Mystery Story

Who wrote this amazing, mysterious book satirizing tech startup culture?

A mysterious little book called Iterating Grace is floating around San Francisco right now. At least a dozen people have received the book in the mail—or in my case, by secret hand-delivery to my house. (Which is a little creepy.)

The artifact itself consists of a 2,001-word story interspersed with hand-drawn recreations of tweets by venture capitalists and startup people like Chris Sacca, Paul Graham, Brad Feld, Sam Altman, and others.

The story’s lead character, Koons Crooks, goes on a spiritual quest by contemplating the social media feeds emanating from the startup world. It leads him to a Bolivian volcano and a chillingly hilarious final act with some cans of cat food, a DIY conference badge, and a pack of vicuñas (which are sort of like llamas).

“For him, the tossed-off musings and business maxims of these men (they were almost all men) shimmered with a certain numinous luster. He contemplated individual tweets for days, sometimes weeks, expounding on them at length in the margins of his books about the sea, meditating on them as though they were koans,” we read. “The answers he’d been searching for had been there, in the Bay Area’s innovation economy, all along—articulated, unwittingly, by an elite class of entrepreneurial high priests.”

No one knows who wrote the story or created the book. No one knows what the person who did it all wants. Most people I know who’ve received the book, who are all either journalists or authors, think it is some sort of dark-arts marketing scheme. They think Microsoft or Google or some startup is behind this whole production, and that the commercial purpose of this thing will soon be revealed to us.

And I can see why one might think that: this took an incredible amount of work and planning. Someone hand drew tweets. Someone got X number of copies of this thing typeset and printed and distributed. Someone found my home address and walked up to the door and slid two copies (one for me and one for my wife, the writer Sarah Rich) through the mail slot. Why do all this, if not for money? Who has the time?

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I first heard about it earlier this week as I was waiting in line at JFK Airport. I checked Twitter to find that Buzzfeed executive editor, Doree Shafrir, was asking me why I’d sent her some weird book called Iterating Grace.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but in the ensuing discussion, I came to find out that other people had received the book from “me,” too.

At first I was confused, then I was a little annoyed. Some marketing dude was using my good name to get people to look at some book? What’s that about? But then I started to see snippets of the book in photos people posted to Twitter.

And it is just brilliant.

Take this passage introducing Crooks.

Koons Crooks was an inexhaustible foot soldier of the first dot-com boom, working steadily as a programmer at a string of forgotten startups in the late nineties: Naka, InfoSmudge, BITKIT, Popcairn. He was tall and muscular, with a square jaw, olive complexion and thick, wavy hair just long enough to tie back in a ponytail—and yet, several friends told me, he still always managed to look distressingly unhealthy. He was, as on acquaintance put it, “fully post-meal,” inserting pieces of food into his mouth at regular intervals while he worked. A worker remembered Crooks moving through an entire bag of frozen shrimp gyoza in a single morning, raising and lowering his left hand hypnotically, and gumming each dumpling until it softened enough to be chewed and digested. Occasionally, he could be heard saying, very quietly, a single word: “Yum.”

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When I got back home, I tore through the whole story. It is funny and deeply unexpected, knowing in all the right ways. The authorial control throughout is spectacular: the revelations come at a perfect pace between sections and even within paragraphs. My friend, the novelist Robin Sloan, called it “a miracle of tone.” It’s just a perfect little skewering of the current moment.

To my mind, there is no way that this is a corporate stunt. The writing is just too good. It’s as interesting a piece of fiction as I’ve read in a long time, like Pynchon in his fun mode. But you don’t have to trust me: if you want, you can skip all my investigating and hypothesizing and skip down to the bottom of this post to read the whole thing.

But—hang on—if the project is not some corporate hackery, then who did make this book?

Stick with me here as I lay out my clues in this mystery, and maybe you can help me figure out who made this incredible little object.

(UPDATE: There’s also a part 2 to the mystery with more clues, if you want to open that in a tab for later reading.)

* * *

OK, this is what arrived at my door. A seemingly simple envelope.

envelope_undox

But you see that barcode? It looks like the encoding used by the Intelligent Mail Barcode system of the US Postal Service. But… it’s not. Sloan and I downloaded a simple app that can read these barcodes, just to see. While the app succeeded in deciphering the codes on other mail, they refused to read this one. It’s not a real barcode.

Also note: there’s no postmark. This thing didn’t come through the mail. Which is how I know someone had to come to my door.

So that’s clue #1: Somebody associated with this project must live close enough to Oakland, California to reach my house.

Clue #2: They were able to track down my home address. Maybe not the hardest thing in the world, but it would take a little doing. One intriguing thought: many book publishers have this information because they send advance copies of books to my house.

Here’s what was inside the package.

insidepackage

That’s a pressed flower with the caption, “Anemone,” a handwritten note, and the book itself. Because my wife also received a book, I know that not everyone who received the book got the first two items. Those were special for me.

I submit these two items collectively as Clue #4, though I have no idea what to make of them.

* * *

OK, so who else got these things? Maybe we can do some network analysis.

Based on Twitter and a few other communications, this is who I know got the book:

Alexis Madrigal
Sarah Rich, author
Nellie Bowles, tech journalist, contributing editor Re/code
Allison Arieff, SPUR editor
Doree Shafrir, Buzzfeed editor
Mat Honan, Buzzfeed editor
Mike Monteiro, designer
Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones editor
James Nestor, author
Jon Steinberg, San Francisco Magazine editor
Casey Newton, The Verge editor

Almost all media. Almost all San Francisco. Most covering technology.

Fascinatingly, both Bowles and Nestor are mentioned in the text.

Bowles:

For example, while reporting from a tech party in San Francisco in Feburary 2014, Re/code reporter Nellie Bowles noticed a man kneeling quietly next to a mechanical bull, stroking the fake animal’s flank with his eyes closed; when Bowles introduced herself, the man gave his name as “Koons” but he declined to be interviewed for her story. Bowles—who I reached out to—could not say for sure whether the man communing with the mechanical bull fit Crooks’ physical description.

Bowles’ appearance does make sense, as she’d done the best party coverage of the startup scene ever attempted. But Nestor? His most recent book is about freediving.

Beyond food and camping gear, Crooks had very few personal items with him in the yurt: one change of clothes, a solar-powered laptop and satellite wi-fi hotspot that he seems to have built himself, an iPod shuffle with exactly one song (“Even Flow”), a photograph of Vannevar Bush and a small, utterly inexplicable selection of hardback books: four volumes about deep-sea exploration (including one by a former roommate, James Nestor) and a copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables.

It just doesn’t make sense to include James Nestor. I, of course, immediately thought that the author had inserted his name into the piece as a cameo. I emailed him immediately with the accusation. And he wrote back, “Wha? Huh? I know nothing of said book, I swear. But now in curious. What does it say? What’s it about? Ah so many questions.”

So. Many. Questions. Indeed.

But I happen to know something else about Nestor: he’s a member of the The Grotto, a community of very, very accomplished writers in San Francisco. And almost everybody on the list above is very familiar with at least one member of the Grotto (in most of these cases, like my own, author Caroline Paul).

So this is hypothesis #1: the person who wrote this is somehow connected to The Grotto.

* * *

Are there any other clues in the text? Yes, there are. One, in particular, stands out to me. Crooks, when he’s found, is in the possession of a tattered fleece from a company called Pixelon. Now, you may think of this as a Penetrode or YoYoDyne kind of fictional corporate name. But it’s not! Pixelon was real, or at least real enough to be founded by an ex-con on the lam, who threw a $16 million party in Las Vegas shortly before leaving the company.

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This is not a company that gets talked about much nowadays. You’d have to have been around then to deliver such a perfect namecheck. And it leads me to hypothesis #2: the author was in San Francisco during the first dot-com bubble and burst.

Here’s another tack. If you list out all the place names mentioned in the text, too, there are some interesting anomalies: Florence, Houston, Uturuncu, San Francisco, Danville, Denver, Silicon Valley, Truckee.

To me, Danville is really the one that stands out. No one from San Francisco goes to Danville. No one from Oakland even goes to Danville. I don’t know if it means anything, but I’m obviously grasping at straws here.

The only other clue worth mentioning is that in the anonymous foreword — which itself is obviously fictional — the author claims to “teach poetry writing and live in San Francisco.” Take from that what you will.

Oh, and the author doesn’t use the Oxford comma. (DUN DUN DUN.)

That’s it, though. This is not an alternate-reality game with some kind of obvious way to play.

* * *

I should mention that on the back of the book, there is an email address. I’m not going to tell you what it is. But obviously I sent a message to the address, expressing my admiration for the project and desire to know/play more.

A reply came back relatively quickly: “Glad you like it! Please share with your network!”

I found this response deeply, deeply disappointing. Two exclamation points? No extension of the narrative? No desire to play along?

But maybe that’s the answer.

Below, you will find a complete digitization of the text of Iterating Grace, the mysterious little book. (I also made a PDF, if that’s easier to read for you.)

And I’ll promise this: if anyone can correctly identify the author of the book, I promise to send you a beautifully framed reproduction of one of the hand-drawn tweets from the book.

Iterating Grace

You don’t need to know my name. What’s important is that I recently got a phone call from a young man outside Florence named Luca Albanese. (That’s not his name either.) Luca and I hadn’t communicated in ten or eleven years; he had lived with my family in Houston as an exchange student during high school. On the phone, he told me he’d just finished veterinary school—a poignant swerve, it seemed, from his father’s expectation that he take over the family butcher shop—but it was immediately clear that he had no interest in small talk. He’d had an extraordinary experience, he said, and was in possession of “some unusual materials” that he thought I should see.

Luca and his brother had been trekking around South America and, while mountain biking on a Bolivian volcano called Uturuncu, discovered a dead body: an apparent hermit, laying outside a yurt. The scene and circumstances were peculiar—we’ll get to that—but what first struck them was that the man was clearly not a local. He was white, relatively young and completely naked, though there were some clothes folded neatly beside him: a pair of Neoprene cargo pants and a tattered fleece vest that said “Pixelon” on the left breast. There wasn’t much in the yurt, but Luca furtively gathered some books and papers before descending and alerting the authorities. His mediocre English kept him from deciphering what he’d found, and comprehending this man’s story fully, but he’d gleaned enough to decide that, because I teach poetry writing and live in San Francisco, I was—at least, in Luca’s mind—the obvious person to put on the case.

Luca’s package arrived a week later. Here is what I learned.

* * *

Koons Crooks was an inexhaustible foot soldier of the first dot-com boom, working steadily as a programmer at a string of forgotten startups in the late nineties: Naka, InfoSmudge, BITKIT, Popcairn. He was tall and muscular, with a square jaw, olive complexion and thick, wavy hair just long enough to tie back in a ponytail—and yet, several friends told me, he still always managed to look distressingly unhealthy. He was, as on acquaintance put it, “fully post-meal,” inserting pieces of food into his mouth at regular intervals while he worked. A worker remembered Crooks moving through an entire bag of frozen shrimp gyoza in a single morning, raising and lowering his left hand hypnotically, and gumming each dumpling until it softened enough to be chewed and digested. Occasionally, he could be heard saying, very quietly, a single word: “Yum.”

People called him “Pepper,” a nickname he carried from company to company until no one could remember exactly how it had originated. (One programmer told me: “I always thought it was, like: ‘This guy spices things up!'”) He had few real friends but was close with his Bernese mountain dog, Smoot, at whom he was known to shout commands in Unix.

When the bubble burst, Crooks left Smoot with an uncle in Danville and started driving around the west by himself, visiting national parks and Waffle Houses. It was a period of intense reflection. Graduallly, he seemed to work up a metaphysical perspective on the dot-com collapse. In an email to a former co-worker, he wrote:

“We were like an army of ants! Think [of] the way they build and carry. We were busy building and carrying. We were building and carrying nothingness. I was never happier.”

Another friend remembered Crooks calling in the middle of the night from a Waffle House near Denver, in early 2003, to share his ecstatic realization that, as he put it, the dot-com economy had been “one big mandala,” referring to the Buddhist tradition of creating art out of sand and then wiping the artwork away.

In Silicon Valley, so many people had collaborated to create so much, only to watch it crumble and wonder how real it had ever been. For a lot of tech workers, this only led to despondency and debt. But Crooks seemed to find the dot-com economy’s impermanence electrifying. Start-ups, he realized, were a kind of spiritual exercise. He wanted to live that experience again, but in its purest possible form. He wanted “to touch T H E E S S E N C E without gloves” as he put it in the summer of 2003, in an email to his uncle.

After that, he disappeared.

* * *

Crooks’ life in the Bolivian highlands remains mostly inscrutable. It’s unclear when he began living on the volcano, and how often he came and went.

He seems to have resurfaced periodically back in California, though these sightings are hard to confirm. For example, while reporting from a tech party in San Francisco in Feburary 2014, Re/code reporter Nellie Bowles noticed a man kneeling quietly next to a mechanical bull, stroking the fake animal’s flank with his eyes closed; when Bowles introduced herself, the man gave his name as “Koons” but he declined to be interviewed for her story. Bowles—who I reached out to—could not say for sure whether the man communing with the mechanical bull fit Crooks’ physical description.

Meanwhile, the venture investor Chris Sacca recalls a man named Koons approaching him on a ski slope in Truckee in either 2011 or 2012, asking for a meeting. The man had no skis on, or even boots. When Sacca asked for his contact information, as a way to politely wiggle out of the confrontation, the man pulled a tattered business card out of his wallet, used a Sharpie to cross out the name and details of the Palo Alto-based podiatrist on it, then paper-clipped a small, dried wildflower to the blank side, put the card in Sacca’s hand, and wandered off into the snow.

Beyond food and camping gear, Crooks had very few personal items with him in the yurt: one change of clothes, a solar-powered laptop and satellite wi-fi hotspot that he seems to have built himself, an iPod shuffle with exactly one song (“Even Flow”), a photograph of Vannevar Bush and a small, utterly inexplicable selection of hardback books: four volumes about deep-sea exploration (including one by a former roommate, James Nestor) and a copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables.

These books are what Luca recovered and sent me. They are astonishing artifacts: Crooks annotated their pages with unrelenting ferocity, filling virtually all the white space with emphatic philosophical treatises or disjointed bursts of observation; it was as though he were reading, and responding to, other books entirely. In fact, he had crossed out the titles on their covers and scrawled the same new one on each: “Iterating Grace.”

Other diary-like entries in the margins describe Crooks’ pared down, monastic lifestyle. He took walks. He foraged. He dried wildflowers and grasses. He collected interesting rocks, and numbered each one sequentially with a Sharpie. He devoted much of his time to contemplating ecology, which he called “the ultimate operating system.” And with increasing frequency, it seems, he checked Twitter.

Crooks’ family recently deleted his account, but he seems to have followed a long list of founders, venture capitalists and angel investors. He began to see, in their tweets, hints of some elusive, but irrefutable wisdom: a string of logic that underwrote the universe like code. For him, the tossed-off musings and business maxims of these men (they were almost all men) shimmered with a certain numinous luster. He contemplated individual tweets for days, sometimes weeks, expounding on them at length in the margins of his books about the sea, meditating on them as though they were koans. The answers he’d been searching for had been there, in the Bay Area’s innovation economy, all along—articulated, unwittingly, by an elite class of entrepreneurial high priest. Crooks could see that now, from his new vantage point, 5,300 miles away from Silicon Valley and 12,000 feet in the sky. “Angel investor = herald, messenger. Message = Hello, World!” he scrawled beneath an illustration of beets in Chez Panisse Vegetables.

Slowly, he began to write out the tweets himself in various, half-formed styles of improvised calligraphy. (He apparently became interested in the artform after reading that Steve Jobs was a practitioner.) For months, Koons Crooks transcribed tweets, alone on his volcano. He worked on large sheets of paper, then pinned the papers around the yurt, where Luca eventually discovered them. They are here with me now, as I write this: all these aphorisms, spread on the floor of my office—a patch of fertile ground from which one man’s spirit slowly sprouted and flowered.

Crooks himself never tweeted. He never retweeted. But he had developed his own, impassioned way of favoriting.

* * *

Maybe you’ve heard the gossip around the Valley and think you know how this story ends. But, I discovered, there are a lot of misconceptions about the llamas.

First of all, they weren’t technically llamas, but vicuñas: a gangly, small-headed camelid of the genus Vicugna. Vicuñas are reclusive by nature, but scattershot entries in the margins of Crooks’ books describe the animals becoming increasingly acclimated to him. I’ve since read that it’s not unheard of for wild animals, like mountain goats, to approach hikers and lick them; they’re attracted to the salt of their sweat, like a salt lick. Crooks’ relationship with the vicuñas started with a similar phenomenon, except that the animals were drawn in by the salt of his tears.

They were tears of joy, it seems: the longer Crooks was isolated, the more deeply, and eccentrically, his contemplation of the tweets became, and the closer he felt he was coming to a variety of enlightenment. He describes sitting outside his yurt for hours at a time, weeping—his soul swirling inside some kind of uncontrollable ecstasy. And when the vicuñas began to lick him, he writes, his weeping turned to laughter.

You may have heard that he was trampled by the llamas in a freakish accident. This, too, is inaccurate—and I say this based on Crooks’ writing before the event and also on photographs of the scene which Luca sent me and which, owing to their brutality and rawness, he now regrets taking. (Luca feels strongly that I mention he’s since pleaded with me to destroy the photos; I have refused.)

Yes, there were many deep, hoof-sized contusions on the head, face and chest; broken ribs and a fractured skull. And yes there were vast swarms of bites and abrasions—presumably from the animals’ wiry-haired muzzles. But there was no sign of any kind of struggle or resistance: in fact, Crooks’ body was positioned on its back, with its arms and legs out at perfect angles, like Da Vinci’s drawing of Vitruvian Man; he seemed to have simply undressed and lay down. Then, beyond that: the many open, empty cans; the traces of the cat food he’d apparently smeared all over himself.

People who knew Crooks are, of course, devastated. He seems to have acted from a place of supreme happiness and clarity, and yet his action has only caused sorrow and confusion for the people he left behind.

Happiness? Clarity? Are we sure this was his mindset? I think we can be. Because there is one other detail: a small, badge-like piece of paper, which Crooks had crudely laminated with plastic wrap, then tied around his neck with a lanyard, as though he’d just registered at his final conference. By the time Luca found him, vultures or other scavengers had taken one of Crooks’ eyes and most of an ear. Elsewhere, maggots were doing their work.

Luca reports that Crooks’ body had already started to decompose to such a degree that, in certain places, the boundary between it and the soil beneath it had blurred. Koons Crooks—“Pepper”—was becoming granular: converting into dust and earth and nutrients, just as he apparently intended. His broken mouth was still smiling, and on that little sign around his neck, he’d written:

THE SHARING ECONOMY 😉