Starting with its title, Brad Leithauser’s new novel has its reader over the proverbial barrel. “Hence” in the sense of “away” (“Hence, loathéd melancholy”) or in the sense of “from here forward” (“We’ll know for sure a week hence”) or in the sense of “for this reason” (“Hence I conclude that”)? But that’s only the beginning. Is the book funny or despondent? Probably both; full of funny incidents about despairing people. Does it end happily or sadly? Probably neither; it doesn’t end at all, so much as it stops. Is it a novel or what? Though it uses the word a couple of times, the book’s favorite expression for itself is “a meditation in voices.” It has some melodramatic action, but it pauses every so often and just, well, meditates. It’s written with verve; it’s unpredictable, even in retrospect. Athletic readers will find it fun.
The main action can be understood to take place in 1993, and the book to have been first published in 1997; the text before us is, however, a reprint dating from some unspecified time even further in the future. It claims to have been published by the Rearguard Press under the colophon “In the End was the word,” with a “new introduction” by one of the minor characters appearing (but not named) in the text. Both the narrator-who-isn’t-altogether-a-narrator and the hero-who-isn’t-in-any-way-a-hero of the main action are understood to be dead “now,” whenever that is. Some time in the years intervening between 1997 and republication, something major called “the Shift” is understood to have taken place; except that men caused it and that it had consequences for the global climate, we’re told nothing about it. Too well known to need explaining, one guesses.
Leithauser, in other words, is a quirky, elusive, tantalizing writer; that’s his game (he has written volumes of poetry), as it’s the game of a commentator to try to line things up. What follows is necessary, though almost always gross, oversimplification.
The major action of the book, in the sense of occupying most space and most of the reader’s attention, is a chess match, probably, like the World Series, for the best of seven games. It takes place at MIT between a computer named ANNDY and a young man named Timothy Briggs, junior chess champion of America. The match is sponsored by a corporate conglomerate named Congam; there is a relatively modest money prize. But the contest, which is televised, attracts wide public interest, not least because ANNDY accompanies play with a shower of preprogrammed wisecracks. (Readers whose familiarity with the game of chess has lapsed need not worry; there’s almost nothing in the book about the intricacies of strategy, the nuances of the endgame, etc.) Timothy Briggs, for his part, becomes a sort of folk hero, standing up for the human race against the world of coldly efficient machinery. A comparison with the legendary ballad hero John Henry …