What do you do if you can’t finish your novel?
Make an iPhone app.
Writer Mark Wernham, author of the mystery novel-in-progress, Jefferson Greenspan Saves the World? partnered with chip tune musician Matthew C. Applegate (Pixelh8) to develop Machine #69, a collaborative story app that features photos by the author, narration by voiceover artist Dan Russell, and music by Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. There’s even an “old” radio interview with the author.
Mark Wernham plunges you into the middle of the action, introducing a time-traveling salesman, Jefferson Greenspan – who’s on a mission to save the world – to a battle-smart World War II soldier, Rizzo, Cindy, a CIA agent with a secret, and cast of other characters in this sequence of violent, disorienting, stories within a story.
The free app, viewable in landscape mode, is self-contained; once downloaded, you don’t need a web connection to explore its content. Upon launch, you see a grid of enigmatic photo thumbnails arranged on a black background. Who’s this shady figure in the grass? What does a watch have to do with the story?
When tapped, each thumbnail launches an image. Some images show the story’s characters; some offer navigable, annotated newspaper clippings; one is an animated reel-to-reel player playing music by the (fictitious) band La Groupo. After a beat, you hear a narrator’s voice reading Wernham’s writing. These segments are long enough to be immersive, but not so long that your attention drifts, though they are sometimes wordy, distracting you from the action. Each section is evocative, full of movement, and offers a snapshot of a moment.
Finishing Machine #69, I felt I knew only pieces of the larger story, and I wasn’t sure how each piece related to the others, but this is Wernham’s point:
“The novel is partly about the construction of reality from snippets of information, all emanating from a faulty machine, and how that reality can be twisted into different shapes, depending on how you regard it. It’s an idea inspired by contemporary modes of communication, using Facebook updates and Tweets and the like to build up a version of ourselves for others to understand. Using the app itself is a technological and literary praxis based on that theme; you get these disparate slices of story and imagery, and you have to snake your way through to make sense of it.”
Which leads me to wonder: does Machine #69 make you want to read the book, or is this app a new kind of art?