[Back Door Books; 2015]

My copy of Matthew Stadler’s novel Minders is stamped “14 DEC 2015,” the date the softcover book was printed on an HP LaserJet, perfect-bound with cold glue, and published by Back Door Books, the imprint of Publication Studio Rotterdam. From 2013 to 2015, Stadler was a research fellow at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; during his residency, he wrote the novel and set up a branch of Publication Studio, the print-on-demand publishing network he and Patricia No founded in Portland, Oregon, in 2009. With its inclusive DIY ethos and emphasis on community gathering — “we attend to the social life of the book,” the website says — Publication Studio resembles less a contemporary small press than an indie record label like K Records, with Stadler in the role of Calvin Johnson, a charismatic promoter and occasional touring artist. Run by designer Yin Yin Wong, artist Micha Zweifel, and editor Isabelle Sully, and funded at its inception by Het Nieuwe Instituut, Publication Studio Rotterdam is one of thirteen sibling studios located across North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. In addition to Minders, Stadler has published four books with Publication Studio: a novel (actually a cover version of a John le Carré novel), Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha; an artist’s book in collaboration with Gil Blank, 35 Images / The Odyssey; and two annotated readers, Where We Live Now and Revolution, the latter in collaboration with poet Lisa Robertson.

Minders is set in the near future, some time after an unspecified global catastrophe. The physical world is thoroughly yet imperfectly meshed with virtual space, with neither one the primary reality. “You forget what’s material and what’s digital,” the nameless first-person narrator says. Like all convicted lawbreakers, he’s been assigned a “minder,” a tiny personal drone that hovers near his shoulders, modulating his mood by triggering feedback loops in his brain’s neural network. Developed at the anarchic lab where he researches goshawk flight patterns, minders are rebranded and sold by another technician, Veronica, as child-friendly Henry the Bee, “not a crime deterrent, but a family help-mate: a ‘re-minder.’” Henry the Bee — Big Tech’s cynical strategies writ large — is a massive success, which troubles the narrator. “She recast state surveillance as a service industry,” he weakly protests. (His children, of course, dismiss his old-fashioned concerns about privacy.) In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the urtext of state-surveillance dystopias, birds are a symbol of freedom, impossible to cast out from the regimented city; here they provide the model on which surveillance is perfected. Unlike Zamyatin and most authors of dystopian fiction, Stadler isn’t out to schematize the power relations between institutions and the individual. Rather, he portrays the everyday interactions by which individuals navigate this new environment. The setting may be a panoptic suprastate (nations and prisons no longer exist), but its architects and functionaries are notably absent from the story. We don’t know who administers the Organized State, or OS, the ubiquitous digital network, and other than the drones in poor neighborhoods, the state has no presence in the city. There is, it seems, no alternative to OS, and no respite from mass surveillance, extrajudicial drone strikes, rampant inequality, and environmental despoliation (needless to say, all successful sci-fi resonates with recent history). Understandably, the narrator seeks refuge from these exhausting conditions in domestic interiors.

In his early novels, Stadler explored a terrain between the mannered sexual indiscretions of Alan Hollinghurst and the depraved Euro-Americana of Lolita. Published by Grove Press in 1994 and 1999, respectively, The Sex Offender and Allan Stein both portrayed disturbing, predatory relationships, but at their base was a familiar logic, nowadays less prevalent in mainstream media than in social media: the Western tendency to view teenagers as objects rather than subjects of sexual desire enhances the culture’s sexual fascination with them. In contrast to the transgressive queer relationships in these novels, the loving single father in Minders encourages his children to exercise an individual autonomy. In fact, he has a criminal record, and is a widower, because he refused to adhere to a routine pedagogical directive regarding his eldest daughter. His principles rhyme with the ethos of the “real hippies,” not the “confused sixties hippies.” “The real hippies,” he explains, “are an organized culture with their own values, habits, and political institutions. They shaped my father’s time, immediately after the crash, when nations disappeared and all that remained were these scattered, seemingly improvisatory cells of business, artists, collectives.” Although less influential now, this culture still informs, among other things, arts events and the “paleo-anarchist” schools, which two of the narrator’s children attend. A utopian sense of community therefore pervades the dystopian setting. In the circumscribed orbit of the main characters, everyone is innately good, no one does anyone harm (violence is the preserve of faceless technology such as drones), and action is largely subordinate to a harmony of attractions (a note informs readers that “a recording of Glenn Gould playing Contrapunctus XIV of Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’ provided the book’s structure, tone, and some of its themes”). Stadler’s prose reflects this laid-back energy: the narrator’s tone is more colloquial than in Allan Stein and The Sex Offender, and adult conversations are punctuated with high fives and shouts of “Fuck yeah.”

At 600 pages, Minders is much longer than anything else the author has written, and the emphasis on harmony and daily life means the narrative lingers on incidental scenes. The many bizarre performances, in particular, are as intermittently tedious as dream sequences: pianos are catapulted back and forth over the city, a naked cabaret performer pulls a German scroll from her vagina, students put on an embellished re-enactment of Galileo’s Tower of Pisa experiment. More originally, the futuristic funhouse setting — part digital space and part meatspace, or “flesh-net,” to use the narrator’s own infelicitous term — allows Stadler to explore liminal states. In one scene, the narrator has a mind-meld with a pod of chimps. He’s welcomed into their social group; they masturbate him, and he gives advice on cooking rodent meat. The interaction, which leaves a deep impression on the narrator, suggests a new social fabric, outside the purview of OS. As the novel emphasizes, such a radically protean form of being is in opposition to totalizing systems of power, which maintain control in large part through centralization and binary data. Drawing on the aesthetic of immersive video games, other scenes similarly erase the distinction between man and nature, life and death, subject and object, male and female, and individual and group. But these moments prove to be less a source of potential civil disobedience than the prelude to the sudden total collapse of OS — inadvertently caused, it seems, by Henry the Bee. There are opportunities for resistance in the ensuing analog chaos (a performance with hot-air balloons, for instance, is a covert attack on the new drones in the sky), but the focus stays on the narrator’s family. His son Martin goes missing in a glitch — that is, a treacherous area of malfunctioning digital space. Soon after, his daughter Arlen runs away on a horse. As a father he’s worried, of course, but he trusts his children. And he equates the flesh-net with vitality. His search for Martin brings him to a sanatorium, where a young woman, looking in on a room of convalescent children, intones what could be the novel’s motto: “To restore their souls, cherish their flesh, which is holy.”

Dedicated to his son, Minders was published by Stadler in the same year as a beautiful sixteen-page booklet, “Composition as Publication — and — What are Margins?” In this essay on writing and publishing, the author locates a politics in the margin, informed by Publication Studio’s success and his status as a gay writer. Reflecting on medieval manuscripts with profane illuminations, he writes, “Marginalia manifest a radical equivalence of contradictory voices by occupying the same contiguous plane as the central text.” He compares these marginal voices to people socializing over a meal: “The dinner party and the printed page both radically oppose the market, where exclusivity is cherished, friends become rivals, and your neighbor’s wealth is your impoverishment.” The analogy is central to Stadler’s recent work both in person and on the page. Instead of hosting readings for potential shoppers, Publication Studio organizes dinners for committed readers of its print-on-demand books. In an interview about Revolution, Stadler referred to Robertson’s dinner table as the initial site of collaborative reading, editing, and annotating (“I live in a very good goat cheese region,” she chimed in). And many of the chapters in Minders end at the dinner table, where we’re treated to dishes from a bewildering array of cuisines: quesadillas with nasturtiums, chirashi, rare Syrah wines, chocolate atole, fungus pizza, Ethiopian mezze, huitlacoche, Bahian seafood stew, Baked Alaska, meat s’mores, dung brandy, and more – even human fetus, considered a delicacy by a pair of talking bears. The meals are generously shared with family, friends, and neighbors, evoking one of the marginal notes in Revolution: “Resistance is lived at the scale of the most minor domestic rituals.”[1] The narrator rejoices in these large social gatherings during wartime, at one point declaring, “I felt the quality of their love so clearly, I am compelled to put it here in words, and so I have written my book.”

At times it’s hard to go along with Stadler’s unwavering optimism. The oppressive conditions in Minders are immutable. And how does a small press, operating to some extent on volunteer labor and institutional funding, sustain a politics of the margin? As I write this, Minders is no longer available from Publication Studio, nor has it been reviewed anywhere; Stadler has revised it and will in future publish a new version of the novel. Publication Studio’s version gathered readers solely by word of mouth, gradually and unpredictably over time, like the obscure CD that circulates among the characters in the novel. “Nothing is out of print this way, only waiting,” Stadler has said of Publication Studio’s structure. (Not everything, however, is done with precision: there are a lot of typos in this first version.) All of their books are sold wrapped in plain kraft paper, on which the author and title are stamped in small type. Looking at the paper in which my copy was wrapped, I’m reminded of the following anecdote, as told by Guy Davenport: “Walt Whitman, sending some doughnuts to Horace Traubel’s mother, wrote on the bag not doughnuts but love. It is a useful formula.”

[1] This note appears in the margin of Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, which was written during and about the 1982 siege of Beirut. In an extraordinary passage, Darwish relates preparing coffee one morning while shells explode nearby one after another.

Louis Lüthi is the author of A Die with Twenty-Six Faces (Roma Publications, 2019) and a teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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