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Some Reflections on the Abstruse Campaign

N.M. Whitley


Massey’s appointment as team leader was, in all frankness, unexpected. Sure, we liked Massey all right. He was an effective agent, sharp-minded and nice-smelling under the arms, hygienic in every way. Some, though, were skeptical in that compared to his predecessors, Massey was young. Massey was the future and, like the future, he frightened us.

Perhaps for this reason he kicked off his first Special Meeting with what we assume were meant as reassuring words. 

“Gosh, I don’t know about you, ladies and gentlemen, but sometimes I just get this feeling, you know? Like we spend our lives, our entire lives, working in pursuit of we-know-not-what result. We’ve all felt that, right?”

He left a pause, one of those significant pauses meant for the audience to nod and say “Hmm”, which we were all fairly prone to and probably would have done anyway.

Not Boddey. Boddey was our seniormost team member, the bone and spirit of our unit. “We-know-not-what result,” he said, frowning, his chair canted back on two legs.

Boddey was fresh off a short leave, taken for unspecified personal reasons. He’d returned looking somewhat paunchier, but still squarely orthodox in hygiene. Everyone was cutting the veteran commensurate amounts of slack. Massey ignored the outburst.

“What we do know,” he continued, “what we can be sure of, is that even the slightest deviation in a target’s mood can win the day. A change in their orientation vis a vis the world. Does it not occur to you that we might elicit a more favorable response with a softer timbre of voice, as it were? Not the bellowing generalissimo but the cooing voice of a mother, a lover? What say you, ladies and gents?”

We discussed the notion at some length. Again, Boddey was the sole objector.

“Sounds like ‘Tolerant Route’ all over again if you ask me. Didn’t we try this once upon a time and rule it out?”

Massey grinned and shut his portfolio with a conclusive slap.

“Rule out nothing,” he said.


‘Tolerant Route’ had been the codename for our first major project in the Abstruse campaign. The idea, Boddey’s brainchild, ran as follows: instead of outright banning Abstruse thought in the newly annexed territory, we would allow their objectionable philosophy to survive. The privileges of full citizenship, however, would only be made available to those who renounced the old ways and avowed the new, the Civic Faith. Within a generation, we reasoned, the Faith would accrue prestige among the target public, and over time the Abstruse way of life would devolve into superstition and neglect. Large swearing-in ceremonies were planned, of which Boddey acted as point man, but ultimately fate and budget concerns conspired in such a way that only a handful actually came to pass, much to Boddey’s great and apparently ongoing chagrin.

Results in the short term were negligible, and the Higher-Ups soon lost patience. To speed matters along, we were ordered to intensify our messaging not amongst the Abstruse themselves but with the home audience. Day and night our mimeographs pumped out pamphlets. The Abstruse, we claimed, were:

  • instigators of civil commotion
  • lunatics
  • degenerate beasts clothed in human flesh, etc.

Regrettably, the results of the ‘Beast Men’ operation did not limit themselves to the target segment: a boxful of pamphlets was intercepted, their contents relayed to the enemy audience in the former Abstruse Territory. The belligerent wording of the texts had the unfortunate consequence of stiffening enemy resolve, which rose as high as 4,6 on the Dankersley Resolve Scale.

Then one of us (Dooley, perhaps) had an idea: What if we were to completely recast Abstruse identity by means of some catchy moniker, something ludicrous and one-dimensional? What if we reduced their so-called philosophy to a mere color? Various options were brainstormed, their virtues debated—Ecru, Magenta, Chartreuse, Periwinkle, Green—until “Fuchsia” emerged the winner via unanimous vote.

Like ‘Beast Men’ this project also backfired. Being “fuchsia” became a point of pride. Graffiti in pinkish shades of paint splashed up on the walls of every Abstruse neighborhood.

¡Your pamphlets, 

our toilet paper!

The full significance of this line of sloganeering was not immediately apparent. Later, we learned that, in much the same fashion we had labeled our enemies ‘Fuchsia’, the Abstruse had branded us with a new identity and moniker of our own.



So it was, after this string of disasters and the ensuing change in leadership, that the Higher-ups green-lit Massey’s ‘Cooing Voice’ project. Focus shifted from print to radio. Special operatives were hired to speak in the pleasantest possible tones. Daily, hourly, new programming went on air extolling the virtues of the Civic Faith.

Approximately one fortnight into the project, a cell of Abstruse agitators captured one of our transmitters near their largest population centers. The following day, a second transmitter fell. Soon both were broadcasting Abstruse propaganda. A meeting was held on the matter, to which Massey arrived several minutes tardy. His hair, as someone commented afterwards, was markedly untidy.

Halley from the Stats department brought her slide projector into the darkened conference room and showed us some graphs she’d prepared. First, a prediction of a point-and-a-half drop in enemy resolve. Then, on another slide, the reality: no impact whatsoever, a rock-steady 4,6 on the Dankersley Scale.

“What now?” we asked, looking to Massey at the head of the table with his elbows on his portfolio, chin on folded hands.

“Stay the course,” he said.

“Stay the course.” Boddey repeated this phrase under his breath but we still heard him, even as we nodded and tried, in the gravest of unisons, to say: “Hmm.”


Both transmitters were recaptured, though not without casualties, and ‘Cooing Voice’ was allowed to continue. But another parallel and complementary operation began which sought to besmirch the credentials of the Abtruse’s most prominent leader, who employed the alias ‘Mage Randy’. Initial intelligence being spotty, we had mistaken it as ‘Major Andy’ at first (hence, the operational codename). This ‘Randy’ fellow, we learned, was the scion of a wealthy peanut-processing family who in his impetuous youth had run off to join the circus as a stage magician (hence, the ridiculous sobriquet).

An undercover team was to infiltrate Abstruse cells in the most populous neighborhoods. Younger recruits were used, unruly but overall hygienic lads with demonstrable aptitudes for imagination and deviltry. Their job: to insinuate our messaging, at first via whispers in Abstruse meeting halls and later via bullhorns in the streets. The objective: provoke doubt in the Fuchsia ranks vis a vis leadership, drive wedges between enemy cliques, set them upon one another.  Randy was, they would claim, a(n):

  • nimrod
  • lamebrain
  • simpering ninny of a man
  • plutocrat’s son
  • “false ‘Struse”
  • outside manipulator not to be trusted
  • Ass-wipe, etc.

But like its predecessors, the ‘Major Andy’ operation proved fruitless. The target’s rating on the Toomey Charisma Scale did not fall but rise, all the way to 7,8.

Then, of course, came the infamous riots in Peanut Butter Park. Two of our undercover operatives were trampled to death, and another had both eyes gouged out and her intestines strewn up and down the square. The remaining operatives were listed as ‘Missing’ and home audience Resolve dipped to a five-year low on the Dankersley Scale. Boddey took another sudden, unexplained leave. Not a single meeting was called for two whole days, and the conference rooms sat empty and forlorn.

When next we saw Boddey, his hair looked a shade grayer, his body language injured and woebegone. First thing that morning, he switched on his radio set and fiddle with the knobs a brief while. Without even powering down the apparatus, he lifted it over his head, dashed it to pieces on the floor, and went lumbering toward the exit, all without a word.

“What’s with him?” someone asked (Dooley, perhaps).

“Poor man lost his son.”

“In the riots?”

“Nope. Gone Fuchsia.”

“Hmm,” we said, nodding.

Boddey’s son Jack had been an operative on ‘Major Andy’—the elder Boddey’s idea, hoping enlistment would curb the boy’s delinquent inclinations. It seemed Jack and company had met with overwhelming success in their infiltration of the Fuchsia structure—so much so that a few of the gang had got their heads mixed up and done the unthinkable: they’d converted.

By mid-morning, the younger Boddey’s status was updated from ‘Missing’ to ‘Wanted’.

The next day Massey called a meeting to which he himself arrived eleven minutes tardy. He walked in utterly disheveled, wearing what were clearly the same slacks as the day before. He had not shaved, and he smelled of vinegar.

“What do we really know about the Abstruse?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and gazing into a corner of the ceiling. “Johnny?”

No one called Boddey by his given name, but it did not seem to register. Hunched over knees-to-forearms in his chair, he spoke.

“We know that the Abstruse are cunning and cruel, for instance. We know their literature is nonsense, their cuisine inedible. We know they despise hygiene and monogamy and the Civic Faith and representational painting, all in roughly equal measure.”

Massey pulled his lips in over his teeth and twiddled his thumbs, still staring at the ceiling as if he’d just noticed something hidden there.

“What are their thoughts on sculpture?” he asked.

No one knew, and the meeting was adjourned.


Later that week, Massey summoned us to the office parking lot for another Special Meeting.

He awaited us by the open door of a long green bus, still wearing those same rumpled slacks. The bus idled like a snoring behemoth, exhaust rich with the smell of peanut-diesel. Massey gestured for us to hop aboard, and we all obliged, as we are prone to do. We left the office complex and rode in silence for half an hour. Damp, open heath rolled past the windows like layers of dense cloud until we stopped, unannounced, on a lonely stretch of road without sign or landmark.

Massey got off and we followed. We walked up a slight ridge at the top of which we caught sight of a structure resembling a circus tent a short way down the other side. A knot of people could be seen huddled next to it, smoking. Quickly, Massey started downward. 

“I can’t believe I didn’t hit upon it earlier,” he said, walking out ahead and talking over his shoulder, breath ghostly in the chill air. “Statuary!”

“Statuary?” we asked.

By then Massey was too busy to respond. He was shaking hands and know-towing to the people outside the tent, all visibly anti-hygienic. They wore extravagant spectacles with colored lenses, clownish footwear, plaids that clashed with stripes.

“These are my artistes,” Massey said.

“‘Artistes’,” Boddey said.

Massey ignored him. “An idea suggested itself,” he said. “May we show them?”

A woman in a black-and-white-striped overcoat flicked away her cigarette and unzipped the flap. Inside, partially hidden by wooden scaffolding, was an enormous black hunk of what looked to be onyx or obsidian. There was an intimation of movement, of struggle, within the stone. Feet and half-carved legs.

We nodded at the half-formed creation and said, “Hmm,” whilst Boddey stepped forward, then back, squinting upward.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he asked, as if stung.

With that, the artists cackled and stooped to gather their implements and resumed their clanging work upon the black shape. Massey regarded them with something like longing, like envy. 

“If the enemy will not listen to reason,” he said, “perhaps they will listen to unreason. We will speak to the Abstruse on their own terms. We will meet them halfway. We will meet them on the thin and moving edge of nightmare.”

The project went forward. ‘Moving Edge’, they called it. Once completed, the black monument was delivered to the main center of Abstruse population by a convoy of teamsters, planted near their gates under cover of night and unveiled without fanfare. A semi-abstract embodiment of strife, human forms tangled into painful-looking poses, here polished mirror-smooth, there the ragged contours of raw mineral fracture. A towering monstrosity. 

The next morning the monument was covered head to toe in fuchsia paint.

A detachment was sent to scrub off the paint as best they could, using bar after bar of caustic peanut soap. This cycle went on twice more—vandals coated the monument in fuchsia paint, our team scrubbed it off, and so on—until the thing’s surface was covered in stubborn patches like crusted lesions, a weeping slough of fuchsia.

More vandalic acts followed, even after the offending color was banned from paint stores throughout the former Abstruse Territory. Each night the monument was found covered in:

  • obscene language
  • crude mockeries of our faith’s emblem
  • a layer of dew with a suspicious grape aroma
  • phalluses, etc.

Results of ‘Moving Edge’ were not long in coming, though they did not seem to be the expected or desired. As Halley from Stats explained in her briefing a week later, these included:

  • increased ‘lassitude and lethargy’ in the work camps
  • a sudden fad among the children of chasing hoops with sticks
  • babies born covered in coarse brown hair, etc.

Reports came in of crowds assembling around the monument. Intelligence presence on the ground was much reduced after Peanut Butter Park but we did obtain photographic evidence, albeit fuzzy and incomplete, of Mage Randy’s presence there. He hid behind dark sunglasses and a formless robe studded with stars and comets and ringed planets. Transcripts were muddled, however, and the nature of this reunion remained unclear. Was this a political rally, we were left to wonder, or rather some sort of ritual? We could reach no consensus, no matter how many meetings we held.


News of Mage Randy’s capture at a routine checkpoint was received with great surprise, given what had hitherto been our track record. “About time we caught a lucky break,” someone said, relieved (Dooley, perhaps). Others voiced suspicions that it was some sort of ploy, that surely he’d wanted to be caught.

Jack Boddey had been apprehended at the same checkpoint. The elder Boddey requested a face-to-face with both men. Permission was granted.

We gathered in silence. Nothing moved inside the conference room. Boddey sat staring, sweating through his shirt. At various points in the room, microphones perched in attitudes of expectation like carrion birds. The rest of us stood along the perimeter with photographic cameras at the ready. Presiding the table was Massey, slouching, face unshaven, wearing the same filthy pair of slacks.

Our guests arrived twenty minutes tardy. The guards ushered in Mage Randy, and we got our first good look at him. In the dossier photos, he’d been a blur. A phantom. Now he stood before us in highwater khakis, purple scarf, sunglasses. His formless starry robe, we now saw, was in fact a dirty, oversized navy peacoat, its heavenly bodies stuck on via shoddy appliqué. It reeked of underarms.

Mage Randy peeked over his sunglasses and snapped his fingers.

“Swingin’, daddy-o,” he said.

Right behind him, slinking and surly, came young Jack. Similarly attired, sans stars and moons. They sat one chair apart, opposite Boddey.

“How could you do this,” Boddey said.

“We were driven to it,” Jack said. 

“You know what this is? This is absolutely disgraceful, is what it is,” Boddey said, sputtering. “And take those damn glasses off. Honestly, after all I’ve done for you.”

Massey sat up and cleared his throat. “Let’s not stoop to the personal. That’s not what we’re here for.”

“So, like, what are we here for?” Mage Randy said. “I mean, at least when the war was on, it was pretty clear what all the shooting was about?”

“You shut your trap,” Boddey said. “We’ll win this war like we won the last one. We will defeat you.”

“But that’s just it. There ain’t no ‘us’ to defeat. We are You to You just as You are You to Us. The enemy in plain sight.”

With that Mage Randy pooched his lips out and began bobbing his head in satisfaction, as if jamming to some silent music. Boddey looked to Massey, palms up and out, desperate, perplexed. Massey winked at him and swiveled his chair to face Mage Randy with a dastardly grin. 

“Oh, that’s good,” he said. “Care to elaborate?”

Mage Randy snapped his fingers again, still pooching out his lips and bobbing his head. “Yeah. Like, there’s some seriously deep pneumopsychological paradoxes that are making the realization of long-range goals on your side and ours pretty much un-fucking-feasible, man. Seriously. Your guys’s conclusions would still be all wrong even if your premises were right. Which—let’s face it—they’re not, dig?”

From outside the building came a loud, unaccountable whine like a siren or a vast creaking of hinges. Boddey shouted over the noise in a fatherly, hectoring tone.

“Damn it, Jack, why couldn’t you all just accept it?”

“Accept what?”

“The damn Civic Faith.”

“And why couldn’t you just let us be Abstruse?”

“Actually, we tried that,” someone said (Dooley, perhaps), which was true, and many of the difficulties and tragic episodes leading up to this moment could have indeed been circumvented had we taken another course of action at another time, and in sad recognition of this fact we all nodded and in a loud chorus let out a long and sonorous “Hmm.”

Massey, meanwhile, whooped with laughter. His face was flushed red, in hysterics. The corners of his eyes clenched in excruciating glee at some dark joke he alone was privy to, as behind him, the windows convulsed and burst inward.

A giant black foot thrust into the room, sending empty chairs and microphones skittering. Another foot, massive and spotted with fuchsia ulcers, crashed in, wiggled its toes, and withdrew. Boddey grabbed Massey by his shirtsleeve.

“You fool,” he cried, “what have you done?”

Massey wiped away tears of laughter with the backs of his hands while his counterpart Mage Randy sat there, imperturbable, still so self-assured, beatific even. All this time his head had not stopped bobbing.

“I don’t even know anymore,” Massey said.

Another foot, and another, stamped straight through the ceiling, pounding Mage Randy and Massey flat.

The impacts atomized their bodily fluids like a spray bottle, squirting in all directions, drenching the rest of us in dark, sickening red. Like blood-soaked scarecrows we stood aghast as another foot smashed the table, pinning Boddey’s leg underneath it. He threw his head back to shriek in torment, and his son leapt up, mouth wide open as if mirroring his father’s pain, but we could hear neither man’s screams above the din of collapsing walls and pulverized glass.

The noise stopped after a short time and a film of dust settled everywhere, scabbing over the bloodshed. The feet were gone. We lay still a while. Then we rose, and looked about us, and wept. Through a broken, mutilated maw where the windows used to be, we could make out the huddled shapes of Johnny and Jack Boddey, each leaning on the other to limp across a lot full of flattened cars, getting smaller and smaller as they retreated in search of urgently needed medical attention or else some shelter, some higher ground from which to look back and survey the devastation.

Photos were taken, for use in possible future campaigns. The facilities were later rebuilt, a new team leader appointed. (Dooley, perhaps.) More meetings were called, but we did not attend. Over time we stopped talking about, stopped thinking about Mage Randy, about Massey and his monument. By then, of course, a monstrous new religion was stalking the earth, and both the Abstruse and the Civic Faith had fallen into disrepute and were forgotten.

⬡ ⬡ ⬡

NM Whitley is a writer, teacher, musician, and translator based in Barcelona. His work has appeared in venues such as Seize the Press, The Café Irreal, and Body Fluids, among others. For more, go to linktr.ee/nmwhitley.