What Did You Expect, the Unknown?
The Unknown Speaks!
by Frank Marquardt
Illustrated, 335 pp. New York:
Grove/Atlantic. Paper, $13.50
Book Review by Sean Kelly
he last word in "the Unknown Speaks!” is given to Brian Hagemann, the network supervisor who first hosted the hypertext novel in a hidden folder on the Peace Education server at the University of Cincinnati. “the Unknown,” he concludes, “wasn’t influential at all.”
Everyone currently employed as a comedy writer in Silicon Alley is a geeky alumnus of a low-rent state university whereas, until 1999, everyone employed as a comedy writer in Silicon Alley was either some ivy league smartass or a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, preferably Brooklyn. And the reason for this change in hiring practices of the Humor Moguls is that William Gillespie, Frank Marquardt, and Scott Rettberg all went to Illinois State University for their Masters’degrees, and Rettberg joined Dirk Stratton at still another low-rent state university, the University of Cincinnati.
Otherwise, sad to say, Marquardt has a point. Once, before our wondering eyes, a sequence involving Dirk in orbit, being fed through an umbilical and forced to write was followed by a discussion of feminist philosophy and vomiting in an airplane. Then and there many of us assumed that some kind of revolution was being broadcast on the Internet, that the world—at least the little world of hypertext comedy—was changed utterly, But the Unknown’s style of cognitively punning, surreal continuity (”but how do we explore the spaces between understandings of things?”) has had no lasting influence on hypertext comedy. From “Saturday Night Net” through “In Living Cyberspace” and beyond, online comedies still begin with a premise and then proceed (mostly downhill) to the punchline and Flash animation; and a majority of hypertexts on the Internet continue to be spoofs of other Web sites, despite the Unknown’s demonstrating that laughs could be extracted from subjects like brawling poets, Shakespearean bowling, the death of rock stars and bookselling monopolies.
Whatever the Unknown were doing, it was satire. (The plethora of topical political references account, in part, for the hypertext’s quality of datedness. It seemed as if “the Unknown” was already dated the day it was launched, a throwback to a forgotten age that perhaps never existed.) Much of the humor, as when a dowdy housewife complained, “Kids were very different back then. They didn’t have their heads filled with all this Dirk Stratton dualism,” or when William Gaddis materializes to play pool with the Unknown, in a scene with almost no dialogue. This form of drollery—call it “Pynchon Goes to the Laundromat”—has been a staple of American, or at any rate New Yorker, humor since the days of S.J. Perelman and Peter De Vries.
Scenes from “the Unknown” have been recycled on Comedy Central and public television, and A&E is currently doing the series on Saturday nights, although with mood-shattering commercial interruptions. According to "the Unknown Speaks!” it’s lucky the hypertext ended up being seen here at all. “Those guys couldn’t change a flat tire, much less write their ways out of a cardboard box.” Marquardt writes, explaining that without the scenes he personally authored, the hypertext novel would have been, “absolute drivel. Utterly, beyond the point of redemption, drivel and slander.”
This reviewer did note a certain, almost strange, sense of jealousy in Mr. Marquardt’s narrative of the turbulent rise and fall of the Unknown, “there they were drinking champagne at Brown University and hobnobbing with visionaries and celebrities and where was I? Where was I? I was still working, chained to a desk at day and furiously working at night towards the mastery of such skill as they would never know. I was a writer, damn them. And now, and now, they are gone. Where’s The Unknown now? It’s not up there on the bestseller list with the Fortune Cookie Guide to Good Living V, now is it?” On the other hand, warmth often shines through in Mr. Marquardt’s rendering of his presumably deceased (though the bodies were never found and a sizeable amount of cash is still missing) comrades, in the Unknown. “Three guys those were guys.”