Paper Jamming

January 6, 2022   •   By Matthew Kirschenbaum

LaserWriter II

Tamara Shopsin

PRINTER IS ONE of those words — like typewriter, word processor, and indeed computer — which originally named a vocation and has since come to name a thing. Since Gutenberg (in the West) a printer has been one who prints, presumably with the accompaniment of a press.

More recently, of course, a printer has also been an inanimate object, often as indispensable as the computer itself. Not only has the digital age not surmounted the need to impress words on paper, it has devised ever more exotic ways of achieving this end — heat sealing, ink spraying, and laser zapping them — the ultimate goal of which is WYSIWYG, What You See Is What You Get, the output on the page the mirror image of what is on the screen. We call this ubiquitous accessory not a “press” but a printer, embodying as it does the entirety of the labor contained within the job. There have been ample novels about computers and the internet, not to mention typewriters and even (a Stephen King short story) word processors. To the best of my knowledge, no one has previously written a complete work of fiction about a printer.

Illustrator and memoirist Tamara Shopsin’s first novel, LaserWriter II, takes the pricey, finicky, and ungainly behemoths that accompanied pre-millennial computing as its focal point: before Y2K, before the dot-com boom, and (not incidental to the novel’s Lower Manhattan setting) before 9/11. Its protagonist is 19-year-old Claire, who lands a job at Tekserve, a real business that was once a kind of vacuum cleaner repair shop crossed with an emergency veterinary clinic for the Apple owners of the five boroughs. Tekserve occupied multiple locations and storefronts on West 23rd Street in the course of its run. Like WeirdStuff in the Bay Area, it was one of those vibrantly strange, offbeat, offline places that defined computing as a subculture before Genius Bars arrived to gentrify the user experience. (Tekserve finally closed shop in 2016.) It was a hub for bike messengers and artists and outsiders, as well as normies who just needed a new motherboard. The founders and owners, David Lerner and Dick Demenus, outfitted the space with a 10-cent coke machine stocked only with real cane sugar cola; hipsters and squares alike waited in rows of wooden theater seats for their service number to appear on the screen of a Mac strung overhead like a disco ball.

At Tekserve, Claire quickly graduates from “intake” — doing data entry for each new customer who arrives cradling an ailing machine — to printer repair technician, specializing in that essential peripheral. The LaserWriter II of the title was introduced by Apple in 1988; it weighed 45 pounds and retailed for somewhere north of $6,000, so it wasn’t something one just threw away when it broke. Like many of the most distinctive features of the Macintosh — the mouse, the graphical user interface, the rasterized display — laser printers originated at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s. No less than GUI and mouse, laser printers transformed the home computer industry and arguably even saved Apple from bankruptcy through what became known as desktop publishing. Here’s how one works: a laser beam is directed over an electrostatically charged cylinder to draw an image on its surface. The “image” in question might be a literal image, letters forming words, or any combination thereof; the process doesn’t discriminate. Negatively charged toner (ink in powdered form) is then applied to the cylinder, adhering to the positively charged areas of image. Last, the image is transferred to a sheet of paper, where the toner is melted to seal it in place, the reason our pages emerge warm from the printer’s middle. Clear enough for camera-ready copy, the quality was orders of magnitude better than anything previously on the market.

Making Claire a printer tech is clearly a willful choice. One could imagine more suspenseful scenarios — data recovery, for instance, which is obliquely described in the book as a “dark art.” But that would have been a different kind of story, hard-boiled and noir, even a touch of the supernatural. Data “reco” is the domain of Anthony at Tekserve, sketched only as “the dude in the hoodie that rode a skateboard to work from Rego Park.” As written, Shopsin’s is an episodic and less determined plot, bearing some resemblance to romance (Quixote, not Harlequin). Even the eponymous LaserWriter II is but one printer out of many. For all of the satisfactions of a repair done right, there is always another intake, always another machine in need of Claire’s ministrations.

“She has found her calling,” Shopsin writes, inhabiting Claire’s sense of self. “A noble calling that helps people make poetry and do their taxes.” This is the magic of printers, and indeed computers: poetry or taxes or whatever lies between, it’s all the same to them. Yet there is perhaps also a touch of gender conformity in Claire’s assignment to the printer bench: if data recovery is for dudes on skateboards, typewriting and word processing were both prototypical pink-collar jobs. Computers largely put an end to the typewriting pool — soon a computer was on every office desk, and even bosses were doing their own typing, hunting and pecking at molded plastic keyboards. But whether copier, printer, or filing cabinet, paperwork remained women’s work. Still, Claire is no Gal Friday: she is better at her job than her fellow tech, Gary, who is gently steered away from top-of-the-line laser printers to the less challenging inkjets; she casually deflects unsolicited advances from a co-worker; and, eventually, she walks away from Tekserve altogether. “It is just time,” is all she tells her boss David (and us) of the decision.

Any book not a technical manual that revolves around the arcana of laser printers and the like presents its author with a very specific challenge: how to narrate the action without resorting to Tom Clancy–esque info dumps. Shopsin solves the problem by animating the printers’ internal components, endowing them with literal voice to engage in dialogue with one another as Claire does her thing. A little of this goes a long way, and Shopsin mostly handles it with a light touch. The segments are introduced without fanfare or remark, the speech of the hardware mingling with that of other characters in the text. Here is Claire vacuuming out some innards, years of dust inside the printer’s case disappearing to reveal the newly cleansed parts:

“What is happening?” asks the hook.

“I don’t know, but it is beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like this,” replies the gear.

“Well, I have. All the damn time,” says the lower fan, who has been eavesdropping from below. The gear and hook look at each other and mouth the word ASSHOLE.

And later:

“Wow, you look ridiculously good. Your teeth are sparkling.”

“Well, you look as fantastic as I feel, almost reflective,” gear says, spinning like a child.

“I wish I was a mirror, so you could see yourself. Also, I’d like to have that sexy, wavy voice.”

[…]

“Let’s ride this wave immortal,” gear says, looking at hook, and the LaserWriter II begins to print, every part glistening and performing in perfect harmony.

¤

That the internal components of an Apple printer are holding down actual conversations with one another might suggest Shopsin has been steeping herself in the work of speculative realists like Graham Harman and Ian Bogost. Perhaps this is so, but I wonder if there isn’t a more prosaic explanation, one that originates in the richly textured habitus of her own West Village upbringing — an environment no less replete with enchanting objects than the New Mexico desert that inspired alien phenomenology.

Shopsin is the daughter of now-deceased restaurateur and profane raconteur Kenny Shopsin, whose legendary Lower West Side eatery, since relocated, still bears his name. In I Like Killing Flies, the 2004 documentary on the Store (as it was known), Kenny Shopsin is seen opening in the morning. He is alone in the kitchen where he prepares the 900-odd menu items, improbable combinations of pancakes and peanut butter and mac and cheese. Kenny is big. The kitchen, tiny like a ship’s galley, is not. To function, everything must be sited just so, with this rack of utensils balanced on that peg screwed into the drywall, that tub of pre-prepped food under this one but canted this way and not the other way. It’s a precarious but precise harmonium, each item unique in a fragile, slippery ecology. “Do the wrong thing,” Kenny tells the camera, “and you’ll be punished.” The place will punish you: a burn, a spill, a hot fucking mess in the middle of the lunch rush.

This is where Tamara Shopsin was raised, the front of the house as laden with mementos and memorabilia as the kitchen was with foodstuffs and cookware and crockery. Her younger self appears throughout in the film: daughter, cook, and able verbal sparring partner. With its devoted customer base, idiosyncratic decor, and mysterious rituals, Shopsin’s seems a lot like Tekserve; moving from the interior spaces of such eloquent, materially replete environments to the inner space of a LaserWriter requires only a modest shift in scale and perspective. The weirdness and everyday wonder are already there.

This is less a novel about celebrating technological innovation than it is about maintaining, both in the sense of one’s personal well-being (a lot of Tekserve’s employees, unemployable in any other setting, are maintaining in this sense), and the broader, unrecognized class of technological labor that is predicated on repair and maintenance. Nowadays, the right to repair has become a live issue. There is something subversive about cracking open an iPhone case, replacing a lithium-ion battery, mending a broken screen. There are dire warnings about voided warranties and service contracts. Yes, you can send the device away, hoping it returns (in days? weeks?) in some improved state. But really, of course, we’re not meant to repair. We’re meant to replace.

It wasn’t always so. LaserWriter II is a throwback to a time when your computer wasn’t constantly watching you or selling you or even, however indifferently, trying to kill you. Tech wasn’t inherently evil or so it seemed, and it was actually okay, even hip, to stan a Silicon Valley company. Icons instead of emoji embodied the range of affective relations the machine could conjure, enough for these diminutive yet somehow endearing boxes and lozenges that still reposed modestly on our desk as opposed to intimately in our pockets, machines that were not always on, not always online, that were sometimes even (incredibly) turned off altogether. The computer was not an alter ego, not a platform, not a metaverse; it wasn’t even particularly smart. It was a tool — an appliance — the word processor having that in common with the food processor. And like any appliance, it could be fixed.

As for Claire, Shopsin doesn’t give us much else. A couple of set pieces suggesting a rocky childhood, a vignette of soup kitchens and squats and punk music, the detail that she sneaks into philosophy classes up at Columbia with a phony student ID. She is drawn, we read, to collectives, to “the kind of anarchy that believed in small communities and held to the promise of a just society.” Tekserve is clearly presented as aspiring to such. But Claire is mostly a focalizer for the ensemble cast of the office space, her fellow employees rotating in and out of the view from her workbench. We also get the story of an industry in transition, the exile and return of Steve Jobs, and Apple’s embrace of the dark side. Late in the book, technicians from Cupertino descend on Tekserve, watching and listening and taking in everything; shortly thereafter Apple changes its pricing schemes and Tekserve is forced to shutter.

The prose is spare and sketchy (in the best sense of the word), just enough to fill in salient details. What You See Is What You Get, in other words. Shopsin only really cuts loose in the inanimate object sequences, where, through the looking glass, hook and gear, mirror, sprocket, and fan casually quote Sontag and Nietzsche — these are the bits where she’s jamming, we might say.

The book’s design is an extension of it subject, punctuated by pixelated clip art Shopsin produced herself alongside old-school Macintosh typography. Perhaps most distinctively, pages are not filled their full length with prose but instead frequently end part of the way down, leaving broad expanses of white space beneath the paragraphs. Turning the pages feels a bit like clicking a mouse, each leaf replacing the last like a screen refresh. Paradoxically, this is a book that will lose something of its material essence in ebook form.

LaserWriter II will likely be adored by readers of a certain age, the ones who enjoyed a visceral relationship to the buzzes and whirs that once emanated from their prehistoric home computing systems — reminders that laser printers and disk drives and modems were cyber cool, yes, but also still mechanical, actual machines with moving parts (unlike an iPhone). Eventually, such things pass beyond repair and just become junk, or curios for retro computing nerds and media archaeologists. But in the deep algorithms of the web, a kind of alchemy is possible. Google “laserwriter ii” now, and the first page of listings you’ll see is for the novel rather than the device. The vocation become object has become something else again: the old hardware, now useless landfill, has been reanimated as literature. The printer has become a text.

¤

Matthew Kirschenbaum is professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland. His books include Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016) and, most recently, Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).