It happens whenever ordinary small talk slips into the novel. "I have a new book coming out," I say.
"Really? What’s it called?"
"The End Note," I reply.
"What’s it about?"
There’s the inevitable break in eye contact, the embarrassed pause, my mouth wrinkling into aborted words. Finally, I manage to expel something vague and pompous about death and the material universe. The different ways people respond to the collapse of the planet and human institutions. Faith versus reason, and whether art can be reduced, like everything else, to ones and zeroes. Satirical 19th-century poetry. Oh, and policy conferences. There’s a lot of stuff about policy conferences.
"Uh huh. What gave you the idea to write it?"
Um. Well. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Years ago, when I was giving interviews to promote the publication of my first book, I always began with an anecdote. “I was on a flight home from Frankfurt,” I would say, “when the hostess rolled past, calling out, ‘Beef or pasta? Beef or pasta?’” Struck by the absurd rectangle of brown matter in the absurd rectangle of my airplane tray, I wondered how it got there—and by extension, how I did, too. Hence, a book with the ingenious title, Beef.
Such is the standard origin story for a piece of non-fiction. A chance insemination leads to deliberate, grueling labour and, with luck, delivery of a spanking manuscript. It’s a sequential process. But novels don’t, in my experience, enter the world by wriggling down quite the same explicable channel.
Rather, The End Note is a product of accrual. It’s a collection of ideas that floated into my attention over a period of years, sometimes drifting away for a spell before surfacing in a long-unclicked document on a forgotten parcel of my laptop. Maybe this makes it messy.
In it, you’ll find lumps of speculation on artificial intelligence, morsels on “Big Data” and the “digital humanities,” a bit of biological gristle. Chunks of romance and the bare bones of dystopian fiction simmer, confit-style, in a grease of Silicon Valley jargon, H.P. Lovecraft, the Fisher King myth, Robert Southey, Connecticut casino resorts, even the exploits of my weekly role-playing game group. It’s peppered with juvenile jokes, mostly about drink, sometimes about sexual organs.
In sum, it’s a very personal book, attuned to my personal taste (Of course it is. Many authors disavow their work after the fact, but how many have held their noses through the act of composition? Arthur Conan Doyle? The author of the Hitler Diaries? Dan Brown?). My hope is that the ingredients add up to a recipe suitable for consumption by at least a few forbearing readers.
The plot recounts the ordeal of Professor Magnus Adams, but I didn’t set out to write it. At least not at first. My initial idea was a globe-trotting supernatural thriller, braiding the threads of transhumanism with ancient deviltry and the biography of John Milton. After writing a few thousand words of this, I realized it frayed into a hacky, tangled mess, so I started afresh with a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take on high fantasy. Overburdened by genre and precedent, this, too, collapsed in a derivative heap.
There were a few other false starts, all of them dispiriting. Finally, deliverance came, I think, one evening while I was stuck in Boston’s rush hour gridlock. Or maybe on a quiet morning at my desk, in a happy fug of caffeine and sunshine. I don’t really remember. I just recall that, all at once, I thought of a very simple device: a man fears the universe is hostile and meaningless, and the universe tells him he’s right.
The notion of getting a direct message from the cosmos, like a handwritten letter describing, with complete accuracy, your most private, unspoken nightmare and the precise date of your extinction, gave me the frame for everything else. While I ended up salvaging a few lines and images from my earlier, abandoned forays, the entire book stands on this conceit.
"So does it work?"
Dear reader, I leave that answer to your judgment. And I humbly pray for your indulgence.