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Iteration, AR

While Iteration, Arkansas, might not have been founded bearing such a strange sobriquet, if it ever had another it has been wholly supplanted by time and by circumstance.


Isolated, even by the standards of the rural Ozarks, one will not find mention of Iteration - a small and largely self-contained community of some one thousand and two hundred people - on official records, either in Arkansas or beyond. The oversight is deliberate (though the authority behind the decision has taken steps to conceal the degree of wilful consideration involved in this lacking) and eminently justifiable. A full and frank accounting of the lives of the residents of Iteration would only lead to questions of a sort whose answers, such as they are, demand a certain moral and philosophical flexibility that sits ill at odds with the bureaucracy of government; with the consequences for undue rigidity being potentially disastrous.

Where the idea of nominative determinism (never really a considered a meaningful theory so much as it was an interesting aside) has been resoundingly refuted, its converse - naming something by its functions or characteristics - has been a concern of onomastics since (somewhat ironically) before the field itself had a name. In most fields, iteration is a practical pursuit - a method of building on previous progress and achievements - but it is a pursuit with an assumed goal and endpoint. Out in the wilds of Arkansas though, Iteration is the apotheosis of its own name; a community whose people are subject to the constraints of a grand overarching narrative, a series of interlinked stories told over and over and over again.

The broad strokes of these stories go back to the earliest mentions of Iteration, but even though the names of the principle players in its history repeat themselves it would be easy to mistake the cyclic nature of events of the town as a natural consequence of mores entrenched in and enforced by strong traditions. A closer examination reveals not only consistency above and beyond the accounting of coincidence, but a consistency of inconsistencies; the imperfect seams which can unravel the artifice behind the entire town. The lives of children hew too closely to those that their parents lived before them, even as the parities make less and less outward sense, with habits and mannerisms exceeding what might generously be considered heritable.

If the stilted, staccato staging has a guiding hand, an authorial intent, then the caprice of discontent is its thankless muse; some people play one part their whole life - birth to death without ever leaving Iteration - but others cannot seem to be cast satisfactorily. What might seem like a dramatic experiment, repertory theatre as immersive performance art, is more like an endless series of overlapping games of musical chairs. The song plays and people move from the part that they have played into another - sometimes directly trading places with another person from Iteration but more commonly just taking up whatever new role and new life come to them - and then the cycle continues.

Although their lives cannot truly be said to be their own, rehashed reworkings of roles from which they might be replaced and recast at any moment, the people of Iteration appear outwardly normal in most ways. From the instant they take a place in a given plot they inhabit their part, immediately become intimately and perfectly familiar with every aspect of their life up to that point; just as though they had lived it themselves. Even the occasional outsiders who end up passing through Iteration are vulnerable; the pull of a simpler life can be alluring, but if they linger they become part of the town. They forget having known another life - all their hopes and heartaches - and comport themselves like anyone who had lived their whole lives there.

The only behaviour that speaks to the unique circumstances of the town is the dispassionate disinterest in any evidence that might upset a belief in the continuity denied by their malleable status quo and the recursive nature of their lived experiences. Perhaps what is most distressing for outsiders is the lack of affect, of defensiveness, when the people of Iteration are confronted with proof of how their world changes and shifts around them: One could show someone a picture of their spouse - a spouse whose role, whose character, is already being played by a different member of the community to the one they share a home with - and find that the most extreme reaction one could provoke is, essentially, a shrug.

Worse still, there is no sense of conspiracy, of a plot being disguised or a secret being covered up, and its absence can be truly maddening to those unused to such unsure footing. Objective truths may be broadly acknowledged to be little more than shifting sands, but we expect our subjective experiences to cleave somewhat to predictable narrative sensibilities. Most of the potential explanations for what is happening in Iteration are framed, to some extent, around creating an illusion of this. The idea of transmigration of souls, for instance, is used to argue that everyone in the town is in the throes of localised reincarnation; the dead reliving their histories in an attempt to inhabit a different version of the lives they have already led.

Others, ignoring or dismissing the sublimation of outsiders into Iteration’s narratives, argue that the whole place and everyone therein is some sort of spiritual echo, a ghost town. But where the admittedly unproven lore around ghosts and spirits usually sees them bound by unfinished business or violent or traumatic death, the lives in Iteration are no more or less dramatic than those that might be found in any other comparable community. There is also too much variation between one retelling of events and the next; the residents are aware of the world outside Iteration, of the passage of time and of cultural trends, but they absorb and adapt unknowingly around these inevitabilities. Anachronisms are allowed to develop into quaint foibles, but not to become so disruptive that they would call the story of the town into question.

It might be less disquieting if there were a more sinister intent at play, or if there were something that could be recognised and named as such. If Iteration had a great and terrible secret, and not a matter-of-fact sensibility around things that are clearly impossible, then it might at least fit with what we expect from the world. Instead the town is, at its core, mundane (as are the stories that it tells and retells), and this truth sits ill at ease with the fundamental fact that it should not exist at all. The community remains under sporadic surveillance - in case of the emergence of new evidence of whatever created or imposed the cyclical narrative - but until and unless such a time arrives, Iteration will remain deliberately off the map.


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