In considering Mark Z. Danielewski’s epic puzzle box of a “novel,” with or without the aid of a digital analytical toy, I cannot help thinking of rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever else this book may be—21st century narrative myth, post-personal exploration of the eternal soul, allegory of America at its best and its worst—it is indisputably a 20th century rock ‘n’ roll novel. The spirit of rebellion, the valorization of youth, the restless movement by automobile, the teenage lovers flouting conventional life, the majestic extravagance of romantic feeling allotted to puppy love, these and other attributes point in the general direction of James Dean, Charley Starkweather, Ronnie Spector, Jack Kerouac, Chuck Berry. To see if this intuition bears up under the scrutiny of Voyant, I uploaded the entire zip file to find out what connections might emerge.
As can be seen in the box below, the most frequent words found in the corpus are “goes,” “I’m, “Sam,” “Hailey,” and “just.” These are words that indicate the concerns of archetypal teenagers in the popular media of the 1950s and 1960s. “I’m” is self-referential, bespeaking the self-obsession teenagers are stereotypically prone to, while “Sam” and “Hailey,” the proper names of the intricately linked members of a dyad, are likewise indicators of self-obsession. In the immature love available to 16-year-olds, the loved one is rarely more than a reflection of the self, a mirror in
which we hope to see a version of the self that is better than the self we live with on the inside. “Goes” suggests teenage restlessness, that overwhelming desire to be anywhere but here, and the romance with the automobile that allowed young people of the ‘50s and beyond an unprecedented means to indulge it. The final top-five word, the seemingly nondescript “just” is of special (dis)interest. Used as a slang intensifier—“And I just lie down and I let him;” “Time to just/waste this fucker”—it is almost as ubiquitous as “like” on teenage tongues. But it also functions as an indicator of time, marking something from only a moment or two ago—“O what dour, repugnant thing/just rolled me?” It is a measure of quantity—“With calamity I bring with just a/shoeless pirouette.” Of the noblest sense of the word, “just” as in “right,” “fair,” “equitable,” I can find no usage in the corpus, although I cannot say with 100 percent certainty, as Voyant yields only numerical data, at least to me, not meanings, or even page numbers.
Looking at the Cirrus we get a graphic of how frequently words are used in the corpus denoted by their size in the word cloud. Likewise, the trend box delivers an impressively colorful graph of how these five most frequently used words appear in the combined chronology. Sam peaks and then sharply declines, while Hailey starts sparsely, only to rise almost vertically. The other words wave and waggle with no readily apparent rationale, except for “just,” which holds more or less steady, start to finish.
What all these data mining has to do with literature, what these Voyant results add up to, remains opaque to me. My own findings are trivial in the extreme. Of course, I am at the “See Spot Run” level of machine learning, and adepts may well make productive use of it. But at the moment, I see nothing that I cannot parse out more directly and with a great deal more gusto and pleasure by engaging directly with the text. For example, I thought to compare the incidencesof the words “honey,” and “creep.” These suggest important archetypal elements to me. Honey, the only food we see Sam and Hailey consume, is reminiscent of ambrosia, the food of the gods that confers immortality. As Sam and Hailey are the Eternal Teenagers, archetypes rather than characters, this seems an obvious connection. Likewise “creep.” The chief antagonist in the texts is termed “the Creep,” a word in greater currency, I’d guess, during the ‘50s and ‘60s than today. Richard Nixon, a creepy villain if ever there was one, unintentionally tainted himself by calling his fundraising organization the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, the acronym of which is, sadly for Tricky Dick, CREEP. What I really suspect “creep” of signifying in the text, however, is time, that villain that slays us all in the end. What could be more antagonistic to immortal teenagers? Here is a graph of how the two words appear in the corpus.
Apart from showing that “creep” appears something like twice as often as “honey,” I’m at a loss. If I go to the text, I almost immediately find this passage, rich with meaning and nuance and energy and resonance:
I spastically try to circle for a rearside trip but
The Creep dodges, steps aside, and with a
feersome leer grabs US both easily enough
by savagely pinching both of our ears.
Dwarf Sirens die.
Recluse Spiders die.
And then The Creep starts spinning
The Coil, each time croaking with certainty
that we’re saved. Safe?
—Fools. I’m your salvation.
Your hard knocks. Your dues.
Without me, you both lose.
You’ll slip away and never find a role.
Time’s up. Time to tie you down. Now.
The Creep then flings The Noose
around US both, something of our whimsy
allready failing with this knotty yanking
and circumsingling, about our waists, our necks,
cinching US lesseverly. Until:
—Tsk, tsk, Hailey smiles. This won’t do.
The Cord is never big enough for two.
And The Noose falls loose
around our youth.