William S. Burroughs often suggested that one’s dreams are a valuable
target for the writer to plunder. But what he never said, nor made
explicit, was how the dreams of others might provide a writer with
direction and material. And yet it happened to him: the dream of a
literary character, as it occurs inside a novel of the past, appears to
have given Burroughs a massive treasure cache.
Tim May died last month. We hadn’t spoken in at least a lifetime, but he was a daily voice on my screen at a certain time back in the 90s, in the day when the cypherpunks list was not only required reading but a required place to be — a time when at least a few of us at Wired held serious to the idea of Marshall McLuhan as the magazine’s “patron saint.” Those were the days when the net came to me through the full-screen pine mailer inside a Linux shell, at the speed of an ISDN line — one that was normally reserved for businesses, but that I’d talked AT&T into installing in my home.
I might’ve emailed him only once or twice in the years since 9/11, but I often wondered what he thought of this new age, with the acceleration of the net and its parallel degeneration of civility, society, culture. He figured all of this long ago and didn’t want any part of it. He was so private you still can’t see his house on Google. There isn’t an image anywhere. You can’t even see his street — just the base of it at the bottom of a hill, well before it curves off to where his driveway eventually begins.
Our only collaboration was a cypherpunks-era microzine, “timmay,” that I coded in plain TeX, compiling some of the most outlandish and grotesque anti-May insults that were interjected anonymously into our cypherpunks convos. Back then, if you were writing anything new and outside the mainstream, you did it in a zine. I think copies might’ve been given out at a con — and, of course, mail order. That’s how things got out in those days. And “timmay” was perfectly outré, so he appreciated it.
There’s probably only a dozen copies in existence, although I still have the files. It’s just a handful of small pages, a microzine, and none of the facts in it are real — but fiction is like that. No writers — as in makers of stories, fiction, narrative prose — hung out in these places or understood it or were part of it, but the net was my material. The world was changing and the new online world was as real as anything. The thought was that “timmay” would be a weird little post-postmodern art panegyric to his ideas of liberty and free speech.
As it turns out, it was quickly forgotten — tucked away in time with all my other post-college junk. Everything moved on. Until now. And looking at it, right after reading his obit, I see that it became exactly what I thought it would, almost as if I’d felt this moment coming twenty years before: it’s just a set of cold, old symbols on the page, with all the remote and final feeling of a eulogy.
Suicide is tricky. For the individual, it promises an absolute end to a certain kind of temporal pain, sure — but then, just as quickly, it transfers that pain onto others. And according to its algebra, the multipliers can be huge.
I spoke with William S. Burroughs a few times in the final years of his life. I miss him, and recently I was shocked but happy to hear his voice again — it was coming out of the pages of Dostoyevsky.