

No. Looking around for reference material, going online or thinking too much were not sportsmanlike options. The exercise, as it was, had to be spontaneous, and the (wisely limited) time the Director had allowed was winding down. Decisions were to be made. Now. If only two or three names could be chosen, which ones would they be? With which authors would this particular author feel privileged to share the Report?

Ten minutes later the file was blocked, available no longer except for the Director and his team for one last thorough check. Computers could be heard shutting down, chairs swiveling, footsteps making for the parking lot.

The author sat back, dying for a smoke, waiting for security to barge in. Dreading some secret dungeon where petty iconoclasts were tossed, never to be heard from again. At dusk, when it was clear nothing would happen, the author finally left. Perhaps in the morning the Report might be flagged, finally caught in a mistake that knocked it off its pedestal, made it unsuitable as a bible, no matter how volatile and contradictory the real one was. Or perhaps the new team would just start on next year's version, while the Director made his VIP rounds and everyone else out there in the world started sieving through the methodical (no longer colored) paragraphs. Wasting not one second to consider where they had actually come from, who had written them. After all an oracle is a vessel for prophecy. To be true it cannot be embodied; merely interpreted. And, as such, it can have no real authors. That must be why it works, the author thought, turning out the light.

Related information

© 2009 João Ramalho-Santos

The author would like to dedicate this story to Kowit-yu Chong.

Other articles by João Ramalho-Santos