Finite thoughts on infinity and beyond

Kane X Faucher is done experimenting. Or maybe he’s just getting started.

Among his seven previous works, the Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor has generated a following, some might say cult-like, who are drawn to his sense of humour, irony and laser-point commentary, in addition to some delightfully absurd plot points. Part George Carlin, part Terry Gilliam, part Jorge Luis Borges, he is a credit to both the insanely experimental and traditionally disciplined sides of the pen.

His latest work, The Infinite Library (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2011), follows Alberto Gimaldi, code-cracker and bibliophile, as he unravels the mystery of an infinite library and discovers the treachery of the librarian Castellemare. This first book in a proposed trilogy, Library wraps its narrative around codes, ciphers and the concept of infinity.

Western News editor Jason Winders sat down with Faucher to discuss the book.

Winders: Before we talk about the new book, let me ask one thing about a previous work. In Epigonesia (BlazeVOX, 2010), you resurrected, among others, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski as part of the plot. That seems like a risky thing to inflict on humanity. What is your problem? We couldn’t possibly have enough scotch left to bring them both back at the same time.

Faucher : My intention there was to play with the less tangible aspects of picking up on stylistic nuances in these writers’ work and see if I could replicate these in my little literary lab, making a kind of bacteriological culture of their styles. Of course, in a nod to tragedy, I wanted to resurrect them with some fatal flaw, or some limitation on how they had been characterized in real life.

These limitations function as the experiment’s controls.

For example, Hunter S. Thompson cannot land himself any gainful journalistic stint; Bukowski is physically incapable of drinking alcohol; Henry Miller has no luck at womanizing; and no one is at all shocked by the words and behaviour of Antonin Artaud.

Topping it all off as the puppet-master is Ezra Pound who can’t edit in his capacity as an editor.

Your previous works could be described as ‘experimental.’ Would you shy away from that label?

Very much so. In my view, every work of fiction is technically an experiment (leaving aside formulaic genre pulp). In that way ‘experimental’ is too broad and slack a definition to have much meaning for me anymore.

I am more interested in pursuing an experiment in the more precise definition of the term, allowing for the possibility of complete failure. I may begin with a conceptual frame, or a concept nested within a single word. A concept operates as a variable in the novel, which I liken to a petri dish.

Although I can exert direction according to the controls I set, I cannot predict the outcome.

As you know, ‘experimental’ can live on a fine line between being a true artist and simply using it as an excuse to avoid the difficulties of plotting a work. It’s a tricky label to live with, right? Especially convincing publishers about a work’s worth when it doesn’t look like anything else.

There is no doubt, as publishing revenues fall, that popularity dictates literary success. This means even some of our more literary publishers have had to make their compromises.

But throw a brick in any literary group and you’ll hit an author who has flouted all the writing rules without once having to be under their yoke.

There are truly principled ‘out-there’ authors with integrity, but the majority who lay claim to the ‘experimental’ label are really trying to pawn off sloppy writing. I, for one, take some pleasure in all the tedious business of plotting, characterization, balanced description and all the other old saws of constructing fiction.

And it is something, from a technical standpoint, that I will always be learning and never master.

Inspiration produces the raw idea; engineering translates it into comprehensibility. Writing, if it is going to be published, has a responsibility to communicate to at least someone other than the writer. Otherwise, we are left with a lot ‘diarizing,’ which is fine for a personal blog, perhaps not something that ought to be rushed into print.

That being said, I am honest about my intentions. I believe in doing the work of exploring what is possible in text, which is a mix of sudden insight followed by the tedium of perfecting the delivery. I write for the purpose of constructing something, of following an experiment to its end, and this is done without anticipated expectation of its reception. If the work cannot deliver on a developed concept, it is incomplete or a botch.

This is a perennial issue of love or money. Do we remain in our cloisters and laboratories doing pure research without regard for its practicality or the reward of honours, or do we make our compromise with the world to turn our efforts into a money-making exercise? One sees the stark differences in making that decision in Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith where the young doctor is oscillating between performing thankless and meticulous scientific research or to take up a lucrative and largely decorative post indexed on making money.

I’ve made my decision, and that is keep expectations at a distance while I tinker away on the work itself.

So let’s talk The Infinite Library. Where did this story come from? What compelled you to tell it?

It is a light homage to (Jorge Luis) Borges’ story, The Library of Babel, but that is just a conceptual starting point. My objective was to experiment with nested plot structures that function as frames within frames (but in a way where what frames one narrative may also be framed by what it contains). I had never written a mystery before, and I wanted to work within, and then shift the orbit, of the genre.

Borges’ library is not technically infinite. Myself, and a few others, have crunched the numbers from the data Borges’ short story provides. It is just so vast that it may as well be called, in conventional terms, infinite (as William Goldbloom Bloch tells us in his book on the mathematics of the Library of Babel, there are more books in it than there are atoms in the known universe).

But what of a truly infinite library? What problems and consequences does it produce?

Those who have the rare gift of contemplating actual infinity do run the same risk of those before them of going mad. The real turn to actual infinity begins with Bolzano, is taken up by Georg Cantor and a few others. The concept of actual infinity is so perplexing that I believe it merits telling, and perhaps fiction is one safe way to do it.

Borges’ ‘infinite’ is best captured by the trickery of playing with the vanishing point. If anyone would have made the ideal architect of constructing Borges’ library, it would have been M.C. Escher. So, that being said, I felt compelled to push the concept out into the actual infinite.

And in three volumes no less? Ambitious or simply how you envisioned it?

This was the accident of plotting.

My purpose was to marshal a plethora of my research interests, disparate as they may be, toward the cause of exploring the triad of information, matter, and energy. In a way, the trilogy is an attempt to ‘dramatize’ physics. However, this came to me only after the fact, for as much as I scheme, plot and plan, I am most often just the passenger for where the pen takes me.

As far as this trilogy is concerned, marking a radical departure from anything else I’ve done, I felt that I could not bring the concepts to term in less than three volumes. The challenge I am sticking to is in keeping it at three. However, with that being said, the trilogy will move ever more into the mathematics of infinity; if I can manage it without going off the rails.

Why are libraries so irresistible? Authors love exploring the mysteries of these places almost as much as politicians love cutting their budgets. Is the cause of the attraction just the book nerd in many of us or something larger?

Libraries are part of a very rich cultural mythology that historically suggests exclusive access to sometimes forbidden knowledge. There they stand, in their tall cladding of spines, silent in their containment of nearly infinite possibility.

What we see in a library is an overwhelming series of portals that can mentally transport us anywhere.

In an age when information overload is very real, doubling in shorter time intervals, the role information plays is one that needs patient consideration. As libraries seem to represent the footprint of human knowledge, and knowledge is a species of overall information, the library becomes my point of entry to consider the kind of meta-physics of information.

If, as (Theodore) Dreiser says, “Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean,” then books are the enclosing vessels of the possible worlds they contain – and to link them together in a library, an infinite library, staggers us with the blare of totality.

As a child, critically short on friends, I would take refuge in libraries and assign myself research tasks, be those attempting to create a one-stop reference catalogue of trilobites or to trace the lineage of kings from before the Norman conquest. Anecdotally then (and I am sure there are others who feel similarly) I view libraries through a mist of sentimentality.

I most likely fetishize books, and it is that almost monastic devotion that I was able to transpose to the main character of the book.

And what is it about an infinite library that so intrigues?

The first volume takes the more potential understanding of infinity rather than one based on actuality.

As I delve more into the continuum hypothesis of (Georg) Cantor, and set theory (especially the axiom of choice), I find that my previous assumptions about infinity were frozen in that potentiality as I am drawn toward a more precisely defined set of problems (hopefully without essentalizing the math).

Do I wish I had tackled more Cantor before this book went to press? Yes.

Does this render the first volume a conceptual failure? Not quite.

We must begin where the concept of infinity (naively) begins. Literature may never be equipped to answer Cantor’s 2 to the power of aleph-null or the question of the hierarchy of infinities. In fact, it is the perennial weakness of semantics to lack definitive precision in the way required by mathematics in the form of proofs.

But, stranger and more uncanny things have happened.

Math is an art, and it emerges sometimes from the same nearly mystic source as do other forms of inspiration. Tucked behind the story itself so as not to be obtrusive to those who are not so heavily math-minded, if it is true that everything that can be written appears in this library, then it is also the case that its existence contradicts the decision procedure for first-order predicate logic because all proofs would be accessible in one of the books, thus removing any need for making a choice.

In a library such as this, (Kurt) Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem for first-order arithmetic may not hold for the axioms along with their proofs would already appear – or so a math-minded reader pointed out to me.

I didn’t want to stop at just the concept of an infinite library, but what possibly flows from it as a quasi-determinist narrative. But, as the maxim in the book runs, between any two books is a book, and covers are like integers on a number line, and the books themselves are the continuum.

Hierarchy of infinities. Isn’t infinity just infinity?

Not quite, and those like (Bernard) Bolzano and Cantor demonstrated this rather well. The number of rational and irrational numbers between 0 and 1 are both infinite, but there is probability one of encountering an irrational number (like square root of 2, pi or any other repeating decimal with no pattern or end) and probability zero of encountering a rational number. Yet both are infinite.

Cantor went a bit bonkers trying to develop a proof out of his continuum hypothesis, and was frequently frustrated by the sabotage of his former mentor (Leopold ) Kronecker who did not believe in the existence of irrational numbers. Now, when we consider set theory and the well-ordering principle, things get even more wild.

Seriously, what are we going to put on our bookshelves when eBooks take over? Couldn’t the eBook be considered an infinite library of some sort? Unless of course you get it next to a big magnet.

There has been a great deal of alarm that the eBook will render physical books obsolete. As far as I’m concerned, books are still a viable media technology, and although they can be a burden to store (as my own cherished collection attests), they never need to be recharged and I don’t panic if I drop them on the floor.

Do eBooks enhance or degrade the reading experience? I would side with Nicholas Carr’s assertion that it can prove distracting and may not cultivate deeper reading habits.

We have become a culture of the disembodied hand and eye that is screen-integrated, and we can faithfully replicate all knowledge in the discrete domain of the digital. But I also wonder if that is truly infinite beyond potentiality.

W.V.O Quine resolved the issue of Borges’ library by saying it was finite and could be contained on one sheet of double-sided paper: a dot on one side and a dash on the other. I suppose, yes, that remains as true as saying that an alphabet can produce every possible word, or the musical scale can reproduce any possible music. This goes to some length to explain the production of infinity, but does not address the fundamental nature of infinity.

My book has also been released in an eBook format as well. I wonder if those who have purchased it will grapple with the irony of this. Perhaps not.

I, for one, have no interest in buying an e-reader, and still believe in the book as a physical object. My wife knows this all too well; no matter where we travel, chances are I will be hitting a used book store where I will be absent from the world for a few hours.

There are a good many references to book collecting, rare editions, the mechanics of the book. Is that level of connoisseurship how you would describe your own collecting habits?

There’s a considerable tradition in discussing the book from the production standpoint (with terms like chainlines, gutter, quarto, signature) and its printed contents (colophons, rubrication, etc.) to even its state (foxing, etc.). Books, like coins, have their own concealed and sometimes fascinating history. They may have passed through many hands under many different circumstances, remained deadweight on various shelves or pawned off in desperate financial situations.

Books are bought, sold, lent and given, so I suppose every used book I acquire puts me in mind of that irretrievable history (with the exception of high-end collector books that usually have a pedigree of who owned them when).

My own collection is spotted with obscure rarities here and there, and I fawn over well-made books, back when they were made to last. Throw a cheap paperback Tom Clancy at a wall and then do the same with, say, a leather-bound original Principia Mathematica by Newton. Clancy will explode in a mess of now orphaned leaves, while Newton will remain intact (still much to the horror of any Newton scholar or book collector).

It is the same story for all objects that have been mass produced on the cheap. Today, the best made books available in that older style would be the Franklin Mint editions, which are a nod to the old days of ribbed spines (although not in leather).

There is a lot of that nostalgia in the book since the character is obsessed with the acquisition and sale of rare editions. I can impart one little note of interest.

I acquired cheaply a 1787 copy of Joel Barlow’s Visions of Columbus which is an awful paean to Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Apart from the dedicatory note to King Louis XVI, I used it as a test book. I had read that publishers kept misprinted pages as stuffing for the covers, a means of recycling material. With a magnifying lens and a fine instrument, I began peeling away bits of the inside cover boards and, behold, there were misprinted pages from other books. In some cases, the mis-strikes hidden in the boards are worth more than the book itself.

In some ways, it is like performing book archaeology.

As if infinity wasn’t big enough to contemplate, you decide to have codes and ciphers play a big part in the book. Always a thing for you? Or just of interest for this book?

Codes and ciphers have a long and exciting history, usually employed as a means of protecting vital information from being intercepted by outsiders. I have the plodding and stubborn temperament to work at codes and ciphers which, like my preferred method for writing a book, usually involves one flash of insight followed by the long tedium of running functions, during which time other insights begin crowding in, producing new methods. In one particular deciphering project I am engaged with, one has to expect that the number of false leads will be enormous and this means a lot of time spent moving towards a negative result. But, as science tells us, a negative result is still a result.

Again, endless fascination for people here – from something as silly as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to as ‘literary’ as Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. How do these codes in the book inform the overall experience for the reader?

The codes function as different access points to the library, but also conform to my initial limitation that the book revisits the idea of book-related mysteries. We see a little of that in The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte (adapted into the flimsy Ninth Gate by Polanski). The code reflects back a sense of impenetrability, the obsession of those who rise to an apparent challenge to crack it, and the encoded nature of much of our world from genetics to the process of translating information from one form to another.

A code contains the seed for how information can be expressed, be it in a biological form or any other. The steps that we take to decode say something about how the expression is finally articulated, but as something that feeds into a re-coding that may be articulated as a different expression at a future time. That is more the definition of the virtual.

The codes in the book portray the progress of the main character as he peels back one layer of the narrative onion only to find another. No conclusion is ever final, and there are – just like some encoding techniques – results that are themselves in need of decoding.

But, in some ways, is not the process of decoding and deciphering an allegory of all acts of interpretation?

Got any favourites of your own you are trying to crack?

My ongoing, and largely Sisyphean task, is to crack the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini.

I’ve come at it using everything from traditional decipherment methods to brute force, all to no avail. I have recently catalogued all of the glyphs and performed frequency analysis in the hopes of finding some correlation to a known language. False leads frustrate the process, in addition to the devastating possibility that Serafini is simply ‘Greeking’ the text; that is, there is no decipherment to be had since it never had meaning in the first place.

At least the page numbering was cracked, and it is a base-21 system. Beyond that, there are only the flights of wild interpretation and the dead-ends of applying one method after another. I had let it lie fallow after the book was recalled from me back in 2005, and when I took up the interest again, it had mysteriously gone missing from The D.B. Weldon Library.

Missing from our library, eh? Is that how you got it at a good price?

I feel like the prime suspect, but it did go missing after it had been recalled on me and then placed on course reserve. Fortunately, the publisher Rizzoli reissued the book (replete with a new foreword by Serafini – 14 new frustrating, ciphered pages as well as a few new ones inserted in the main text). I got it for a song, or at least much less than getting an earlier edition. (We are talking at least $1,000 for an Abbeville Press edition.) What I did not know was that my wife had also purchased a copy for me as a Christmas present.

So now I have two or, as my colleague put it to me, ‘one that you show, and the one that you know.’

The danger of such books, as anyone involved in decoding and deciphering knows, is in how quickly they consume all your time. History is peppered with warnings of those who have gone mad trying to crack a stubborn cipher. Sometimes I feel on the verge, but further application of a method has me starting from scratch again.

How has reader reaction been so far?

It has been interesting. The book, with very little promotion, did come strong out of the starting gate, coming close to bestseller status on Amazon (whatever that means). I hosted a book giveaway on one of those book-specific social sites, Goodreads, and was surprised to see over a thousand people sign up. Some individual readers have made flattering noises in my direction, making a few expected comparisons (Borges and Eco) and some surprising ones (Neal Stephenson). My publisher tells me that the title is selling steadily, which assuages my guilt that it might have been a burden on their publishing list.

Where does this go now? Are you plotted to the end? Or are there surprises for even you still out there for this trilogy?

The next two books are mostly complete beyond another obsessive round of revisions.

The next volume in the trilogy, The Infinite Atrocity, will make extensive use of the collective Id. In order to achieve this, I’ve been doubling up on my research into narcissistic personality disorder, and attempting to apply psychoanalytic principles to the understanding of fascism, fascism’s relation to certain art movements, and speculating what a collective Id would look like. Nested in this would be the curious connection between rampant capitalism and some borderline conditions.

But the central question will be ‘What is atrocity?’ and ‘What would an infinite or unbounded atrocity look like?’

The final volume, The Infinite Grey, apart from tying up all loose ends, will entertain the speculative move from the consequences of the neo-liberalizing of the university into a neo-feudalist future. But there will be surprises as I revise, new material to append, and more consideration of the disparate elements that converge toward thematic harmony. I can say the next one will not be for the light of heart as we move away from the library itself to the atrocity it produces.

Each book will continue the sequence of blooming. The Infinite Library is the concept bulb and this will begin to flower in earnest by the next book, due out in July 2012.

Do you consider yourself a ‘Canadian’ author?

Not at all, and any attempt to nationalize a body of literature despite the possibility that it may share some national or even regionalist similarities is an exercise of lumping on the basis of some scant resemblance. Most CanLit is not to my tastes, with the exception of some of the great run of work ECW Press in Toronto has put out in the last four years. When I look over the list of my favourite authors, I find most of them are American – from the interwar years of naturalism up through Pynchon, Barth, Gass, et al. I am enjoying a slice of contemporary British fiction, and I have my reliable standbys in the European and South American canon.

I don’t feel any obligation to produce the distinctively ‘Canadian’ brand of fiction, especially if it compromises developing something thematically and conceptually interesting for the sake of tacking on a few of the ‘Canadianisms.’ A lot of what is popular in CanLit feels a bit diluted to me, or a little too safe. Literature need not be linked with being patriotic to be a literary work.

What do you have planned after the trilogy is completed?

A novel on social media from a technological determinist standpoint which is very nearly done, and one on the effect of austerity measures on labour relations. The trilogy marks a turn toward a more pronounced formation of the novel around the core of social, political and economic critique. In this way, I hope to dramatize non-fiction elements as the main thrust of the novel-form. Also, I can stage polemics from the various perspectives on an issue.