Sinkhole Zeitgeist

The story was so alarming the newspapers couldn’t contain themselves. Headlines stretched out beyond their normal limits. “Man presumed dead after six-metre sinkhole opens up under his bedroom and swallows him without a trace,” the National Post blurted on March 1. The caption had a subheading in smaller type: “Florida man falls to death while sleeping in his bed.” This was followed by a needless précis, also in bold, but reduced: “A man screamed for help from his bed before he disappeared, as a large sinkhole opened under his bedroom in a small suburban home.” Readers trying to picture the scene must have been troubled by some discrepancies: if the man fell to his death “while sleeping,” how could he have “screamed before he disappeared”? Then there was the issue of the “large sinkhole” inside a “small home,” an enigma people took to bed with them that night.

Next day, video posted online showed the gaping maw into which the man and his furniture had disappeared. The chasm kept growing and repeated searches proved fruitless. Meanwhile other holes opened up elsewhere, and on March 28 a surveillance camera in China captured the very moment the ground gave way and swallowed an unsuspecting man in the street.

The ghastly stories seemed to reprise the disturbing premise of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. In the novel a door inexplicably appears in the Navidson house, opening onto an expanding spatial domain the characters explore DSCN6768_3at their peril. In one of the book’s most striking scenes, Will Navidson films the anomalous space in a continuous shot by first training the camera down the hallway and then, using the two windows that flank the hall, exiting the house and climbing back in, effectively passing through the mysterious space that is however nowhere to be seen from the outside. Navidson’s uncanny “Five and a Half Minute Hallway” becomes the subject of numerous books, commentaries, essays and interviews, all folded into a hybrid narrative itself framed by another narrative that annotates and expands on the source-text like a postmodern Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Last month a story in Salon titled “The Sinkhole Newshole” referenced Danielewski’s book in passing, which prompted a spike in sales and a spate of interviews with the author.

It turned out to be a good month for Danielewski. Over at The Invisible Library, it was another question.

Ed Park and Levi Stahl are the custodians of The Invisible Library, a website devoted to cataloguing books and articles that exist only in fiction. Updating the library is a literally endless task, and the archivists have struggled to keep pace with new publications and the constant flood of entries suggested by the site’s fans and visitors. Things changed, however, when Park and Stahl hired a graduate student to process new entries, and by January this year the Invisible Library had nearly doubled its holdings. Then, in March, when Danielewski reappeared in the news, the enterprising graduate student picked up a copy of House of Leaves and began Empty_book_2dutifully cataloguing the novel’s notoriously vast compendium of fictional books and articles on the Navidson phenomenon. What the student did not realize, however, was that one of those books contained a reference to The Invisible Library itself. Her oversight instantly provoked recursive catalogue entries in infinite regress, like mirrors reflected in mirrors, as the data spawned endless copies of catalogues within catalogues. This at least is the best explanation Park and Stahl can give for the troubles that started around March 20th.

The first sign something was amiss was when Park and Stahl’s web host briefly shut down the Library due to an apparent risk of overload. Technicians who checked the website’s traffic and usage found nothing unusual in the system, but as soon as service was restored the imminent crash warnings resumed. Ignoring the shutdown protocol, the technicians then ran tests that revealed the strange cascading pattern of a “ghost overload” on their servers. The Invisible Library was forced to migrate to another web host where its custodians have managed to continue their laudable mission without inordinate trouble.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Oregon desert, an IT company managing a 2-hectare complex of computer servers has calculations showing its capacity now extends well beyond its known limits into an as-yet unexplored spatial domain. They are reportedly talking with CERN about the possibility of developing “ghost data” farms.

1 Comment

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One response to “Sinkhole Zeitgeist

  1. Jon

    Sadly there seem to be no entries from the Purgatory Press at the Invisible Library. An oversight, surely!

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