The Collington Archive
by Christopher Wood
“Guys,” she said.
Molly was an accelerated undergrad, the lone freshman in our two-semester editing class, which helped produce Concourses, the university’s recently-launched national lit mag. In sizing up our English department’s rising status, during her college search, this go-getter, or her high school advisor, had been prescient.
She cornered us in the library’s computer room, while Sam printed his EN: 397 Comparative Renaissances paper on Milton and Hughes.
“Hey, Molly,” we said.
Sam’s professor was locking up her office for the weekend in less than an hour. My buddy had to drop off his assignment pronto.
“The Collington archive just went up,” Molly announced.
“That’s really interesting,” I said.
The university made no secret that it had purchased the papers of Midwestern post-fantasy writer Frank Collington. It was an evolving project, as the Guggenheim-winner remained very much alive and industrious, publishing new volumes of weird fiction – novels and short story collections – semi-annually in small presses. Collington himself had visited campus twice, per contract as part of the sale. And he was receiving an honorary degree this June alongside the other caps and gowns. Sam and I, both juniors, planned to volunteer for Senior Week activities and linger around campus for a chance at Collington, hoping to gain an edge on next year’s senior thesis, which for either of us, with the help of the archive, could mean potentially vaulting to the head of burgeoning Collington Studies, worldwide.
I was drawn to Collington’s craft, with an eye on an eventual Creative Writing doctorate, while Sam veered toward American Studies and the secret role small-press novelists played in rejuvenating superhero summer blockbusters, Super Bowl mobile-technology ad campaigns and other marquee facets of the congealing national consciousness. Scholarship depended on names, the persistent cult of the individual, and the two of us frequently cheered our good fortune at the school’s selection of Collington. Given the other prominent male authors who’d recently fallen – spectacularly – due to their inexcusable conduct, Frank Collington proved thus far to be a savvy investment. Next to all the retrograde Byrons and dissolute ersatz Lorcas infesting the literary establishment at the highest ranks, Collington stood apart as an unquestionable hermit, a writer’s writer who rarely left the house, or even his desk. His wife, the painter Sharon Zrum, attested to this in her only public comments, quoted in a writers-at-home group feature for a recent Sunday New York Times Shelter insert. The author’s workroom door remained closed throughout the day while he pounded out another impeccably reworked draft.
How did he go about the task? What was he up to in there, all those hours? The archive would be our peephole.
“Any takers?” Molly asked.
She worked part-time at the library and knew the archives well. On a Friday afternoon, she had the run of the place.
“Collington is cool,” I said. “But Sam’s got to get his paper to Remington Hall.”
“There isn’t that much to see,” Molly said.
“Let’s check it out,” Sam suggested. His call.
We left the computer lab and headed for the main stairwell, past the glass cases by the main desk, rare first editions of Millay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning honoring National Poetry Month, a display growing stale in the late weeks of May.
Sam was more fluent in the complete Collington career than I was. “I’d like to see drafts of the early novels,” he said. “I heard Fullinger’s Arm started out much longer.”
“He made most of his edits on computer,” Molly pointed out.
Her archival discipline seemed more in line with responsible librarianship than with any research of her own. In the class with Sam and me, she revealed no vested interest in our prized author, and appeared not impressed at all by his Teflon reputation in these precarious times. Not that we demanded her allegiance, or expected from her any contribution to our class-time parries. From her share of the submissions to Concourses, she forwarded the few competent pieces to the next round without skewering the remarkably bad specimens, as we sometimes did. She was still a freshman, just figuring things out, as her recurring no-fuss russet ponytail and drab flat shorts made plain for anyone to see at our editing lecture, or during her work-study shift at the library.
“Is he even 50?” I asked.
“He’s 62,” Molly said, her freckly knees leading the way around one stout hand-carved railing post, and on down the carpeted stairs to the lower level.
I guessed I’d be most interested in looking through books from Collington’s personal library.
The title I knew best from his oeuvre was Aired-Out Things, his collection of personal essays and craft talk. His thoughts on writing were refreshingly practical and commonplace for such an inventive post-postmodern fabulist. (As Sam was quick to trumpet, Collington had creating some of the most self-deprecating cosmic plankton and introspective minotaurs in the entire Western canon.)
We turned right at the bottom of the stairs and walked past the periodicals and dusty microfiche consoles, entering the research wing. At the end of the hall, beyond a long succession of dark rooms, by a fire exit, a single door shined through its window, head-level.
Molly took us to the door and opened it with a hint of ciceronian pomp. “Here ya go.”
The room contained a single conference table extending from the far wall. Five open laptops rested on the table, two of them buzzing and out front, the other three dormant older models lined against the wall, in a chain.
“Do we have to request specific manuscripts?” Sam asked
“Don’t forget your paper,” I reminded him.
“What do you think?” Molly said.
“You’ve made the archive searchable?” I asked, confused.
“C’mon, let’s sit,” Sam suggested.
We took swivel chairs in front of each of the two powered-up computers.
“These are his work computers,” said Molly.
“Whose?” I asked.
“Collington’s,” Sam said, from his seat. “See mine? The ports are all gummed up. It’s gotta be the Castrato!”
I should have caught on quicker. One the most widely-read pieces from Aired-Out Things was a short essay about writerly distractions, called “Sticky Icky and the Castrato.” In it, Collington writes about how after a week mired in Internet idling – checking Amazon rankings, review comments and the like – he intentionally ruined all the connections on his laptop, except a single USB for a flash drive, with rubber cement and putty. He called the victim of this techno-violence the Castrato. By taking this extreme action, he reclaimed sovereignty over his concentration so that he could continue his work unhindered.
The Castrato’s angelic soprano, an unbroken aria of clicking productivity, wards off the flapping black flag of Stygian delay, Collington writes.
“Yours must be Sticky Icky,” Sam said.
He’d put on scholarly latex gloves left on the table by his computer, but there was no corresponding pair for mine.
“Don’t worry about contaminating the archive,” said Molly, perceiving my concern, but not fully apprehending it. “The hardware has already been forensically studied and catalogued. And the hard drives were backed up, stored in their original state for posterity. So go ahead and play around. We wanted visitors to be able to experience what it’s like to be the author at his desk.”
“What a novel concept,” Sam said, working the Castrato’s finger pad securely through his latex. “Ten different versions of Fullinger’s Arm! Somebody’ll have a field day with this!”
“If that computer’s what he did all his work on,” I said, “I don’t see the point of having this one.”
“Sticky Icky?” Sam asked.
“That’s for future scholars to discover, I guess,” Molly said. “I never understood why they didn’t call Sam’s computer Sticky Icky. That’s the one with all that goop in the connections. But there was a lot of junk stuck on both of them. After we photographed and cataloged the original state of the machines, we gave all five a good scrub down. And our IT guys got rid of most of the malware. So don’t be shy. For Sticky Icky, we have the original plug-in mouse. Try it!”
The ergonomic teal mouse cowered on its tether behind the laptop, as if having scurried from what it saw on the screen. I didn’t want to think about it either.
All day in the room, alone. A writer could only revise the same bundle of sentences so many times.
“You want to know one kinda creepy detail?” Molly continued. “The library decided to keep the hairs we found.” She slid a box out from under the table and produced a detestable vial. “You know, like the lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair they keep at Amherst. Even though some strands are fine and others are coarse and curly, they’ve all been confirmed as Collington’s.”
“That’s wild,” Sam said. “Three distinct endings for Flash and Tory.”
“I thought Flash and Tory already had three endings,” I said.
“No, you’re thinking of Pegasus Truncated,” Sam shot back. “Check the editions by Just A Head Press.”
“You want to know the working theory we have now?” Molly lowered her voice. “We think there’s a good chance Collington preferred to work without a shirt on. Isn’t that eccentric?”
“Why don’t you just ask him?” I said. “He’s still alive.”
“Authors’ accounts of their own methods are generally unreliable,” Molly explained. “With this archive, we hope to promote a kinesthetic investigation of the writer’s activity by meticulously reconstructing his workspace.”
“Like Emily Dickinson’s tiny desk, I get it,” I said. “Tell me, how much of this computer has already been explored?”
“Yeah, there’s three other computers,” Sam added. “How do you know that that one’s really Sticky Icky?”
“Oh, we know,” Molly insisted.
I pushed my chair back from the idling Sticky Icky, which angled itself bashfully away from Sam’s more industrious Castrato.
“I’d be interested in seeing some of Collington’s books,” I said, petitioning the freshman.
Perhaps bruised by my appeal to traditional scholarship methods, she grudgingly stooped back down to the beat-up corrugated box that contained the vial of hairs.
“Well, let’s see,” Molly said. “The writer has given us a few volumes to start. We’ll get his entire library after he dies. But here is a World Almanac, 1996. And a Video Movie Guide from ’92.”
The blocky paperbacks were well used, their covers wrinkled and stained.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“We’re not sure where he kept them,” Molly said, “but somewhere for easy access. See, sometimes the most mundane facts spurred Collington’s imagination. He could read through the statistics on a South Pacific island nation, and if he spent long enough thinking about it, he’d have the idea for a new story. Based on the water stains, he must have read them while washing dishes.”
“That’s absurd,” I said. “Any novels?”
“Just a stack of Readers Digests,” said Molly. “And some word search puzzle books.”
Now, another unfortunate passage from Aired-Out Things crossed my mind, from a short Heidegger-inflected treatise called simply “Doing Word-Things.” Writing is the act of finding words amid the chaos of the world, and of my body. Connecting these letters, my body relaxes, and chaos evacuates.
“What’s on Sticky Icky?” Sam pressed. “C’mon, I gotta drop off that paper.”
“The origin of the ‘Sticky Icky’ name is less conclusive,” Molly reported. “But it opens up new interpretations of the work. For instance, contemporary pop music hits may have provided more influence than previously credited. We know Collington is a Stones fan, and so the moniker also hints at Sticky Fingers.”
“You’re welcome to look,” I offered Sam.
“No man,” he said, “I got plenty to see here. Oh, I just instinctively tried to open a browser to check my mail. Silly, right? It really is a cunning temptation. Collington was onto something. But think about it, there might be some clues to his work in Sticky Icky’s browser.”
“Let me assure you both,” Molly said, “there’s lots of clues. To help with our work at a future date, he never deleted his history.”
“I just don’t feel right going there,” I said, keeping my chair at arm’s length from the device.
“Don’t be shy,” said Molly.
“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “He sold it to the library for the sake of research and posterity.”
“I can’t help if it feels like a violation,” I said, although the violation in question was mine, in the presence of this sordid machine.
“It’s all already been viewed,” Molly assured us.
“Collington is an award-winning writer,” said Sam, “but he’s also just a guy.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I confessed.
“I mean,” Sam elaborated, “he’s a member of the human community.”
“His google search records confirm Collington’s interest in many diverse groups,” Molly said. “All these people and ethnicities, who never show up in his fiction. Young Asians. Young Russians. It’s strange wording, but he’s especially interested in different cultures and how adolescents interact with one another. Especially in secluded environments, like beaches and abandoned alleyways. Then, also, there’s animals. Humans and animals. When you go back through and read his very painstaking physical descriptions of minotaurs and other half-human mythical creatures, and follow them into the contemporary settings in which he places them, it makes more sense. How else can you picture a human body merged with a horse? Think about it! It’s pretty brilliant how he sought out these sites, because certainly that’s not why other people visit them. But Collington took full advantage of the technology. Which is also why we don’t take the ‘Sticky Icky and Castrato’ essay very seriously as it pertains to his personal practice. Because clearly he didn’t just transfer all his work to the Castrato, and leave Sticky Icky in the lurch. He kept the old one going, on a very regular basis. In fact, we hope he comes back to this computer when he’s on campus. Just to see if there’s any unfinished business he needs to attend to. We’ll give him a campus key card with security clearance, so he can enter the library at night without setting off the alarms.”
While Molly went on about the writer’s habits, Sam’s Comparative Renaissances professor, Yarline Beta, poked her head in the research room. She was keen to see what data from the new archive could be incorporated into her model of the Digital Renaissance in art. She grew up in Silicon Valley, in the eighties, and never abandoned her optimism regarding the humane capabilities enabled by technology.
Yarlene accepted Sam’s paper, all the while peppering the freshman with questions, which Molly fielded impressively, almost as if she was a colleague in equal standing.
“Neither of those chairs are the author’s,” Molly explained, at the end of her inventory. “The backrest is lower on Collington’s original, which he’s bringing to the library next week, to add to the installation. The height of the seat is accurate, though. Twenty inches, according to his own account, for what it’s worth. We’ll make our own judgment when the item comes in. This table is also adjusted to match the original work conditions.”
Dr. Beta sat in the swivel chair I’d occupied just a minute before.
Sam had turned to ask me what I thought about the scholarly attention paid to the physical geography of workspaces – a fetish? – in the age of globalized digital communications. But now his professor sat beside him, and I’d vanished.
Those in the research room supposed that I’d shrunk from the intensity of the confrontation with Collington’s work materials, the remnant aura from the machines clouding over the study of the work.
My departure wasn’t the consequence of any such squeamishness. In fact, no departure had transpired. I remained in the room, sucked through the desiccated wireless ports of Sticky Icky, in the instant Sam observed the blurting head of his instructor, while Yarlene Beta first caught the eye-catching freckle pattern across Molly’s exposed knees and permitted the freshman to go on about the acclaimed writer’s browser history.
Let me say conclusively, there’s no scholarly gold at the end of this rainbow. From inside the connection, I see all the timewasting URLs and apps. And none of it sets the mind in revolt when seen from my perspective. I thought, at first, when I was sucked in, that I was now seeing the Internet through the perspective of its operator, Collington. But that’s not quite right, as I’ll soon explain.
Everything hits me at once, in a blast. Yet there is also a strict chronology indicated by every time-stamped datum. I know what Collington is browsing, and what he’s typing. Every keystroke and gesture. Don’t recoil, just yet – brace yourself to hear this!
I realize I’m addressing myself, a void – the vacated subjectivity that drew me in. In this computer’s corner of the Internet, I’ve lost my old self-construction. Because I was unknown to Collington before he handed over his laptops, I’ve got no access in here to me. My plan, as you’ll recall, was to accost him during Senior Week! Nobody knows where I am. But the Internet doesn’t care, so neither do I.
Can you imagine, if you previously balked at the mere thought of what was looked at on this computer, and what else its manipulator was manipulating while viewing it, what total disgust you’d experience when pulled into the machine and flushed through its circuits? The bathroom stall of civilization, and here I am stewing in its putrid clumpy waters! The environment, initially dynamic when logged in from outside by users in flux, is really incredibly stagnant and stale from inside, unchanging. An occasional fresh user stirs the pot, but quickly joins the infernal sludge. It’s so boring that only trivial, half-hearted attempts at language innovation and jive can hold a real writer’s attention here, or assuage their publisher’s mandate to engage with digital followers. (On this computer model, it appears I’ve adopted the slant of its user, a gimlet-eyed late Boomer with a hotmail domain.)
Yet there is some awareness of history, of scholarly attention, a self-importance impressed on the machine through its sole typist, despite his compulsive keyword searches. The early work produced on Sticky Icky, before transferring the story-writing to the Castrato, was drafted and revised with care by an established serious writer, agented and grant-subsidized. Perhaps not surprisingly, many novels and stories were created simultaneously. The only adequate comparison to make is, well, that of a web. The spider branches out in each direction, then retraces and fills in her expanding design. The only definitive scholarly conclusion that can be drawn, concerning the working method, is that it’s so erratic. Focus and shape, any discernable trajectory to the career’s production, insinuates itself retrospectively, from outside concerns.
Your skin would have crawled to know this one other detail before you fell in the soup: at each web address in the history, I look out through Sticky Icky’s screen and see the author’s face looking back into it, the Collington visage appearing just as it did at the time he opened that particular page or document. This includes downloaded jpegs and videos. I can only imagine what kind of grotesque dispositions I would have anticipated, before witnessing the true solemnity of these features.
When the word processing document is open, and the spider is braiding her sentences, the eyes are distant, yet lively. The progressively timeworn face of Collington addresses every dimension, near-ground and far, except for the thin spatial area taken up by the monitor. When the words are moving fast, in early drafts, he’s typing blind, following those capering suburban satyrs from his fiction, as if seen distantly out there, beyond his office window. In slow, grinding revision, his vision turns inward, cross-eyed, communing with the surly intergalactic plankton at the tip of his nose, or the festive paramecia dithyrambing across an eyelash.
One would expect more animation from the subject when he views those other pages with captivating titles, XXX-this and barely legal-that. I hear him once fob off some lame excuse on his wife in painter’s smock, that an unexpected link had been emailed to him, and he unwisely clicked on it. But from my position within the Internet, I can instantly read all emails and see that he’d never received nor opened such an electronic missive. His wife never bothers him again though, and he’s back to clicking on all the promising, highest-ranked thumbnails behind his closed office door. He also reads a great deal of online criticism on this machine, even after the creation of new short story documents migrates to the newer laptop. And to compare the glazed expression of the author, when scanning a penetrating essay, to the corpse stare one sees when he’s viewing penetrating cross-species videos, is to see a wan Castor followed by an equally depressing, and weary, Pollux. With the essays, he’s jumping to a word or phrase that shapes the whole in his mind, no less abruptly than the perceived shape or complexion of a photographed sex worker, a type. And from inside the digital protocols, I see how those preferred types of arrangements, distinct perversions of syntax or appendages, are already prepared and lined up, prior to their customer’s arrival. This is the saddest aspect of all the scholarly findings, how insignificant the genius author is to the queue of content that occupies so much of his time and mental activity.
I don’t have to analyze the viewed content because all of it originates in some permutation of outrage and humiliation, verbal iterations and images of the same primary sludge. I see Collington come to it and supplicate, endowed with less agency than the straw being nibbled by one of his steampunk Victorian talking donkeys. Pornography and its personality-based descendent, online news. Just because he’s not impressed with the hopeful promise of “staying informed” doesn’t mean he won’t look at the self-congratulating solo.
I’m not sure I entirely get what you mean here.
The invariable, prodding corrections from editors – I see them in emailed documents, so my understanding of the later finished work (with some revisions) is pretty all-encompassing. (Collington’s small publisher, Just A Head Press, makes none of its titles available in the open digital space, or in ebook versions subscribed to by public libraries. In order to obtain an ebook version, you must directly “support” the small press, ie. buy the book.)
What Collington accomplishes is commendable, a synthesis consisting of what is already known within the purview of the mundane (and what’s more mundane these days than a unicorn or succubus?) and what his editor will allow to pass into the light of day, to be devoured, ruminated, and speculated upon by Collington’s readers. This bestows a previously unseen totalizing logic on Collington’s work, a systematic completion or “filling out” of a grand idea. And this system manifests in a subconscious pattern affirmed by every reader who likes or comments on Collington on the web. I see all their comments, and those consist of an easy pattern to interpret. What do they look for in every new Collington book? They seek pure novelty in language, purportedly. When Collington opens a document from his editor, an original story graffitoed with all the commonplace suggestions he expects his editor to make, the look on this author’s face now coalesces into that same morbid stare accompanying the mindless porn surfing. Once resigned to all the simultaneously available images of bestiality and steamy bondage, that same glaze nods at the altar of trammeled metaphor. Through the screen, I see Collington’s degraded bust: the hair thickening, knotted and grown salty; I see whiskers accumulate and vanish with periodic buzzings; crow’s feet and mouth lines lengthen; ears expand, as if tugged by invisible paperweight earrings; his chin and jawline attenuated from slow dental and osteo deterioration. A life on screen is a horror show to behold, distorted by the unprecedented access he’s given to our university.
Through Collington’s private accounts, I can view other lives at this comprehensive level, but only those of his accepted friends. There aren’t many. And I know, from seeing all correspondence at once, where each conversation goes, and how infrequently the writer truly ventures out, according to his continued online activity, geolocations and ISP addresses. I’m now certain his browsing on Sticky Icky is altogether woven into his writing time, a distraction to absorb his conscious attention, while he sets his word-wielding faculties on the Castrato. So, yes, there are women he might engage on a dating app (or its clunky web browser translation), but he never rendezvouses with them in meatspace or talks to them again, ever. He remains in his office with the door closed.
This doesn’t mean that incriminating evidence isn’t out there, to be interpreted in novel ways by social-media-adept academics. I feel Sticky Icky get powered up intermittently throughout Senior Week. Absorbed in the archive, it doesn’t immediately occur to me that I’m the one who should be passing out free university t-shirts and setting up food-line tables at the various seniorly debauches. Caught in Sticky Icky’s web, I lose all long-term motivations. Only new emails that come to Collington from Sam indicate the gravity of my situation, my nonexistence.
Sam and others, some campus poets, ask to meet the great Collington. By some quirk of my liminal being, I can’t be sure of the author’s expression when he opens each email and dating-app message. He’s at a more recent computer excluded from the archives, swiping at some newer, svelte touchscreen. (I can access the new messages because the passwords to these accounts are saved on Sticky Icky.) Based on my vast store of observational data, I’m pretty confident that Frank Collington barely sniffs or furrows his brow at these digital entreaties.
I pity Sam’s efforts to attain contact with the subject of his ongoing research. He never paused to consider the most profound line from Aired-Out Things, in the very short sketch simply called, “Me.” Collington writes: The composite self carries the Idea to a fractured kingdom on dissolved dragon’s wings. Sam already possessed the king’s treasures in his mastery of Collington’s finished work, yet an unchecked compulsion drove him to look further.
For one thing, he was looking for me, his partner in dissertational crime.
Christopher Wood lives in New York. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Millions, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, Full Stop and elsewhere.
Image: Inaku del Olmo via Unsplash