“Matthew Burnside Crafts Stories from a Wiki”: Michael Maiello Investigates the novel Wiki of Infinite Sorrows

Wiki is an acronym for “What I Know Is,” and wikis have sprung up all over the internet, covering everything from the breadth of the encyclopedia to the universes occupied by science fiction, fantasy, and comic book narratives. Over decades, we’ve grown accustomed to using and trusting wikis and to accepting that stories crafted from many anonymous voices can be as real and authoritative as any book by a single author. Matthew Burnside’s Wiki of Infinite Sorrows borrows the form of a wiki and elevates it to artistry.

It’s a slim book that could be read quickly, but I was able to spend many months with it and found it rewarding to consume it in small bits over a long period of time (though still far faster than the one page a year pace suggested to the reader in the book’s “Primer”).

Burnside weaves several narratives throughout his book, mixing fictional and real characters to create a world recognizable yet alien. His cast includes a writer sending coded messages via black balloon (Burnside gamifies the text by giving the reader tools to decipher these notes), a family that has lost a son to a freak aneurysm, a seeker writing notes to a game player, and a man with a mechanical doppelganger. The narratives link and intertwine like the tales of the ghosts in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo or the monologues that comprise The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.

KERNPUNKT Press describes Wiki of Infinite Sorrows as a “sandbox novel,” a term borrowed from gaming where the player interacts with a highly detailed and sophisticated universe but without a game’s typical obligation to pursue some quest or goal. As with such games, Burnside offers us a choice—we can meander through the entries, taking each on its own merits and these stories all stand up on their own, or we can build our own quest for answers to the weighty questions of loss, loneliness, and happiness that beset Burnside’s characters.

Wiki of Infinite Sorrows opens after the death of young Reuben, who is struck down hours after football practice and uttering the strange phrase, “The particular sadness of a centaur is that it will never fully be a man or horse.” Reuben’s doctor believes this nonsense utterance is evidence of the cranial calamity about to end the boy’s life. Reuben’s father Max isn’t convinced. He believes his son had been asking for help, and that perhaps Max could have rendered some aid, if only he’d been clever enough to parse Reuben’s cryptic offering.

So we are in a situation much like Max’s. We must decide, on each page and with each phrase, if Burnside is trying to communicate something hidden or if the prose is to be taken at face value. Why, for example, is the book dedicated to Donald Crowhurst? This one had me rushing to the online Wikipedia where I learned that Crowhurst was an adventurer, entrepreneur, and sailor who drowned in the Atlantic Ocean while competing in a single-handed, round the world yacht race in 1969. Later in the book, Burnside gives us a choice of endings for Crowhurst’s life. In one ending, he dies. In the other, he wins the race. We’re invited to take the ending you need.

So it is with hidden messages in the real world—sometimes we need them and other times we don’t. Sometimes the weather portends our fortunes, sometimes it’s just raining. Burnside captures this kind of edgy feeling where we suspect the universe or at least other people are desperately trying to tell us something important but, at the same time, we also suspect that nothing is being communicated at all or at least not to us.

There’s a short passage in the book called “Emergency” that dramatizes this:

On the walk home from school Alex spies the beyond-blue phone booth and for some reason steps inside.

There he will wait patiently for a call that will never come.

There his eyes will dare to glaze momentarily, spiked with shiny blotches before recension, swallowed back reflexively to that place inside where all the bad things are buried, heaped upon a great pyre of silence and shame.

There he will dial 9-1-1 only to hang up, unable to articulate the specific nature of his emergency.

Alex knows something’s wrong, even knows he needs help, and even has the means to call for it, but has no idea what to say after he dials. It’s deliciously modern—we live in a world where we can reach virtually anybody, but we have no idea what to tell them when we do. This is also the dilemma of the storyteller and as the book winds to its conclusion, Burnside explores the act of creation through the eyes of Scheherazade, the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights, another classic that shares its structure with Burnside’s Wiki of Infinite Sorrows. He describes her not as a writer but as a capturer of stories and a preservationist. She seeks to weave all stories into one, permanent tale. In one attempt, she comes up only with “Everyone was Trying.” In Another, she comes up with a book called The Wiki of Infinite Joys.

I was unable to decipher the messages in the balloons, but I learned a lot about Daniel Crowhurst and the dangers and opportunities of sailing the world alone. I’ll probably return to the balloon puzzle later. I’m almost sure I will.

Wiki of Infinite Sorrows, by Matthew Burnside. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, July 2021. 168 pages. $18.99, paper.

Michael Maiello is an author, playwright, and humorist who has written for McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, Weekly Humorist, and Slackjaw, among other publications. His journalism has appeared in Forbes, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times.

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