A Set of Lines turns one

Today is the one-year anniversary of the publication of my novel A Set of Lines. To mark the occasion I thought I would offer a little history on its genesis. In a halfhearted attempt to ‘market’ the book when the ebook edition became available, I characterized it as ‘quotidian dystopiary meets nouveau roman,’ realizing even as I did so that this descriptor would likely either repel potential readers or simply generate blank stares. Chances are, even if you know and appreciate the French literary movement known as nouveau roman (see also: antinovel) that arose in the 1950s, you are unlikely to approve of or could even conceive of its integration with dystopian genre tropes. But to me it seemed like the most accurate way to describe the book, regardless of the likelihood of such a description alienating rather than engendering potential new readers.

I didn’t set out to write a novel blending these two types of fiction, nor did the revelation that this was what I had done immediately occur to me after finally finishing it. I was just reaching for a way to explain the book, which is typically something writers hate doing, but must at least attempt if they wish to attract readers. And, to be more precise, the nouveau roman doesn’t necessarily indicate a certain type of fiction. As a so-called movement it’s somewhat controversial, in that many or most of the writers grouped within it (notably by reviewers and critics, in general) did not see themselves as particularly unified in style or theme. That said, similarities do exist between some of their approaches.  

Eight years ago when I started writing what would become A Set of Lines, I had been gorging on nouveau roman writers—specifically a lot of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet—and they had fully captivated me with their unique styles and focus on tone and mood over plot. As to the source of the novel’s dystopian tropes, I had always been drawn to this subgenre of science fiction, ever since I was a young reader. In my early 20s I’d even played in a concept band based on Orwell’s 1984. So I guess dystopia was in my blood from an early age, though I hadn’t been actively reading it as I began to write A Set of Lines.

I had, however, begun to see elements of both dystopian fiction and my favorite nouveau roman writers’ novels collide in my own daily life: stark repetition, circuitous conversations, blurring of dreams and waking life, hyper-exposed moments of quotidian life, endless meetings, rewriting and/or writing off the past by various overseers. Steeped in this milieu, from the kernel of a long-ago dream-memory (or was it a memory-dream) I began to write…

A Set of Lines review

The writer Rebecca Gransden posted an incisive review of A Set of Lines on Goodreads. Excerpt below:

There is a shorthand inherent in tackling dystopian themes, and Stewart moulds a knowing backdrop, using that shorthand to create a scaffolding which amplifies the atmosphere of benumbed melancholy. Throughout, there is an overwhelming sense of longing underneath the surface, a longing obfuscated and perhaps suppressed for so long, that its very function is being forgotten. The unconscious mind and its rebellion against passivity in the face of the denial of human wants and dignities is very present in this novel.

A Set of Lines ebook edition

A Set of Lines front cover

At long last the ebook edition of my novel A Set of Lines is available. The book can be downloadedfree for a limited timein a reader’s choice of all the usual formats. Many thanks to GPA archivist-technician Nathan Grover for his amiable tenacity in making this happen. For more information on A Set of Lines, including how to order the paperback edition, please visit Ghost Paper Archives. Reviews of the book can be found on Goodreads and at A Wild Slim Alien.

 

A Set of Lines review

A Set of Lines has received its first review outside of Goodreads. This perceptive review comes by way of long-time comrade-in-letters and master lipogramist Daniel Williams, aka awildslimalien.

ahoy chicagoans

To those readers living in the Chicago area: if you’ve reached the point where you feel you can leave your quarantine unit without enduring heart palpitations in order to do some socially distant browsing at one of your local bookshops, my novel A Set of Lines is now available at that fine Chicago institution known as Quimby’s. New stock of Bunker Diaries and Inner Harbor Field Reports has also arrived at the store. Just a heads up that the supply of these two publications is dwindling, and there are no plans for a second printing. As always, thanks for reading and be well.

Now Available: A Set of Lines

A Set of Lines front cover

A Set of Lines: a novel by S. D. Stewart

Last night I drew all night. I copied the images from the textbook and then I drew them again freehand—I made them move on the page, lengthened the lines and darkened the centers.

The tree, the river, the old textbook—a triptych with shifting borders hangs in a place where dreams and memories intersect. Omission and loss haunt those who live here, suspended as they are in an endless struggle to connect. Contracting and expanding as it progresses, the narrative of their existence ever-circles around a shrouded core.


With cover design and interior illustrations by Nate Dorr, who since 2017 has been quietly depicting the beauty of decaying, mutated biospheres in his Disaster Landforms series.

Interior design and layout wizardry by Nathan Grover.

Read reviews on Goodreads.

Order the paperback | Download the ebook

Shipping Note: Delivery estimates shown during the order process are the latest possible arrival date. Most U.S. orders will take 7–11 business days to arrive, depending on the selected rate. Economy rate is reasonable: in many cases, the book will still arrive inside of a week. Delivery times outside of the U.S. will vary by location.

[personal note 1.1]

Several months ago I left the enclosed city where I used to reside and moved to the outer regions in order to pursue my research on the condition. My initial research pointed to the probability that the act of living in an enclosed city is a significant contributing factor to an individual’s development of the condition—this separation, an unbridgeable gap between the individual and reality. But the results were statistically insignificant, given the small sample size and purely qualitative nature of the inquiry, which was only ever intended to be formative research. Now I need data from outside the cities for comparative purposes.

On the whole I have found the people here to be simpler than the city dwellers, almost childlike in their ways, as well as incredibly tenacious. Life here is difficult. On the best days, residents eat a subsistence diet consisting of what few edibles they can forage from the spindly native vegetation and the meager crops that persist in growing in this hostile environment. On the worst days they fast and wake early the next day to attempt gathering again. I do not see stress in their faces, though. Certainly their frames are lean, yet they are also muscular. To me they appear healthy, though I am not a medical professional.

From what I have observed so far, those living here who are afflicted with the condition are only in Stage I. For these individuals, management is straightforward provided that access to the herbal protocols continues unimpeded. Without taking the herbs, slipping into a dream state and staying there becomes an increasingly commonplace event. Many times there is no awareness of the transition from waking life to dream state. Return becomes more difficult. Stage I cases are marked by briefer periods in dream state than cases in the later stages, when return time lags even more and searchers must be sent out.

When I first arrived at this particular community I identified those individuals who required the protocols in order to stabilize. I launched a small-scale public health campaign of sorts, disseminating information at the weekly community meetings held in the square. The people had been aware that something was not right, but for the most part they had not discussed it with their families and friends. Once I put a name (albeit a vague one) to the phenomenon and explained what I knew of it, uptake and adherence to the herbal protocols occurred rapidly and I took my treatment outreach to scale immediately.

The people here trust me and I am determined not to fail them.

[personal note 1.0]

baseline data collection [personal note 1.0]

The people assembled in the square, not knowing why, only feeling a vague compulsion to be there. Some among them know more than others, but collectively they know nothing.

It is an overcast day; the sun has not shone in weeks. In the distance, a thick band of mist obscures the ring of bare mountains surrounding the city.

A few minutes ago I stood among the crowds still filling the square, holding the instrument I finished constructing only this morning. With the compact machine tucked beneath my tunic, I moved slowly through the crowd, taking covert readings at specific intervals that I had painstakingly determined the night before.

My goal is straightforward enough: to establish what percentage of the populace exhibits signs of the burgeoning phenomenon known as ‘the condition.’ The instrument is not sophisticated enough to provide stage-level data, but a statistically valid estimate of how pervasive the condition is will still prove invaluable, not only to my own private research, but also in establishing a baseline for the benefit of Ministry of Public Health officials, to whom I intend to present the data.

My loose association with the Institute for Post-Change Studies (IPCS) secured me the materials and lab space necessary to construct this instrument. I’m not at liberty to elaborate on my exact connection to IPCS, but suffice it to say a long shared history exists between myself and its founders. The Institute provided the funding for the first round of research I led on the condition. The resulting treatise, entitled The Condition: An Inquiry, includes two volumes of field narratives and a formal report. It remains as yet unpublished.

Most of my ‘colleagues’ consider me a rogue scientist-at-large. Primarily I work alone, although I do utilize a small cadre of trusted research assistants when needed, usually for field work and data cleaning. Over the years I’ve cobbled together bits and pieces of formal training in between extensive periods of field study. My methods are often criticized for being too ‘extreme’ but no one can argue with my results. I maintain rigorous standards throughout the research process to ensure my data is never compromised.

This note is the first of an intermittent series of informal documentary records I plan to maintain adjacent to my formal research. In this initial entry I have introduced myself and my work in the event that these records are ever discovered following my inevitable demise. I suspect that I have contracted the condition, but I believe it is only a Stage 1 case at this juncture. For now I am preventing its advancement through use of the herbal methods I learned from one of my research subjects. I have no knowledge of their long-term effects.

death of the archive

The encoding was all wrong, he kept thinking, as in between last minute data entry he packed up the few meager extensions of himself decorating his workstation. It had been rushed. Everyone leaving after the funding dropped and there just wasn’t enough time. He’d done the best he could. But the fact remained that the archive was dying. Its electronic body was hemorrhaging records, each of them representing a sector of his time he could never regain (nor even recall). Hours of research, flipping through the 20-odd dictionaries lined up above his head in the dim cubicle. All of it slowly slipping away through gaps in the system’s memory, now ravaged by worms and bots crawling and marching in after unpaid bills led to the inevitable security breach. Ones and zeroes subdividing into anonymous content—data freed from its container only to lose all context and thus its purpose.

He watched the stream of suits marching toward the double glass doors. As they passed his cubicle they dumped their unwanted office effluvia into the vacant cubicle next door to his. Already these discards had begun to reach the tops of the dividers and spill over onto his modular desk topped with the false wood veneer. A box of paper clips fell, striking his enormous ancient monitor, where it erupted and showered the keyboard with tiny silver missiles. He typed on.

What’s laughable is that there are no other jobs for the suits to take. It’s all over. Officials sealed the city last night and from this day forward it is a closed system. So their rushing out the door is all for naught. They only have their sterile quarters to return to now, where they will wait, popping pills, desperate for an end to their newfound stagnation. He thought about that for a moment, his fingers paused above the keyboard, hovering in space, before one finger, the pinkie, extended slowly to the right and clicked the Enter key, thus enacting the command to shut down his machine for good.

(That is not to say there is no more to be said, to be written. Indeed, more has been written and more will continue to be written on these matters. In effect there is no end, now or ever. The death of the archive is only one death waiting among many to be noticed, to be recorded, to matter to someone, somewhere, at some time possibly centuries from now. It waits alone for an inquiry into its condition.)

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