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, who died with his hammer in his hand trying to beat a mechanical spike-driver, is fomented by the venal, sensation-seeking press. Timmy Briggs tries to protest against this specious comparison, but is drowned out; how far the narrator, and beyond him the author, share this symbolic but claptrap definition of the situation is a knife-edge for the reader to balance on.
In the small world of the Boston competition, Timothy meets and is briefly infatuated with Vicky, who does public relations for Congam. She is a small-town girl herself, who has learned to speak the allusive, vaguely sex-impregnated lingo of corporate insiders; her job is to get as much publicity for Congam out of the match as can be had. But in the midst of the contest, when things are not going well for Timmy, he adjourns play and without a word vanishes to his home town of Victoria, Indiana, where he promptly becomes engaged to his high-school sweetheart, Linda Faccione. She is such a neutral, negative quantity that one is bound to suspect that Timmy had cold feet in the presence of the more alluring and sophisticated Vicky, whose name may have worked, by an obvious pun, on Timmy’s recollections of his childhood past. These are readerly speculations only; the text neither confirms nor denies them. What is clear is that the town of Victoria, Indiana (drab and uninteresting as it is, the very extension of Linda Faccione), holds a deep fascination for Timothy Briggs. Just possibly that fascination stems from the long-ago death of his twin brother, Tommy, in a playground accident. The idea is intimated, ever so delicately, but not followed up; the reader, once more, can make of it what he will.
In any event, Timmy, after fleeing abruptly to Indiana to pick up Linda, returns with her to the interrupted chess match. And in the story of that match, it is not altogether clear what happens. Timmy wins, but whether just a game or the entire match is indefinite; after he has won, we are told that somehow he lost—mysteriously, confusingly, unimportantly. Vicky drifts off into the Boston shadows. Garner, Timmy’s older brother, who serves openly as narrator for the first five chapters, until he bids the reader a ceremonious farewell—but who is understood to be the covert author of the other thirty as well—also wanders away. He has never taken much interest in the chess play anyway, doesn’t know the first thing about the game, and as remoteness is the chief quality emphasized by those who have contact with him, his fading out of the book is not a dramatic process.
Quite independent of the Timmy–ANNDY confrontation are two themes that an inquisitive reader will try to understand in connection with it. On the cover of a magazine seen by the other characters, exerting no direct influence on them, but repeatedly described, is the picture of a talented young Oriental musician. Raised on an isolated island in the Sea of Japan, he has apparently been kept by his grandfather in total ignorance of all music since Bach; and this artificial quarantine has had spectacular results. Already “now” (1993), he is recognized as an amazing talent; by 1997 he will be a genius, and in the later edition of the book his compositions have become classic. This clearly relates, if only parodically, to the “rearguard” theme of a book published by the Rearguard Press, and in a loose, indirect way reflects on the chess game being contested between man and machine at MIT. A radical uprooting from one’s own time seems to lead, in the case of Tatsumi at least, to wholeness, fulfillment, supreme creativity.
A similarly oblique theme is provided by the intrusion of a television evangelist, whom Timmy, his family, and his entourage watch with fascination. The Reverend Jack Rabbitt has the rather gory habit of slashing his own hands with a knife to emphasize the total demands he makes in the name of Christian faith. For the self-deceptive complacency of the establishment he has nothing but contempt; one must live Christianity to the last breath of one’s mouth, the last drop of one’s blood. And by way of emphasizing or illustrating that point, at the climax of one of his ranting, hysterical sermons, he cuts his own throat on camera. More startling even than the wild act in the studio is the reaction of Timmy Briggs, watching the television screen in his darkened hotel room: “Look at what they’ve done to him!”
The episode is a big red splotch in the middle of an ironic and often comic book; and to this reader it seemed to suggest real desperation in Leithauser’s view of the human condition as miniaturized in the MIT chess games. Both as it’s presented in the book and because of current opinions about computers, that struggle was not easy to take with complete seriousness; the champions aren’t awe-inspiring, the conditions and arrangements are amateurish, the entire “struggle” is basically a publicity stunt. Besides, the man-versus-machine theme has been made trivial by a thousand marketplace and workshop jokes, of which the simplest run along the well-worn lines of “we can always pull the plug.” And of course a suicidal religious fanatic, incoherent of speech and frantic of demeanor, isn’t the most impressive prophet to bring forward to articulate a denunciation of modern society.
Still, in the peripheries and backgrounds of Hence lurk some elements of parody and caricature that suggest a serious hostility to modern society. The “media” are shown as corrupt, intrusive, and vulgar; Jack, the Congam executive who arranges the contest, is crass and stupid. (And by the way, doesn’t “Congam” suggest con game, just as “Totaplex,” the hotel chain it controls, suggests a Mickey Mouse operation with the ability to warp space by making all places the same? One wouldn’t suspect every author of such trickery, but Leithauser, for all his honest American face on the dust jacket, is diabolically elusive, and has to be suspected of artful dodging, especially when he doesn’t give any sign of it.) Vicky, who perhaps retains some geniuineness of feeling—she loathes Congam and her job in it, and detests Jack—is, in fact, one of the desperate voiceless many who yearn for Something Else.
In the world of Hence, machines are by all odds more impressive (or should the expression be more inexorable?) than people. Erratic, emotional Timmy is crushed by implacable ANNDY; the event simply confirms what has happened to all members of the Briggs family, from the defeated, withdrawn father to the pathetic, ridiculous mother, to the lost children. Brother Garner, the most impressive of them intellectually, is gray and distant, a remote professor of law somewhere, whose interests and character are writ large in the titles of his books: The Contract to Contract, Legal Fictions and the Human Fiction. They are narrow, self-enfolding studies in definition, precise nonentities. Timmy’s intuitive scream when the Reverend Rabbitt cuts his throat—“Look at what they’ve done to him!“—translates poignantly into Look what they—all of them out there—are doing to me! So it isn’t wholly surprising when, toward the end of the book, the various Briggses disappear into the Massachusetts mist, when Jack the Congam executive wanders off with a plump young woman of no discernable personality, when the dramatis personae and the setting and the action and everything else simply dematerialize.
I think in chapter thirty-three—which I do not understand at all, though I can see it is beautifully written—the author is intimating the development of a new order of machine-consciousness that will render obsolete not only the characters who inhabit novels but people as we encounter them by walking out the front door.
“Hence I conclude”—that Hence is a funny book without many laughs in it, a comic action (sort of) set in a cold, callous community, enacted by thin, gray puppets, and leading, if at all, to the most dispiriting of conclusions. The book contains the equivalent of parallel bars, flying rings, and high trapezes for the acrobatic reader to work out on; but it ends with a dour image directly pertinent to the overmatched, demon-haunted Timmy. A donkey tumbles from a boat eight miles off the coast of Greece and paddles seven and three quarter miles back toward shore before sinking and drowning. I think the image implies (if spelling it out doesn’t make the idea too portentous) that man is out of his element, and has been ever since, many years ago—probably gradually but nonetheless inevitably—he took a wrong historical turn. If so, Leithauser has written indeed a “meditation in voices” rather than a novel—a dirge to be read in counterpoint with the (imaginary) seventeenth piano concerto of Tatsumi—which, despite the fact that creative anachronism is an impossibility, apparently manages to come off as delightful and untroubled.
Just in case anyone’s worried: contests of consciousness between men and machines can never be based on prestructured situations like chess games, where human intelligence, by laying out strict parameters, has already made the field of action relatively easy to program. The situations of life include too many random variables, presenting themselves under too many aspects, often trivial or accidental, for any program drawn up in advance to include them all. We can overload our machines far more easily than they can overload us. They are blind to an analogy or an allusion to which they have not been specifically attuned, an irony that hasn’t been explained to them, an intonation or a gesture they can’t recognize. When we ask them to distinguish an airbus from a fighter plane, or a flock of Canada geese from a flock of incoming ICBM’s, they aren’t very impressive. In short, they can’t and shouldn’t be expected to exercise common sense; the greatest danger they pose to us lies in our own folly whenever we ask more of them than we have equipped them to give.