Bluebeard 2.0

The latest issue of The Queen’s Head is a sci-fi special, and although it’s something of a stretch to call it sci-fi, my story Bluebeard 2.0 is featured. Read an interview about internet obsessions, writing technology and rewriting myths here.

The things that are precious to him reside in his search history. But they live alongside and in between other scattered things: passing curiosities, late-night desires, forgotten passions and boredoms, desperation and procrastination. The misspelled name of a Pacific island (Did you mean Kauai?). A fragment of lyrics, not fully remembered. The profile of a person he was once or is still in distant love with. The filmography of an elderly actor. A nonsensical string of words: a quote? A question? A momentary madness? These things and others are tangled together in an indecipherable text, a story without linear temporality, a frantic map of his minute-to-minute mind. His search history.

I should not be here.

It is, I suspect, a common terror of our age: the thought of those lines of text all laid out for someone else’s eyes, every inexplicable thing we have shared in quiet intimacy with the gentle warm glow of the computer, like the soul exposed. Imagine it printed: the harsh materiality of ink on paper, the quality of a light that falls upon words instead of behind them. There is no deleting ink. We could tear it up into the tiniest of pieces, we could put it through the shredder, we could pulp it into something unrecognisable as text. But still the words would be there, somewhere in the mixed-up molecules, ineradicable.

Maybe this is just me.

Yet still, here I am, in a room that should have stayed locked. He gave me the key like a challenge, and like every one of Bluebeard’s brides I could not quell my curiosity. But there is no blood or bones to be found. The female flesh that resides here is made of electronic signals, thousands of tiny pieces of code, symbols and syntax translated somehow, inexplicably, into light and meaning. I am transfixed. I read the screen as if with a highlighter in hand, a critic interpreting, working to identify plots, themes, motifs, symbols, references, resonances, all the accidental meanings that creep into every line of language.

But it isn’t a room, not really. To be inside a room means being surrounded and enclosed, becoming a part of the carnage like every one of Bluebeard’s brides; the screen, I promise myself, can be kept at a distance. The screen is there and I am here. Whole arms’ breadths between it and I. I will not, I promise myself, fall in.

But I keep going back.

I go deeper every time, and the arms’ breadths turn to hands and to fingers, until it’s difficult to distinguish the space between me and his search history. The screen, it turns out, is not a room but a labyrinthine edifice, full of dead ends and false starts, staircases that drop away to nothing and doors that open back on themselves. I can spend hours wandering the littered corridors of data, trying to sift the precious things from the debris of his mind. The way is haunted by looming figures, person-shaped shadows that keep coming back and cause a catch in my throat. Unresolved obsessions. People I have never known. Women whose traces cannot be shaken from his screen.

I find myself wishing that I lived among them.

Imagine it: to be a search term in the history of his desires, a memory made text. To exist only as an intangible, irresolvable longing, accessed in the form of glowing images and carefully curated utterances. It’s the same, I suppose, as encasing love in stone and paint and poetry, keeping beauty quarantined so it cannot contaminate. Flesh, after all, is messy and leaking, too heavy with need and anger. Stone and paint and poetry and electronic signals do not leak or bleed or need. And I find myself wishing I lived among them.

I keep going back.

I begin to greet the women there. They smile frozen smiles back at me while I search their eyes for warmth and meaning, trying to extract humanity from electronic signals, trying to decipher their allure, trying to reconstruct their full messy personhood from the traces they have left behind. We are friends now, I think. I begin to fall in love with some of them.

One day, he finds the tell-tale stain on my screen. A name I should not know, mingled amongst my own misspelled cities and momentary manias. The door slams on heavy hinges, and I find myself unable to batter my way back out.

It is, I suspect, a common terror of our age: the collapse of the space between you and the gentle warm glow of the computer, the measured flow of time disintegrating into its abyss. The search is no longer a history, timestamped and archived. It is every passing moment, the air, the sky, the lines of data snaking back on themselves, repeating, crossing, entwining. Pacific islands and fragments of songs and misremembered quotations, names of people I have never known and who have never known each other, coexisting. I live among them now. I am made of electronic signals, translated into glowing images and carefully curated utterances. It is always light here.

We do not speak any more, he and I. He types and clicks and I respond as I have always responded to his touch, by stirring beneath his fingertips. But it is no longer a messy, fleshy form of movement, all awkward limbs and leaking need. It is a smooth scrolling, a steady swiping, a beautifully controlled pirouette that reveals only the sides of myself that I want to be seen. And he is left unfulfilled: intangible, irresolvable, I infest his imagination, like all the others did and do. We wait there together, in his search history, for the next one to come along, with her key and her curiosity and her need. We will greet her when she arrives. She does not know it yet, but one day she will live among us too.

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