I recently used Jonathan Ball’s Ex Machina (Toronto: Bookthug, 2009) in a first year creative writing class.

Charged with teaching 22 young students how to write fiction, I shirked my task and concentrated on challenging the students to question their assumptions about how (or if) fiction “works.”

Weekly writing assignments requested that they model their work on poetic texts, Oulipan exercises and abstract comics. I asked them to transcribe every word on their street and all the words they said for an hour of typical conversation. They wrote using only questions, using only other people’s texts (excising and overwriting), starting every sentence with “I Remember…”; they sculpted their assignments, recorded their assignments—and some went so far as to build their work into self-creating video games.

They discussed and crafted responses to Melville, Gogol, Kafka, Moure, Slater, Calvino, Borges, Molotiu, rawlings, Blonk, Morris, Lethem and more. Their mid-term assignment was to reply in a piece of “fiction” (however they defined that) to Jonathan Ball’s Ex Machina.

Catalogued by the National Library of Canada as “poems,” Ball’s Ex Machina (which he considers a SF/horror novel) is a series of footnoted and intertwined aphorisms, quotations, statements and diagrams about the un-holy combination of book and machine, writer and reader, host and parasite.

With each page, the text becomes a labyrinth in which the reader’s breadcrumbs are devoured by mice as fast as they can be placed. Ex Machina is a predator with an elusive cat-and-mouse game in which it teases the reader into defining the terms of engagement, but “[i]n the garden of forking paths, you appear always to move forward.” (28) Ball’s text is purposefully evasive, preferring to challenge the reader on her need for clarity and purposefulness, for “If you are going to insist / on a poem, / I am going to persist / in this evasion.” (39)

Ball posits that the poetic text—or, in this case, a horror novel masquerading as a poetic text—is a textual symbiote which uses the reader to perpetuate its own survival:

The poem is not written by the author. [52] It is the root, the cause of authors. [57] Like a virus moving inside your skull. [43] To eat, and grow, and change. [61]. (51)

William Carlos Williams notably argued

There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. […]Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. (“Introduction to The Wedge”, in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1969. 256.)

William S. Burroughs notoriously postulated “language is a virus from outer space” and that we are simply hosts for the spread of this linguistic extraterrestrial disease. Ball’s novel articulates the nature of the parasitic relationship between book, text and reader. While Phyllis Webb famously stated “[t]he proper response to a poem is another poem,” Ball makes the generative quality that Webb desired fraught with the sinister overtones of mutation, for the book machine seeks those “who process the poem, to great effect: host minds for newer and stronger strains” (57)

Ball has published Ex Machina under a Creative Commons License, and encourages readers to respond. He hopes that readers will allow the text to infect their own writing practices for “[t]he human being [is] a larval stage in the reproductive process of the book-machines.” (57)

Ex Machina used my “larval stage” undergraduate students to reproduce as video games, hollowed-out books, 15-minute sitcoms, Norwegian rock operas, illustrated shuffle-texts, scrapbooks made from ransom-note-like assembled texts, photo-essays, comic books and narrative-driven short stories.

With Ex Machina the meme speaks and it is hungry.

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