Fiction - The Grey Area, Absinthe Literary Review

The Network
a short by C.J. Hopkins

The fact that this has gotten through to you proves that the network is still penetrable. If this is what is has come to, if this is all we have left to go on, perhaps it is enough. Yes. It will have to be. We will have to start from here. It’s not much to work with. But yes, it is enough. Look at it this way: the fact that anything could still get through these days, past all the censors and sentinels, is in itself nothing less than a miracle. Structurally, the network, the system, the grid, whatever we want to call it, is perfect at last. It is perfect. It is perfection itself. Which is to say that it does not exist. It is crucial that we be clear about this. It is not hidden. The system, the machine, the network, is not hidden. It is not concealed, cloaked, buried or veiled. It simply does not exist. And the fact that it does not exist renders it, by definition, invisible, anonymous, hence invulnerable to any assault. The fact that its diverse servants remain unnamed, unknown, even to each other—yes, even to themselves—is the key. The fact that those who serve it do so unaware, perhaps even believing themselves to be members of the opposition, is the network’s ultimate beauty, strength and genius. But it is also its Achilles heel. I will try to explain. Let us say, purely for the sake of argument, that you were one such servant, a servant of the network, a censor, a sentinel or a screener as they are sometimes called. You could be stationed anywhere, at any number of posts. You might be a journalist or an editor at a newspaper, or an editor of film or video, or a librarian or a teacher. You might be an executive, in advertising, sales, marketing, or on the board of a museum, or the assistant head of human resources at a mid-sized corporation. Perhaps you run a small not-for-profit theater or a little magazine or a travel agency or a bar. You are a lawyer, an analyst, a cook, someone who begs for change outside a bank machine at night. You drive a truck, program computers, trade foreign currencies, or raise livestock. You are someone’s husband, wife, son or daughter, uncle, sister, colleague, friend. Let’s say you recommend a certain book or a movie, or you repeat a joke you heard somebody tell. Maybe you catch an error in a resume or spot a broken tail light or notice a bit of dirt under a certain waiter’s fingernail. A man is crying at a business lunch, a taxi driver asks about your mother, or your lover suddenly displays a hunger to which you are unaccustomed. Any number of events occur. And you react to these events. You react according to the role you have been assigned. You change the subject abruptly in the middle of a conversation. Your mind wanders or you avert your eyes, start a rumor, or misplace a set of keys, or you forget to give someone a message—a message they have been anticipating. You choose a certain restaurant, a certain car, a specific word or victim. Your thoughts drift off, away from who you’re with, who you are speaking with, to someone else, someone you remember or seem to remember but are now no longer certain that you ever really knew. You do not sense the system working through you. You react to things, events, believing your reactions to be random, the results of complex interactions between sets of overlapping facts, idiosyncrasies, probabilities and choices. You believe you make your own decisions; decisions based on quality, excellence, appropriateness and common sense. You measure one thing in relation to another, appraising similarities and deviances from models. You believe that economic trends, aesthetic movements and preponderant beliefs are as organic as cyclonic systems, and that clothes go in and out of style. You trust your memory and your senses; you believe in art and in the law. You have political opinions. You support or are opposed to certain wars, ethics, industries, words. You are no different from anyone, really. In the larger scheme of things, your actions, your individual moment by moment actions, do not amount to much. The world does not depend on you, on what you do or think from moment to moment. In truth, you have very little power and just as little responsibility. What you are reading is a fiction, in other words, a lie. We are playing a game. It is harmless. It is art. You know the difference between art and what is real. Everyone does. We know such things without ever being taught them, without ever being trained to believe or think this way. There is no “network.” Not really. Not for real. There is no “system,” no “machine,” or what have you. The only “sentinels” are in the minds of crackpots, kooks, paranoids, nuts. You see them on the street talking to themselves. They walk very quickly as though they are  headed somewhere important. They walk right into you, as though you aren’t there. They’re the ones who write letters to the editors of newspapers. They’re the ones who are always asking you to read one of their poems. The only “network” is the one inside their heads. Out here in reality, nothing quite so insidious or interesting is going on. You go to work, live your life, and you go home and watch the television. You fall in love, make a sandwich, read a book, go to church or to the beach, or to the mall, or to your shrink like anyone else. You read a story, and it’s just a story— not some tactic of control, not some component of a matrix of signs, codes and laws, rules we can’t articulate, models we can’t define yet struggle to conform to with each thought that enters our minds. Things are just not that exciting, that dramatic or intense. The ads on the billboards and bus stops are just ads. Wrong numbers are wrong numbers. They happen all the time. What you read in the paper or see on TV is there because people want it there. It’s news. Or it’s art. Or something random. It’s not some kind of plot. The signs that get seen and the messages that get heard, get seen and heard for reasons; for a thousand little reasons, because they are important, or someone paid to get them published or broadcast or posted, or any number of such reasons; ordinary reasons, not because of some conspiracy to control communications. Even certain words, ideas, images, trends, recurring conversations, insignificant beliefs that are born into the world out of nowhere one day and gradually take hold, spreading like a virus until you realize that everyone you know is suddenly talking about a certain program or using a certain word or reading a particular book, or are outraged by some issue. Even these occurrences are just a matter of chance. They are not the work of secret agents, operatives, sentinels, or servants of some vast, anonymous regime. Things are not that complicated, though at times we may wish they were. Things, for the most part, can be explained by human nature, force of habit, a general lack of imagination, or coincidence. Take for example the overwhelming uniformity of dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, people’s taste in literature, art, food, architecture, the way you seem to have the same conversation day after day with the same people, visit the same places, come to similar realizations at more or less the same time, how everything confirms what at the moment appears to be the obvious truth but in a week or two will be utterly forgotten, replaced by something else, something contradictory, something which you and everyone you know will understand and talk about with such authority that it could only have been the real truth all along, waiting there to be discovered finally by everyone all at once; or take the fact that every other TV show or movie or book has to do with the police or criminals or both, or take the fact that you do not ever show up for work dressed as a priest, or even the fact that no one—and I mean no one—living in the seventh century ever had a Freudian dream; or that only an idiot or a lunatic or an artist would burn a hundred dollar bill, or that cancer is a superstition, or that privacy has always been a myth, or the fact that this is not a story, not even literature at all, but an encrypted message, perhaps even a test, like one of those canaries they used to send into the mines if a wall collapsed or a mainline broke, or some other kind of accident or catastrophe occurred; or the fact that this has somehow slipped through some crack, some fissure in the system, through the wall, found some secret passageway through the labyrinth of screens, the invisible web of safeguards, fail-safes, the grid, the tapestry of trip wires, the menagerie of guards, censors, checkers, police, unconscious monitors, somnambulants, friends, authorities, experts, professionals, teachers, soldiers, servants, collaborators, accomplices, bystanders, onlookers, spectators, witnesses.


© 2002 C. J. Hopkins

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