There is some difficulty in even beginning to talk about a novel like Headless. It doesn’t afford the traditional opening channels – discussions of the author’s oeuvre, or, if a freshman attempt, her pedigree (though, as far as I’m concerned, this sort of thing is a sham anyway) – because Headless is a novel without an author. Or at least, with its author or authors in hiding. This is what we’re told: K.D., the named author, is not a willing participant in the project. In fact, she has threatened to sue those responsible for the novel and the events which led to its creation, and that this is why only the initials appear. It’s a murder mystery in which the victim is the author. Symbolically anyway, because it’s never quite clear if anyone does in fact get nicked. But more on the nature of the novel’s peculiar mystery shortly. For now I should step back and address the more fundamental question: What is Headless?
For our purposes, Headless is a novel attributed to the author K.D., which is being published jointly by Sternberg Press and Triple Canopy. So far so good. Sternberg is definitely a real publisher and Triple Canopy is definitely a Brooklyn-based magazine with a few books to its credit. And even though we know that K.D. is a ruse, we still know more or less where we are as the novel opens and presents itself as both a murder mystery and a document of its own creation by a surrogate author named John Barlow who becomes haplessly involved in the murder plot. Again, nothing too strange. This is well within territory charted and re-charted from Julian Cortázar to Paul Auster. The detective genre and metafiction are natural bedfellows.
Barlow, a middling crime novelist, is contacted by the Swedish artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby (or Goldin+Senneby as they prefer to be called in the context of their partnership) and asked to chronicle their ongoing search for a mysterious offshore company called Headless Ltd. The artist-duo claim to be interested in the connection between the fictional space of offshore and Georges Bataille’s secret society Acéphale. But it is soon enough apparent that they are orchestrators in absentia, issuing instructions via ambiguous emails and sending proxies to speak or act in their stead. In fact, we only encounter these artists twice. First in an early scene that sets the search for Headless Ltd. in motion, a scene we later have cause to doubt. Second in an epilogue that, for obvious reasons, I won’t divulge.
Barlow, then, functions as the de facto producer of this dual plot (i.e. the search for Headless Ltd. and the murder plot) for which he is the central protagonist. At least, this is how things start off. Following a troubling encounter with a detective who claims to be working for both the Royal Bahamian Police and Interpol, Barlow is sent to the Bahamas:
“To investigate possible connections between Acéphale (the secret society) and Headless (the secret company) in the Bahamas. And to write a blog about it.” These were Goldin+Senneby’s instructions, part of the strange obsession with Headless.
Barlow has only marginal success with his Nassau sleuthing, but the trip serves to put us more directly into contact with the story of Barlow’s police interlocutor. She turns out to be a fugitive, former-Bahamian detective operating under the name Catherine Banks and is accused of murdering two colleagues (perhaps a set up). To this point we are enveloped in genre fiction.
And it’s clear that whoever wrote Headless has been at pains to tick all the genre boxes. It follows the formulae well enough. The right things are withheld and then revealed at the right time. Chance intervenes when wits and will are at a dead end. There is the required things-are-not-what-they-seem twist. Which means things are exactly what they seem: genre fiction announcing itself as such. This looks like a red flag when the Catherine Banks sub plot gradually encroaches on Barlow’s claim as the protagonist. We begin to wonder, is Barlow a straw dog? There is a minor revelation when we learn that the fugitive cop, already operating under a pseudonym, has literary aspirations – but it’s like the revealing of something we already somehow knew. Meanwhile Barlow transitions into a dazed emissary for his Swedish employers’ “Looking for Headless” project – the project the novel is meant to document – trying to make sense of vague clues while stuffing his face and liver at various artsy soirées.
All this seems to point to an increasingly bizarre situation: that the novel’s production appears to take precedence over the action of the novel itself. (Which, however, includes the action of novel’s production!) Depending, that is, on how seriously you can really take this claim that Headless is a document of Goldin+Senneby’s apparently ongoing Headless project. This, it turns out, is quite a sticky problem. Take Barlow’s increasingly tenuous status as ‘author.’ Toward the end of the novel, Barlow claims he has stopped writing altogether and is receiving anonymous completed chapters.
Headless is slipping away from him. Whole chapters are now being sent to him anonymously. […] He is no longer sure which chapters are his. It’s as if someone is trying to be him, to take his place. And they’re succeeding; with each new chapter he is buried deeper, making him by degrees more irrelevant, until he is no longer the author, merely a character in the plot.
This problem of authorship is further complicated the novel’s coded enfolding of fiction and reality. Headless has its own paper trail (or is it part of a paper trail?) and this authorial uncertainty puts the reader into a wild goose chase that doubles Barlow’s (and a fairly transparent one given the novel’s multiple references to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). We’re sent scrambling all over the internet in an attempt to determine which of the novel’s episodes really happened. “Looking for Headless” does appear to be a real art project, inaugurated in 2008 by the apparently real Swedish artist duo Goldin+Senneby. John Barlow, who also appears to be a real middling crime novelist, seems to have really gone to Nassau. But if this is all real, why record it as genre fiction? And just who exactly is in charge of this novel?
Headlessness is the ostensible condition of the novel as much as of the company from which it takes its name; a nervous system without a brain. But, of course, it’s not. Not quite. Nor, I suspect, is it really supposed to be. This seems to be borne out by the late appearance of a conspicuously Freudian dead father, one whose influence is, quite literally, stronger in death. Inscription itself is a kind of authority and Headless points incessantly outward toward the documentation that bolsters its claim as a record of events. Just like Barlow, we are constantly looking for the location of authority. Where is the website that will ultimately confirm our suspicions? This is a fascinating twist on old school encyclopedic fiction, but it also evinces the gulf between the capacity of encyclopedic fiction and the referentiality and cataloguing capacities of our current media culture.
Alexander Provan’s preface, which introduces the reader both to the docu-fictional aspects of Headless and to its narrative tactics, was originally published in more multi-mediated fashion on Triple Canopy. It is well worth reading with this additional content and will give you a fair idea of just how much ancillary material exists online. The novel itself contains direct references and often URLs for sites and pages; like John Barlow’s Nassau travel blog, goldinsenneby.com, the liveblog of Sebastian Mary (though this site doesn’t seem to exist any longer). Angus Cameron, both character and project participant, has an online timeline which chronicles his involvement in Headless since 2008. And there’s a great deal more out there.
At times it feels that the very purpose of the novel is to indicate the evidence that establishes its own veracity, though it is ultimately overwhelmed by this evidence. It’s never quite clear, for example, whether this online documentation exists as a performance that provides material for the novel, as a performance of the novel as though the novel itself were a kind of script, or as a series of initially unrelated events which are simply arranged within the novel to facilitate a coherent plot.
This condition of subjectivity in the novel is similarly vertiginous; it presents a fiction of identity wherein identity is a fiction. Or, at least, our notion of what you might call sovereign identity is a fiction. Barlow is, on several occasions, confronted with himself as the sum of his personal data, both widely accessible and beyond his control:
Click streams: an enormous, imperfect recreation of a man’s brain. Digital DNA. You are the numbers, John. Accessible in a million ways, all ones and zeros. Where you go, what you do there, questions asked, money spent, the brand of beer you drink. You are on show, John, in an infinite number of ways. The most visible person imaginable.
Sovereignty – one of the novel’s predominant themes – may itself be a red herring; a relic of liberal humanism which obscures the fact that the narrative arc – which no one person seems to be in control of – is self-governing; a point subtly acknowledged at the novel’s end. Hence all the genre tropes. Even though there’s a strong indication that the anonymous chapters are coming from Catherine Banks, it’s in the midst of this uncanny scenario of a novel assembling itself that Barlow begins to be disassembled, to fall apart psychologically and doubt many of the things he had taken for granted, such as who exactly Goldin+Senneby are.
Two young men walk into an office complex in central Stockholm.
The voices of two young men. Somewhere. That’s all. A recording.
Notably he doesn’t renege from the belief that he is the only one who can uncover the truth of Headless (and, we might presume, of headlessness). The fact that this all culminates in a highly ritualized climax is no less intriguing for its predictability. You can see it coming a long way off and you are still left pleasantly scratching your head. Such is the case with a well-executed mystery.
Within Headless, Goldin+Senneby and their collaborators – or whomever might really be behind this novel – have produced or facilitated the material of the larger project, produced or facilitated the recording and reproduction of that material as testimony, and facilitated the history-of-Headless as fiction – that is, allowed the uncollected, unarchived evidence of “Looking for Headless” to collapse into the unverifiable world of fiction. This, I think it’s fair to say, is a success, and though it may leave readers feeling a bit paranoid, it makes for a thoroughly 21st Century novel. It probably isn’t exactly what Lionel Trilling had in mind when he wrote about the new “novel of ideas,” but it is a possible form for such a project in our time which is as circumscribed by the novel’s supposed moribundity as Trilling’s was.
By way of conclusion I’ll admit that I spent a lot of time prior to writing this review making up a list of possible collaborative authors, only to eventually feel I’d sort of missed the point. Maybe this was my attempt to impose some sort of sovereignty over the review – I am the only one who can uncover the real authors of Headless! It might be that headlessness is a penumbral condition, that the invisible and dispersed heads around which the novel circulates – Headless Ltd., the author(s) of Headless, the potentially intertwined fates of secret societies and secretive offshore corporations. This would mean these heads are less like Pynchon’s hapless Maas and more like his atomized Slothrop. This dispersal just might be more important than the potentially banal secret they efface. And maybe it doesn’t matter who wrote Headless, or what exactly Headless Ltd. is, or whether any of this is actually real. Maybe the point is just to be looking.
Justin Raden is an editor at London-based Don’t Do It magazine. He currently splits time between Chicago, New Orleans, and New York.