by Hannah Smart

The premise for Matt Bucher’s debut novel-slash-intellectual-musing The Belan Deck is simple: the narrator, who works in some kind of tech job and is dissatisfied with it, is preparing a slideshow to present to his boss while waiting to fly home from San Francisco. In that time, we hear every thought that crosses his mind.

The book is primarily a patchwork of unindented facts, carefully chosen quotes (rendered without quotations and always followed by “Said {quote author}.”), and observations, structured as short paragraph entries, a blank space between each paragraph. Conventional paragraph transitions are rarely employed. The tone of the book is calm and declarative.

Walt Whitman would sit on a bench at the South Street Seaport and watch waves of people come and go, swaying masses of humanity, individual points of light on each. Said Matt Bucher on page 76 of The Belan Deck. This is the sort of sentence that makes you thankful English is structured and arranged the way it is—thankful for the language’s diversity of rhythms and sounds and emphases and the unique music they create.

David Markson is a clear influence on Bucher, and his name is invoked on page 70 (“We can’t all be Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Or David Markson.),” though, to be fair, so are the names of hundreds of other writers, celebrities, and thinkers.

While Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is narrated by the last woman on Earth, The Belan Deck’s narrator is possibly the last sane man in a faceless alien mass—a society that has completely lost sight of its goals, especially when it comes to the influence of technology on art.

Many of The Belan Deck’s entries are preoccupied with the limitations of AI. The novel is quite unsubtle in this way. Here are a few: “A computer cannot produce a sunset or a redwood” (56). “A list of street names does not describe a place” (58). “How do we create benevolent intelligent machines?” (74).

What is more subtle is the fact that, while many of the short paragraphs in this book parody the directness with which AI responds to prompts, only a human could have arranged them in such a particular way—a structure that gives rise to patterns, associations, and synecdoches. Which brings me to…

We learn early on that in Bucher’s slightly alternate universe, all things stand for other things. A couple examples: “Early life. Career. Death. Works. References. More than just data” (89).  “The computerized frustration of one’s inability to fully express one’s self” (91). “The deck has been in a state of constant revision for years. Maybe for twenty years” (105).

When attempting to capture what reading The Belan Deck is like, the first descriptor that comes to mind is active. Reading this book is work. It’s not hard or particularly grueling work, and it’s arguably very rewarding work, but it’s work nonetheless.

The second word that comes to mind is delightful. The book is short enough to be read in one sitting, which is significant because its delightfulness comes in large part from the reader making connections across pages and between paragraphs.

The book is also short enough that it can be easily reread. It rewards rereading in the same way that it rewards work.

Because Bucher invites Markson comparisons in both the book itself and on its jacket blurb, I feel it’s justified to discuss how it stacks up in that regard. It’s a beautifully updated rendering of Markson’s experimental vision of organized chaos. Those familiar with Wittgenstein’s Mistress will likely catch on quickly to the themes being suggested by The Belan Deck’s structure. To the un-Markson-initiated, it will likely not resemble any book you’ve read.

When trying to determine whether this book is good, it feels more apt to consider whether it’s successful because this is a book that clearly sets out to achieve something besides entertainment. At most points, it is not entertaining, and to be entertaining feels sort of beside the point.

Its most important achievement is in capturing a mood. While reading, you feel the way someone who thinks too much must feel all the time. You can hear tiredness in the narrator’s voice, as if coming up with facts and connections is rewarding but intellectual taxing (perhaps that’s another synecdoche). The voice never falters or breaks.

Another achievement of The Belan Deck is that it does exactly what it sets out to do on page 22, which is “move beyond something.” The thing that is being moved beyond is the desire for artificial contrivance of order. The Belan Deck’s magic lies in its mundane observations of natural order.

The book is occasionally infuriating, mainly because consecutive paragraphs often repeat the same format. They repeat the same words. On sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph level, the prose can feel clunky. But on a page-by-page level, it feels elegant.

The book is likely to establish itself as either an unexpected classic or an overlooked gem, mainly because of its beautiful parallelism. It creates mantras. If you’re looking for a novel you can easily digest and quickly forget about, this one might not do much for you. But if you are tired and true of heart, it will lodge itself in your mind and implore you to experience it again and again.