Free Culture Book Club — Golem, part 1
This week, our Free Culture Book Club reads the first half of Golem, a poem by Nick Montfort. If you need to quickly read along now, this will talk about everything up through the line “Something cracked.”
To give this series some sense of organization, check out some basic facts without much in the way of context.
- Full Title: Golem
- Location: https://deadalivemagazine.com/press/golem.html and https://nickm.com/poems/montfort__golem.txt
- Released: 2021
- License: CC BY-SA
- Creator: Nick Montfort
- Medium: Computationally generated poetry
- Length: Approximately 18,000 words
- Content Advisories: Nothing comes to mind
This should go without saying—even though I plan to repeat it with every Book Club installment—but Content Advisories do not suggest any sort of judgment on my part, only topics that come up in the work that I noticed and might benefit from a particular mood or head space for certain audiences. I provide it to help you make a decision, rather than a decision in and of itself.
The “back cover” of the book describes it as follows.
Shaped of silicon and animated by language, this slim computer-generated book seems at first to be built of increasingly complex progressions of similar, cycling sentences. Some of them, even though they are syntactical, seem so elaborate as to exceed human understanding. Nevertheless, the way each section is stamped out seems easy—at first—to discern. Is the text doing something other than shuffling about, dumb? What of the parts of it that are written in a script more arcane than English, in code? Even expert readers who have encountered extensive traditional, constrained, and conceptual writings may find much in this computational project to challenge them. They may also be surprised by what they eventually unlock.
In his afterword, Zach Whalen begins describing the work as follows.
Like most parables, Nick Montfort’s Golem is both a riddle and a warning. It is a puzzle that juxtaposes a sense of mystical awe with anxious musing about originality, derivation, and permutation. After beginning with the line “It was easy at first,” and in successive moments (or chapters) continuing to reconsider the elided antecedent of that initial pronoun—“Then, it wasn’t so easy,” “It seemed barely possible,” “It got much harder from there”—the book’s implied question is what is this nameless “it”?
I know Montfort mostly from his earlier interactive fiction work, and—as with many people in that circle at the time—may have had a conversation or two with him, though I couldn’t even try to guess the topics. I’ve also followed him on Mastodon for almost as long as I’ve used the network.
Oh, and I should note that this post works from the plain text version that the author has made available on his website. If the published book has any clever typographical or other formatting aspects, it won’t come up here.
What Works Well?
The text at least feels like it wants to go somewhere, regardless of whether it actually will. Let’s look at a quick example of what I mean.
Tim sensed that Em felt that the philosopher imagined perceptions or select individuals felt him because Cyn contemplated a great deal.
I assume that this has no inherent meaning, but the sentence still has an interesting energy to it. In some ways, this example specifically evokes the same variety of indirection that you might find in the more clever Richard Rodgers lyrics.
Also, I feel the need to praise this book’s ambition. We certainly haven’t seen anything else like it.
What Works…Less Well?
The first two sections drag on, with their straightforward formulaic structure. They don’t even have much of a rhythm, making me wonder if it makes sense to present the text this way. And maybe the same “problem” in a different mask, we see many names, but they don’t connect to anything.
As the sentences become more complex, they also expose what I (at least) would call poor generation tactics, in that we don’t see nearly enough punctuation. In the roughly nine hundred sentences in this half of the book, we see hundreds of parenthetical comments, a couple of dozen quoted phrases, and only sixty commas. Without a comma, many of the multi-clause sentences become hard to read.
Montfort has published several books, including this one, and you could probably do worse than buy them. Otherwise, I don’t see much interest in reader involvement expressed on his website or social media feeds.
However, the final paragraph of the book, presumably from the publisher, has a recommendation.
If you have enjoyed this experiment, tell other readers by posting a review on your preferred book site. If you would like to learn more please reach out at deadalivepress.com.
That seems reasonable…
Many people receive names, and later some vague relationships, but I wouldn’t call anything meaningful enough to point at as a distinct element of this book.
In next week’s post, we’ll look at the final half Golem.
As mentioned previously, by the way, the list of potential works to discuss after this book has run low, so I need to ask for help, again. If you know of any works—or want to create them—that fit these posts (fictional, narrative, Free Culture, available to the public, and not by creators who we’ve already discussed), please tell me about them. Every person who points me to at least one appropriate work with an explanation will receive a free membership on my ☕ Buy Me a Coffee page.
Anyway, while we wait for that, what did everybody else think about the poem so far?
Credits: The header image Prague-golem-reproduction by “user Thander,” released into the public domain.
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