The Truth Lenders: A Multimedia Novel
by Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen
2510: After the wars, science progressed to the point where other species live and work among the reduced human population. A pharmaceutical news conglomerate called News Now! Corporation controls much of this post-progress society, in which anti-establishment, anti-corporate critics are regularly persecuted and atomically rearranged into more useful items — say, vegetables or water for a struggling third world nation. The island of Manhattan no longer exists; in its place is the undercity Atlas, domed beneath the ocean, climate controlled and accessible by the subway-like trundcar. Children are taught The New Language Model in their Zen English classes, with hopes of phasing out language in order to attain enlightenment. Reading has fallen out of favor with so many voice-activated devices and there are only two remaining independent bands on the planet. Amidst all this is a news anchor, Sammy, a beautiful woman who the entire world has come to know and trust.
Architect and designer Peter Scharber, along with his colleague Donaldson West, are part of the team testing News Now! Corporation’s latest venture — a pill that takes subscribers inside any news story while they sleep. Sammy guides them as the story appears to happen in real time, and by the time a person wakes, they are informed. Before long Peter and Donaldson begin suspect that the company is up to something far more sinister than the easy distribution of information.
In her first novel, Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen (pronounced Twee Zoh Win) has created an entire world where she explores creativity, realism and metaphysics. Much in the same way one has to adjust to reading works written hundreds of years ago, there is a lot of new information to absorb. Realizing this, the book is peppered with footnotes to provide a greater sense of place. Early on Peter and Donaldson discuss the Sammy Brain Project:
“Right now they’re injecting nanosensors into her skin, and it doesn’t hurt because they’re so nano from the shrinking algorithms (18).”
Rather than have the characters reveal information that they would already know, the reader jumps to the bottom of the page for an explanation:
18 Atoms, theoretically, are mostly empty. The nucleus of any particular atom is a volumetrically small fraction of the atom, while the electron cloud is a tiny fraction of both mass and volume. Scientists went and compressed that wasted space in the development of shrinking technology. As a side benefit, no more jail overcrowding.
The story has a subtle, meta humor, one that calls attention the fact that it is indeed a book with a reader, and that the writer and reader have present-day knowledge. There are jokes about fonts, picas, books and culture that are especially funny if one has ever worked in the publications industry. Broadsheet newspapers are considered rude in this world because they take up so much space, therefore interfering with the personal space of others. Instead, Atlas has a more “acceptable” newspaper (knowingly called The Atlas Shrug), which comes in a width of 46 pica — roughly the same width as the human headspan. All of its stories are corporation and government approved. In opposition is an underground form of journalism, operating in basements and printing stories about corruption, all while planning a creative uprising, the Nostalgia Movement. They want to show the value of the history, justice and free-thinking, for “There is nothing more valuable than something true and authentic.”
What makes the novel multimedia? Beyond textual footnotes is an enclosed CD that is referenced throughout the story. When the mainstream and publically-traded band SpynSpeck [Spine-Speck]’s trademark song, “Duck Wave Function,” is mentioned, a footnote directs the reader to the appropriate track. There, one can hear just what a deconstructural, robo-rock pop band sounds like and how they recycle small fractions of existing songs into new ones. “They contributed to a post-post-postmodern musical movement in which new styles challenged what people classified as true music,” a footnote informs.
Telegrams, news broadcasts, and single lines of dialogue are also represented on the CD, and while it might be occasionally cumbersome to have the CD queued up while reading, it does add a certain level of engagement to the experience. Whole essays and articles have been written about the trouble with writing about fictional music, about how the reader interprets a audible medium by absorbing it visually instead, but Thuy saves the reader the trouble.
Of course, this begs the question: Is the Footnotes CD a mere bonus feature, or is it like the News Now! pills, “helpfully” informing the reader without that pesky burden of self-interpretation? Perhaps it is just one more meta moment in a meta-futuristic novel, a wink towards the plot itself.
The Truth Lenders also acknowledges that no creative work is a one-(wo)man show. Thuy self-published the novel with the help of other designers, musicians and artists who live in and around the Spokane, Washington area. The Footnotes CD was produced, mixed and mastered by Joe Varela of Black Lab Recording Studios in San Francisco, a man who gets a nod within the story itself every time “Varela University” is mentioned. There are extensive credits as to who did what at the back of the book, as well as a list of recommended reading that informed the story. Musicians Kevin Long, Dane Ueland, Ross Robinette contribute their fictional selves to the CD, as well as Spokane writers Kurt Olson and Isamu Jordan. No person pulls all their ideas from the ether after all, so even the sources for jokes receive credit.
The end result of all this collaboration is an entire world which takes some time to acclimate, but provides plenty of thought-provoking ideas. And while, yes, the story is more concept-over-character, the characters are rendered clearly. Their history unfolds gradually as society begins to value the past again. While there’s a lot going on and infinite details to digest, it’s helpful to just keep going, trusting that all will align in the end. The Truth Lenders is possibly a one-of-a-kind effort, original both in its content and delivery, and for that, Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen deserves utmost praise.
Friday, April 30, 2010, Empyrean Coffeehouse (171 S. Washington, Spokane, WA) will host the Truth Lenders release party, from 7-10pm. Musicians featured in the book will play as their fictional selves, and all people involved will be available for signing. $5 gets you in the door, with the book available at the discounted rate of $12 (regularly $17). RSVP on Facebook here.
For those interested in purchasing the book outside of the release party, contact Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen at truthlenders [at ] gmail [dot] com or visit truthlenders.com
Note: Since the release of the event poster, Dane Ueland has since had to cancel his appearance. Book layout and design, as well as the event poster design, by Chris Dreyer of Dreyer Press.
EDIT 1-24-11: This review now also appears on Used Furniture Review.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.