Foreword to The Too-Brief Chronicle of Judah Lowe
The unusual form of this novel calls for some explanation. In 2012, Esquire Magazine ran a writing contest in honor of its 79th anniversary with the rule that each story submitted be exactly 79 words long. With a characteristic mixture of whimsy and audacity, Christopher Carter Sanderson was inspired by this challenge to write 79/79/’79, a novella set in the year 1979, with 79 titled chapters, each 79 words in length. If the editors at Esquire were nonplussed when this little epic was fired across their masthead, it did not matter; Sanderson serialized the work on Facebook.
At just this time, several writers of note happened to issue, on social media, dire-sounding pronouncements about the pernicious impact of social media on literature. Sanderson’s response was to demonstrate his faith in their creative possibilities by continuing the story he had begun in 79/79/’79 with @1000thenovel, a novel in 1000 tweets, broadcast on the Twitter account of the same name. The numerological play continued: not only is each of those tweets 140 characters long, but the novel itself has a cast of 140 characters.
The serialization of the story caught on, and the author carefully planned out the schedule of his forthcoming tweets, staging them in groups, considering how they would appear in the midst of his subscribers’ Twitter feeds. As @1000thenovel’s following grew, however, it became apparent that it was awkward for new readers, coming in in the middle, to go back and read from the beginning, as Twitter showed tweets only in reverse chronological order. The work cried out for being presented in a more readable form, joined with its prequel. That is the origin of the book you hold in your hands.
But while that origin story explains the circumstances that led to the author’s choice of these forms, it does not explain what potential he saw in them and what special use he made of them. For there is nothing arbitrary about the wedding here of formal constraint with subject matter; the spine-like construction of the book from self-contained fragments caught in a long arc is just what the story, and the adolescent experience of its protagonist, demands. There is something about even its visual structure, by virtue of it being made of so many small sections, that evokes a kind of childlike fantasy, greatly appealing to a reader who loves the sense of exploration and repletion that comes with lists and catalogues; such a book is like a playhouse with a thousand rooms, in each, a different life to be lived. And in this sense of a myriad possibilities and alternate futures, and of paths between them, we encounter the unity of the book’s form and its subject. For in this Bildungsroman, a boy in high school discovers the world, the soul of the Other, and himself, crystallized again and again in one manifestation after another. Each little story or tweet is a more or less separate universe with its own perfect balance and completeness; each experience is a more or less separate thing that includes its own, more or less necessary or automatic, response. Each window lets out onto a different chamber of the world, with infinite possibilities in every direction. And gradually, the protagonist gets the hang of something crucial – that creative choice exists not only within these tiny spheres of intense action and reaction, but in moving between them, in creating a life. From the multifariousness of experience, he discovers the singularity of human freedom, and launches forth into the unknown.
The protagonist, you will find, is not the Judah Lowe named in the title (which is also the title of a book written within the book, for the voice of the Twitter author @1000thenovel is a character too), but is one Moe (short, I like to fancy, for Monad). Judah is an overwhelming personal influence, a companion, inspiration, and leader, whose intense friendship, and subsequent withdrawal of it, act on Moe like the gravitational attraction of a sun on a rocket, that almost pulls it into its orbit and then flings it on a long mission. It is not for nothing that this secondary figure is named after the Rabbi who, it is said, created the Golem of Prague, and at a certain point ceased to be able to control him. Judah’s influence was decisive, but Moe invites many influences into his life and sensibility, and absorbs something from each of them. The refreshing plurality of his world is full of the love for all the intense, idiosyncratic manifestations of human life.
There are two other omnipresent but unnamed characters in this chronicle, hinted in all the titles and numerology: Time itself, its installments numbered, always too brief; and a time, 1979, 1980, or thereabouts, whose flesh and spirit are captured in concrete detail, with no false patina of nostalgia, but with the deep reverence of observant memory. Conceived together, as in this remarkable novel, the eternal and the transient may make us feel that as the past is radically specific, mortal, and lovable, so is the present and the future.
– Jacob Smullyan