“What if…” he paused for a moment to fully gather his notion, “what if we say Kurt Cobain killed himself but made it look like murder?”
There was some generous laughter round the table. The man chairing the meeting smiled and nodded:
“That’s a twist at least… go on.”
“I mean, there are a number of ambiguous and contested facts around the Death of Kurt Cobain, the heroin dosage, the fingerprints, by which I mean the lack of fingerprints, the letter, and eyewitness reports in the days beforehand. The difficulty is motive, but…” he shrugged, “when has that stopped anybody from working up a theory…? People love a mystery and once they invest in, it will do anything to defend it…”
Someone chipped in.
“There really is no question of motive then?”
“What I’m saying” he replied, “is that we’re dealing with articles of faith. Conspiracism is a belief system in the proper sense of the word. All belief systems are strengthened by mystery… God moves in mysterious ways. Kurt Cobain killed himself for mysterious reasons.”
“Unless” said the Interlocutor, “you understand that he was clinically depressed, severely addicted, socially isolated and encumbered with a crippling undiagnosed stomach ailment.”
There was more laughter round the table.
“Very true” he said, “but that doesn’t answer the central question as to why he chose to move from the finitely certain into the infinitely unknown? Cobain was a multi-millionaire and a popular cultural icon. He was a man with no small power, certainly plenty of liberty. He was also a drug addict. Addicts are known to wield a special power over those they love and those who love them. People cling to life in much more straightened circumstances with much less freedom.”
“But why make your suicide look like murder?”
He thought about it for a few moments before eventually suggesting:
“Perhaps we should qualify what we said about freedom. Freedom is of course dialectically linked to servitude… Cobain was caught in a struggle. There are good reasons and there are real reasons why anyone does anything. Most bands say they split up due to ‘creative differences’ but most bands actually split up because of money. Kurt Cobain wanted success but he also wanted to deny that he wanted success. He was caught in a struggle over his fortune and against his own bad faith. The act of suicide was very Cobain-esque, for want of a better adjective. It was passive-aggressive, killing two birds with one shot. The act of creating deliberate doubt about the cause of his death was just a further twist. He couldn’t extricate himself from his marriage or his other contracts, record company, management etc, not without great financial cost and not without defying his own well-defined personality; he was powerfully passive-aggressive. However he could taint his wealth with his own blood and the stigma of murder.”
There were impressed nods around the table. They weren’t laughing now.
“And, decades later, what has become of the Cobain fortune?”
The Man Chairing the Meeting said:
“That’s impressive if not quite coherent.”
“Thank you” he said in reply.
“Do you believe your theory?” asked the Man Chairing the Meeting.
“Of course not” he said, “this is the Department of Misinformation. This is what we do.”
Everyone was satisfied.
Of course the one thing nobody questioned was why you would need to put out misinformed theories of Kurt Cobain’s death. There were two reasons, as mentioned before, there was a good reason and a real reason.
The good reason was in any hierarchical society it’s good to have crime or, at least, the impression of crime. That’s why there are so many laws. For a proper relationship between the state and civil society it must be impossible for the citizen/subject to go about their daily lives without committing crime. In turn it must be impossible for all criminals to be prosecuted. This means at all times any person a committing crime may be prosecuted. This creates a panoptical effect in the citizen/subjects but also allows for leeway, for concentrated force to be applied against the non-compliant.
In other circumstances the music industry would be outlawed as a gangster racket. Its practices and customs leave it prone to money laundering, fraud, sexual exploitation and drug abuse. It was always good to keep it under suspicion. So long as any criminal activity was catalogued it would mean that if at any moment participants in the industry became problematic or non-compliant the state would be able to move against them with swift authority.
But the real reason for spreading rumours about the death of Kurt Cobain was the Department of Misinformation was out of control. No one knew for sure when the department was created or by whom, that was part of the overriding mission. Its guiding mission was control in the age of mass participation. Total Secrecy is impossible but Total Openness is out of the question. In these circumstances Total Manipulation is the only option left. The truth has to be hidden in trivia. These days, what with the internet, there was just so much “output” to stay on top of.  You never know when a theory might come in handy, hence these brainstorming sessions.
Tom Nielson was very proud of his job. There was an art to what he did. It wasn’t just throwing muck and seeing what stuck. He was an expert. In ten years on the job he had created a number of lies and legends and shaggy dog stories still percolating in the popular consciousness. He was the one who identified Twitter as the modern chain-letter. He was the one who persuaded senior officers to take out third party copyright on the Slender Man.  He had come to the Met Police’s rescue so many times he was practically above the law.
Tom was a Conspiracy Copywriter.
Of all the people working for the secret state Tom was one of the few agents who could talk freely about his work. No one really believed him:
“OK, so that’s your cover story?”
“Of course it is” he’d say.
Even if they took him seriously Tom’s work was wrapped in such a fog of plausible deniability, if anyone went for him or the department he worked for (and there was one journalist), it’s not like he didn’t have the means to bury them, sometimes literally. Most times of most days Tom and his fellow agents would develop, track and tabulate the success of their memes. They’d report at least once a week to their line manager in a general meeting, which also served as a brainstorming session.
He was proud of his job. His memes were consistently in the seventy-fifth percentile both for reproduction and mutation. It was always so satisfying to see something he had written being reproduced, elaborated on, poured over or even rubbished. Too many agents took their theories/anecdotes/reports too seriously he thought. They always tried to make them watertight and logically indestructible. If someone was talking time out, say, to destroy a fictitious account of a police shooting that discredited the victim it meant they took the account seriously. This would only give credibility to the original account. Someone would believe it regardless of the truth because it would come from a trusted source. Tom really could shape reality sitting at his desk.
Tom’s professional life left him at some remove from humanity. He was well-paid though so it didn’t quite matter. Tom lived in a luxury Thames-side penthouse, Imperial Wharf. He liked art and film and music and… that sort of stuff, though he had very little time for either, what with the work and all.
He vented some of his alienation on the Department psychiatrist in weekly one hour sessions where Tom would talk and the psychiatrist would mostly nod and say things like “uh-huh”, “I understand” and “that’s interesting, please continue.” The psychiatrist was a dupe who believed everything Tom said and Tom usually spooled out a tissue of whoppers about his past, his feelings, his childhood etc, even more outlandish than his professionally turned out stories. He wouldn’t even stop if he contradicted himself.
As for a relationships Tom didn’t have any. No friends really, though he dated quite frequently but the women he met seemed to live such little lives. They were so sheepish and trusting, not to mention easy to impress. They were ‘outlets’ at best (though Tom used a much cruder description). Sometimes his encounters rebounded on him angrily. He wondered occasionally if he might not be better off just using the women then killing them. Once or twice through then dump them in the river. He’d probably get away with it too. Tom didn’t dare tell his psychiatrist this though. Despite his caution, little known to Tom, she still had him pegged as a delusional megalomaniac, a likely psychopath and drug user.
After the meeting Tom’s Line Manager, who had been chairing, sidled up to him and said, “Tom, let’s, uh, one to one for a moment.”
“OK” said Tom, slightly wary.
“It’s alright” said the Line Manager. “Just a few things I’m… curious about… But” he hastened to add, “don’t worry it’s, it’s alright.”
They walked, together, through the office, to the main stairwell. Tom relaxed as the Line Manager chatted with him, just small talk.
“How’s life treating you, Tom?”
Tom told him he was trying to bring out his feminine side more. He told him all about his baking projects. He was learning how to make proper pastry. His ambition was to make a cherry pie, just like his Mum used to. Tom was keeping a diary-journal and, so far, it was going well. He was also learning how to swim. A little vulnerability often goes a long way.
The Line Manager listened to him, nodding occasionally and saying things like “uh-huh”, “I understand” and “that’s interesting, please continue.” As they talked he led Tom down, down and down to the basement level. “This way” said the Line Manager, “let’s go somewhere… private” he said. He ushered Tom into a quiet, windowless room with a single desk and two chairs.
Tom was nervous again. “Is everything OK?”
“Fine, fine” said the Line Manager. “Please sit.” They both sat. “No, I, um…” The Line Manager took the chair facing the door. It was then that Tom noticed the Line Manager had a small portfolio with him. He opened it up, took a moment and found a page. He said:
“You’ve been with the Department for… ten years now.”
“Are you sure everything’s OK? There’s nothing wrong with my work, is there?”
“You wouldn’t be here” said the Line Manager, “ten years later if you weren’t up to the job.” He flipped through some pages. “Let’s see, you’ve worked on both sides of the process, misinformation and counter-misinformation. Good work on reviving the Fanta Legend I see, hmm… interesting… from before when I managed this unit.” The Line Manager looked up at Tom, fixing his gaze with a smile.
“Thank you” said Tom, who slowly began relaxing again.
“Ten years” said the Line Manager. “In fact, I think you’re the most experienced copywriter we have now.”
That was true, though it had never occurred to Tom before.
The Line Manager perused the documents again before adding “and you work hard too, putting in a lot of overtime.”
“You could” the Line Manager looked up from the file and addressed Tom directly again, “you could almost say you were psychotically devoted to your job, eh Tom?”
“Fanatically devoted” said the Line Manager with haste and emphasis. He didn’t blink, smile or break eye contact. There was a long pause before he asked: “Where do you get your ideas, Tom?”
Tom took a second to think then decided to ignore what just happened and plough on. He said: “I just take a whole load of lies and wrap an element of the truth around them” said Tom. “It’s standard procedure” he added.
“Well yes” said Tom, on edge again, “all part of making it realistic, standard procedure… Like… There has to besome element of truth, you know? Cobain was shot, I mean he did shoot himself, you know…? His brain didn’t just explode from the inside.” Tom laughed uncomfortably. But the Line Manager just looked at him. “He was…” Tom wasn’t sure how to correct himself. “He did shoot himself, right?” asked Tom.
“Of course he did, Tom” said the Line Manager, who smiled again. “But that’s just the point, Tom. I ask you again, where do you get your stories from?”
“I make them up” said Tom.
“The hundred-year light bulb?” wondered the Line Manager, “the Thames whale, Mandela’s ventilator, the Chelyabinsk incident, the Sochi toothpaste scandal…? Come on, Tom!”
“What are you talking about?” asked Tom, now frightened. He tried to turn and stand out of his chair, escape, but felt two large hands press down on his shoulders.
“There’s more than just an ‘element of truth’ to these stories, isn’t there, Tom?” said the Line Manager, his smile turning nasty. “I ask you again…”
Tom felt a sharp sensation on his neck.
“Where’d you get your stories from…?”
A wave of horror flowed through his body.
“How do you know these things, Tom?”
His body went quickly limp. Tom fell to the floor. Things began to darken. He glanced up. The Line Manager was standing over him.
“We’re keeping you in, Tom, I’m sorry.”
Darkness was closing. The Line Manager’s face disappeared.
“You’ll be working late every night from now on.”
Fade to black.
- It was a strong, departmental buzzword.
- If only he could have persuaded them to start building a portfolio of real/fake sightings. The Slender Man would have been so useful during the London Riots.
Adam Marks is a trade unionist and father of one. He lives and works in London.