Level 26: Dark Origins, Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski

Dutton, 2009, 406 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-525-95125-4

Some novels are unexplainable, but this isn’t one of them.  It doesn’t take much more than a look at Level 26: Dark Origins’ dust jacket to understand that this is a book about money, the corporatization of entertainment and a repellent vision of the future of prose fiction.  Pompously billed and trademarked as the world “first Digi-Novel™”, Dark Origins’ main narrative hook is entirely external to the story: This is a novel with multimedia extensions.  If you want the so-called “full experience”, you need to log onto a web site and sell your soul to the Penguin Group (or at least engrave your email address in their marketing databases) to watch video segments, email snippets and other assorted miscellanea.

(Actually, it’s even more pretentious than that.  Let me quote from the dust jacket: “Level 26 takes the best features of books, film and interactive digital technologies and roll them all into a raw, dark, and intense storytelling experience we’re calling the world’s first “digi-novel™.”)

This has the sole virtue of feeling new.  But not really; also published in 2009, Jordan Wiseman and J.C. Hutchins’ Personal Effects: Dark Arts also tried to expand the putative “boundaries of the novel” by providing a pouch full of fake credit cards, photos and other documents (some of them with web addresses and phone numbers set up expressly for the book) that meant to provide a supplement to the prose narrative.  Like Dark Origins, Dark Arts (what’s with the Dark fascination?) was billed as a collaboration between an experienced thriller novelist and a creator best known for other kinds of entertainment.  Anthony E. Zuiker created the CSI series; Jordan Wiseman led several Augmented-Reality Games.  It starts to reason that both books would attempt to extend a novel through a mixture of ARG tropes and short multimedia clips.

In both cases, I deliberately approached the novels as their own narratives, ignoring the included or web-accessible miscellanea.  Neither novel did particularly well when considered as just-novels.  Dark Arts was a run-of-the-mill supernatural thriller, with a few good scenes but not much in terms of narrative interest.  Dark Origins, on the other hand, is quite a bit worse… to the point where it’s easy to think that it wouldn’t have been worth publishing if it hadn’t been doped with multimedia supplement and a truckload of hype.  (In an article, Zuiker refers to Dark Origins as the “world’s first interactive crime novel”, which betrays an appalling comprehension of the word “interactive”: Passive consumption, even across multiple linked media, is not interactive.)

Level 26 is underwhelming starting from its very premise: A super-competent retired FBI profiler is brought back in service to track down a super-competent serial killer…  Yes, indeed, “visionary creator” Zuiker couldn’t be bothered to do better than yet another Thomas Harris rip-off as the basis of his “bold new creation”.  If you haven’t yet overdosed on quasi-supernatural serial killers and the tortured profilers who can’t stop tracking them, then Dark Origins may push you over the edge.  All of the usual components are there: The family suddenly threatened by the killer, the inexplicably rich and competent psycho, the elaborate games that the antagonist plays with the police… it’s all there, down to the reluctant ex-boss, regular doses of meaningless gory deaths, kidnapping of the hero’s love interest, final horrific confrontation, and so on.

But Dark Origins can’t leave a clichéd formula alone without adding its own special brand of stupid sauce.  Perhaps the worst is the titular “Level 26”, which presumes a scale of evil from 1 to 25 so finely graduated that we can just imagine FBI psychologists arguing the merits of a 17 rating versus a 16.  (To quote, once again, from the tedious dust jacket: “It is well-known among law enforcement personnel that murderers can be categorized as belonging to one of twenty-five levels of evil, from the naive opportunists starting out at level 1 to the organized, premeditated torture-murderers who inhabit level 25.”) But the “Level 26” nonsense also has to compete with a vision of the world so warped (even by the noir standards of serial killer glorifications) that it includes the presence of Homeland Security goons who follow the hero around with an explicit mandate to kill him if he stops tracking down the serial killer.  With allies like those, why bother having a serial killer?  Few will be surprised to find out that the killer’s formidable resources, available time and multiple competencies are never explained, since narrative coherence and logic were discounted in favour of video clips.  That’s how it goes in Digi-Novels™.

(More pettily, that serial killer is seriously referred to as “Sqweegel”, bringing about unfortunate associations with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.)

For readers who quite like prose narratives and resist the corporate push to commoditize novels like other bits of safe and predictable multimedia entertainment, the creative bankruptcy of Level 26: Dark Origins as a novel is a bit of a balm.  It doesn’t herald anything like the “book of the future” nonsense that had been bandied about by breathless press clippings –This isn’t much more than another curiosity whose interest will go extinct at about the same time the novel goes out of print and the web site is closed down by the publisher. (I’ve got an entire bookmark folder filled with online supplements that didn’t last five years.)

Attempts to reinvent the novel via trademarked multimedia gizmos are doomed to failure for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that it’s useless and expensive: the novel is not a broken form of entertainment, and attempts to shackle it to other audiovisual pieces that –significantly- take far more resources to produce than a-guy-typing-away are curiosities at best, shameless “intellectual properties”-building at worst.  I will note (with some schadenfreudian cackling) that adding a multimedia component to a book’s marketing campaign also increases the sell-through required to break even.  Dark Origins is billed as first novel in series: Given the results, I’m not seeing it going much beyond the contracted-for trilogy.  Unless the marketing database of email addresses ends up being more valuable than the royalties…

So what’s left to say, other than Level 26: Dark Origins is a dull piece of fiction that’s not worth your time as a narrative nor as a “digi-novel™”?  That the commercial intent of the project reeks of desperation?  That Zuiker should leave books alone?  That the business model is flawed from conception? Maybe all of those things, but mostly none of those things: It’s not a fearless prediction that this project will sink without a trace and leave the rest of the industry unaffected.  Meanwhile, go read another novel without multimedia add-ons, celebrity endorsements or unwarranted self-importance: it’ll last longer.

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