There's something special about datacenter dirt. It's unlike other dirt, really. A datacenter, for those not familiar, is a place where lots of computer servers live. Typically, they are vast, climate-controlled rooms with row after row of cabinets, each of which is filled with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computer servers and routers. The temperature is 68° to 75°F, and humidity levels of 45-55%. It is loud. To loud to talk on a cell phone without shouting. The floors are raised up 2-3 feet. There are air conditioning units the size of a large SUV, pumping cold air in through vents in the floor tiles. My day job takes me to these on occasion, particularly a few in northern Virginia. I spent Monday and Tuesday in one this week.
These are clean rooms. Not hermetically sealed like a biotech lab, but clean. The air is processed to the point of sterility. Still, there is dust, and it's a fine layer of grime that gets into everything as the air is pushed and pulled through each cabinet and each server. The dust is so fine that you don't notice it, until you realize that your hands have gone black with it. And then, in the hotel room, trying to get to sleep, you feel just a bit itchy. You check for little black specks in the sheets. No. No bed bugs. Eventually, you sleep.
Your dreams are fitful and erratic. Too much caffeine, too late into the night. You hope that that's it.
In the morning, you get up, shower. You pick up your cast-off clothes. They look clean enough, except for the coffee-stain ring on the right thigh where you rested the coffee cup between sips, not realizing some had spilled. But they feel grimy in a way you don't remember from the night before. Like they've been worn every day for a week. Grimy on a cellular level. The idea of having that against your skin is repulsive.
But at least it looks clean.
I recently read several stories that got me thinking about this: the first person, past tense narrative. It's a great way of getting deep into the head of a character, even an unreliable narrator character. A great way to make events feel real and immediate. This shit really went down, I was there.
My problem is when the narrator dies at the end. Or is otherwise rendered incapable of telling the story. And that's a thing that kicks my brain out of the narrative, and into a suspension of the suspension of disbelief needed to pull off a story.
She turned me into a newt!
I... I got better.
There are notable exceptions, of course. American Beauty comes to mind. But then, the narrator is a ghost, which is what makes the whole thing work. But for me, if there are no hints as to how the narrator can be telling me now how s/he/it died then, then for me, an otherwise great story will ultimately fail.
First person, present tense doesn't suffer the same issues, because that's a narrative that implies a window into the narrator's internal monologue - listening in to the story that they tell themselves as it occurs. The tentacles tighten until I can't breathe. I can't feel my legs. A mouth opens in the darkness, opens into infinity, and I'm drawn into that gaping maw. It's full of stars. The end. That works. Make it past tense, and it doesn't.
For me, at least.