Artificial Adam

Cover of Ian McEwans' Machines Like Me showing the bust of an artificial looking man.

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Since I recently finished Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Klara and the Sun and found it disappointing, I figured why not jump right into Ian McEwan‘s Machines like Me, another literary novel about artificial people? McEwan’s effort received more mixed reviews than Ishiguro’s, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Charlie, drifting through life in his early thirties, has in interest in robots and AI. So when the first artificial people come up for sale, he blows his inheritance to buy one. He really wants to buy an Eve, but gets an Adam instead because there are no Eves available. Charlie wants to win over Miranda, his upstairs neighbor who is ten years younger than him, and figures he can do so by involving her in this project. She seems game, and they split the task of answering the questions that create Adam’s character. Charlie doesn’t know Miranda very well and has no idea how she has answered the questions, so it’s never clear which traits come from whom, or whether Adam is just developing these characteristics on his own–kind of like a child, which is part of the point.

McEwan is at his best when he creates insoluble problems for his characters, and you know there’s going to be trouble when the first thing Charlie notices is his how well-built and well-endowed Adam is. For anyone who’s read any science fiction or seen any movies (i.e., everyone), it’ll be no surprise that Adam doesn’t develop as Charlie would expect or wish, and the entanglements that ensue between the three main characters are deliciously twisted. For those of you who’ve never read an Ian McEwan book, if there’s a dark place to go, he will go there.

Miranda is also harboring a secret, which Adam hints at from the start, as he has instant access to the vast reservoir of information on the internet. This creates further moral quandaries, and the complications keep multiplying from there.

McEwan is playing with a lot of themes in this book. It takes place in an alternate 1980s, in which Alan Turing did not die in 1952 after being prosecuted for homosexual acts, but rather served his time and became a national hero as he spurred the development of artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of exposition about politics and historical events that doesn’t seem all that necessary, but it also serves to disorient you when events such as the Falklands War turn out very differently. Aside from a clumsy red herring at the end of the book, I didn’t mind it, and some was fun to imagine, like the Beatles getting back together and releasing another album. McEwan seems to be playing with the ideas of fatalism, destiny, and chance in creating this alternate history. The story is all being told, the narrator hints, from a remove of many years, but what has happened since the end of the narrative is never explained. Given its gloomy tone, we can guess that future iterations of AI were more destructive than this first wave proved to be. Perhaps it was always meant to turn out that way, no matter what we did.

The characters in the novel are vividly drawn, and Adam still haunts me. He was created to be an adult but never given a childhood, an idea that the book plays with in its parallels with Mark, a young boy Miranda wants to adopt.

McEwan often gets you thinking about ideas, but he can write a great yarn with subtle, unexpected twists–a character responding in a way you’d never anticipate, for instance–although sometimes I wish he would slow down to polish his novels more. This felt like it could have been a masterpiece on the level of Atonement, but it was just shy of the level of detail and thoughtfulness that would have brought it there. One thing I did appreciate was that amidst the bleakness there was genuine humor. The scene where Miranda introduces Charlie and Adam to her dad is priceless, and there’s a slapstick scene near the end that cleverly helps you swallow the bitterness of what’s taking place.

A disappointing work by a literary master

Cover of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, showing an illustration of a hand with a sun in it.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I was really looking forward to reading Klara and the Sun after all the accolades it’s gotten. I thought Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Remains of the Day was a masterpiece and was excited to read a thoughtful, emotional science-fiction novel from him. Instead, I found a competent but fairly cliched story that, to my surprise, wasn’t particularly insightful or even very involving.

The novel adopts common outsider tropes from children’s literature and adult works like Jerzy Kosiński‘s Being There. In this case, an “artificial friend” for 14-year old Josie doesn’t quite understand our world, thus providing a gateway to insights into humanity and our society. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t seem to have anything deeper to say beyond the cliched “people are bad” and “we’re destroying the world” themes that are so common in contemporary literature and popular culture these days. There is an interesting hint of a brilliantly dark plot possibility (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want a hint of a spoiler): Josie’s mom has a plan for Klara that would have made a much more interesting novel had Ishiguro put in the effort to play it out. Instead, the book veers into a facile, childish story of faith involving the sun.

In reading this, I was reminded me of The Giving Tree, a children’s book about another selfless entity that seems to really touch people but that I never appreciated. Perhaps if you liked that, you’ll find this touching and meaningful. I was left unsatisfied. Because of the constraints of telling the story from Klara’s point of view–a technique that I didn’t always find convincing–you never get a true sense of what anyone is thinking and feeling, except perhaps Josie’s mom. With all the time Klara spent with Josie, you’d think we’d have more insight into her thoughts and personality, but she seemed every bit as one-dimensional as Klara to me. Many in the story have secrets, and these are revealed in a carefully paced way calculated, as in a YA novel, to keep the story moving.

In the end, I wish this great writer had thought through the conflicts and contradictions of the world he was creating, dug deeper into the characters and played out all the implications rather than just falling into a simple, cliched story. Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which the movie Blade Runner was loosely based on, comes to mind as a book with similar themes that may not have been as well written, but was certainly more thoughtful and involving–and that was published more than 55 years ago.

A week of creepy wonders

Cover of Valerie and her week of wonders, with an illustration of a body in old-fashioned clothing without a head

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is an unsettling fairy tale, mixing the dark, creepy elements of Gothic novels like The Monk with dream-like surrealism. It was written by Czechoslovakian author Vítězslav Nezval in 1935, and is probably best known as the basis for the 1970 Czech New Wave film directed by Jaromil Jireš. I loved the dreamy, atmospheric film and so came to the novel to read the source material.

The tone of the film came right from the book. Valerie, at the onset of her first period at the age of 17, becomes involved in a heady mix of vampires, magic, and social mores that she barely understands. The bizarre, twisted story, where no one is as they seem, is an allegory for her awakening sexuality and the confusing world of adulthood. A stranger who professes his love for Valerie may or may not be her twin brother; an evil magician with a polecat’s face, who might be her father, is trying to steal her vitality; her grandmother is planning to sacrifice Valerie in a plot to restore her youth. There’s a secret crypt in the house, a burning at the stake, a pill that turns her into a pillar of smoke, and so on.

This all isn’t supposed to make sense so much as give you the feeling of alluring menace that the adult world holds for Valerie, and I think it succeeds on that level. It reminded me of Angela Carter‘s The Bloody Chamber and other adult tales, which she and Neil Jordan adapted into the wonderful film The Company of Wolves. To the modern sensibility, the mystery around menarche and sexuality seems quaint, and the suggestions of incest are uncomfortable. On the whole, though, if you keep in mind that this was written almost 90 years ago, this wildly imaginative novel is remarkable in many ways.

An unusual proposal

Book cover of Our Souls at Night shows the front of a house at night with the porch light on.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our Souls at Night begins with Addie Moore paying a visit to her neighbor Louis and making an unusual proposal to him. Both around 70 and widowed, they’ve lived their whole lives in Holt, a fictional small Colorado town, and know a lot of the same people, but were never very close with each other. Still, Addie thinks Louis is a decent guy and asks if he’d like to start sleeping with her, literally–not having sex, but staying together for the companionship. From there, this compact novel sketches their growing relationship and the reactions of those around them, both friends and family. When Addie’s grandson arrives to stay with her, they form a sort of sweet makeshift family along with the elderly woman who lives in the house between them. But of course, this can’t last forever.

Kent Haruf was a Colorado author who died in 2014, and Our Souls at Night was his last novel. It’s written in a sparse style, with little description and much explained through dialogue. As a result, it moves along fairly quickly but gives you little access to its characters’ internal lives beyond what they choose to tell each other. The interactions between Addie and her son near the end of the novel, for example, as he turns the screws on her relationship with Louis are a somewhat frustrating puzzle. His attitude struck me as very flat and sitcom-y, with Addie’s thoughts on raising such a selfish, narrow-minded person left unexplored. Louis’s thoughts about it are glossed over as well. It functions mostly as a plot device to throw an obstacle in the way of their relationship, but little more.

In the end, this was an enjoyable but somewhat slight read. The novel has little of the depth of say, Sinclair Lewis‘s best depictions of small-town life in America. This was the first book I’ve read by Haruf, and I suspect that if you’re already a fan of his, it has enough charm that you’ll love it. I’m curious to try Plainsong, his most popular novel. This may not be the best of his books to start with.

A ripping yarn from Dickens

Victorian drawing of the cluttered old curiosity shop.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to settle down with a novel by Charles Dickens every couple of years. I find his sprawling, fantastic tales a comfort, particularly when life is unsettled. His villains are awful, his heroes virtuous, and his complicated plots fun to unravel. You also get a vivid sense of life at another time, however cartoonish he can sometimes make it.

The Old Curiosity Shop has largely been forgotten now, but it was hugely popular when it was first published in Dickens’ weekly serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, from 1840 to 1841. The book begins with a first person narrator describing how he meets a lost girl, Nell Trent, as he walks the streets at night. He brings her back to the old curiosity shop in which she, an orphan, lives with her doting but daffy grandfather. For two more chapters, he learns more about this curious couple before abruptly saying, “And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.”

From here on, the novel is told in the third person, floating freely between different characters. The primary story concerns Nell and her grandfather’s flight from London through areas that vary from darkly industrial to pastoral. Christopher Nubbles (“Kit”), who is Nell’s loyal servant, has his own troubles back in London as he worries over Nell’s fate. Both their hardships are orchestrated by the maliciously evil Daniel Quip, who is a somewhat painful caricature to the modern eye. The most interesting character in the book is probably Dick Swiveller, a friend of Nell’s older brother, who undergoes a transformation over the course of the novel to become an unlikely hero.

Along the way, there are numerous minor characters, such as Quilp’s grovelling attorney and his hard-hearted sister, along with their servant, who plays a key role in unraveling their nefarious plans. Nell and her grandfather run into a diverse cast that includes industrial workers, puppeteers, professional gamblers, the owner of a wax museum, and a compassionate schoolmaster who tries to rescue them.

This is a fairly early Dickens book that lacks some of the depth of his later novels, but he interweaves the numerous story lines deftly and keeps the plots chugging along like a network of well-oiled trains. The underside of capitalism and industrialization are vividly exposed, as is the maltreatment of children in England at the time.

The novel tends to be a little too sentimental, even for my romantic tastes, with Nell and Kit laughably innocent and virtuous and Quilp stunningly malicious, to the extent that he regularly beats the figurehead of an old ship he’s salvaged with a poker because he thinks it looks like Kit. While I wouldn’t say this is one of Dicken’s best novels, it’s fast and easy to read and, ultimately, a fun and satisfying yarn.

A novel for our times

Cover of The Oppermans with an illustration of police holding back a crowd

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The Oppermans is a sprawling novel centered around a wealthy Jewish family, the Oppermans, in Germany during the rise of the National Socialist Party (aka the Nazis). Lion Feuchtwanger wrote this book in Germany between the spring and fall of 1933 and was, in large part, documenting what he saw and heard around him.

Although Feuchtwanger dips into other people’s lives in the Opperman’s circle, most of the novel concerns the family members, who together own a successful furniture empire in Germany and, for various reasons, become targets for National Socialist propaganda. Feuchtwanger’s depictions of the attitudes in Germany toward this rise of the “barbarians,” as many call them, is chilling. He shows both the frustration of the lower classes with the direction Germany has been taking that drives this movement and the laughter and derision that the upper classes have toward their “Leader,” with his ridiculous ideas and imperfect German.

The novel is gripping and terrifying as it races along, jumping from one person’s perspective to another. This was written well before Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” but it exposes how deeply cruel and inhumane things were in Germany long before that for Jewish people, those with mental illness, and others who were deemed inferior.

What’s maybe most chilling about this novel is that the social forces that powered this movement are very strong at this very moment throughout the world, and the attitudes of the various characters, particularly the wealthy class, still hold true. The Oppermans shines a light on the politics of 2023 as much as it does on that of Germany in 1933.

This new edition from Simon & Schuster, put together by Joshua Cohen, includes both the original ending and an alternate ending that was written by Feuchtwanger later at the prompting of his friends, who called the original ending “romantic,” “kitch,” and “false.” I agree, and much prefer the alternate ending. Cohen’s introduction and notes are also very helpful.

As a work of literature, I’m not sure the ultimate focus on the naive writer Gustav was really the best choice, but perhaps that was in part a self reflection for Feuchtwanger. Gustav becomes preoccupied with a phrase from the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinical teachings: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.” But Gustav’s recollection of this is somewhat different, “It is upon us to begin the work. It is not upon us to complete it.”

Gustav’s experiences as a result of his quest are painful on many levels. But for a novel of such weight and importance written in such a short time, it’s really hard to criticize this book. The Oppermans is highly recommended reading for our times.

A solitary life

Book cover of Hotel du Lac showing a woman walking along by a lake

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

In Hotel du Lac, Edith Hope has retreated from her life in London to a luxury hotel in Switzerland for reasons we aren’t told at first. A writer struggling with her new book, she spends her time observing the follies of the other guests and serving as an audience to the wealthy patrons there while slowly reassessing her own life and trying to decide her next steps.

I find Anita Brookner‘s wistful, introspective novels oddly comforting. In my review of Brookner’s Visitors, I mentioned that I saw that novel as a descendant of the thoughtful, observant work of Virginia Woolf. Here, Edith is told by more than one person that she looks like Virginia Woolf. As in that novel, Brookner deftly depicts the shifts in her character’s thinking as she comes to realizations about herself and the life she’s chosen, and questions whether she should radically change it.

Hotel du Lac is a novel about life choices, regret, and the passing of time. Each character is carefully tuned to resonate with the decisions the main character faces. Brookner is a master of depicting the subtle problems we face as we age, and this a graceful, insightful, and wonderful novel.

A work unfinished

Cover of Kafka Library edition of The Castle by Frank Kafka

The Castle by Franz Kafka

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I very much liked both The Metamorphosis and The Trial, both of which I read years ago. Franz Kafka sadly died of tuberculosis before The Castle was complete, and it reads very much like a first draft. While my edition and other sources cite Kafka’s explanation for how the book would end, that’s only one part of what it takes to complete a novel. This book is unfinished on numerous accounts.

The Castle concerns a man known only as K. who arrives in a remote village claiming to have been hired as a land surveyor, which may or may not be true. Stubborn and abrasive, K. is an unlikable protagonist, and it’s hard to feel for him and his ever more difficult predicament. It’s little wonder that the townspeople are, for the most part, completely turned off by his inane efforts to accomplish a goal that’s never defined.

Will and Edwin Muir, the translators for the edition I read, attempted to imbue the work with some religious meaning, hinting at a sort of parable about faith and the hope for salvation, but it came across to me more as a satire of an entrenched bureaucracy and the fool who inexplicably chooses to go head to head with it. Frieda, the barmaid whose heart he improbably wins for a time, urges K. to flee with her to make a life elsewhere, but he refuses, insisting on staying to fight the Castle for a reward that remains unclear.

The Castle does has a creative setup and interesting elements to it, but it frequently drifts without any seeming aim. Many of the conversations include circular, incoherent rambling and pointless arguments that go on for pages. It reads largely like a writer pouring out all his ideas with the intention of going back later to shape it. In the end, The Castle doesn’t come close to the other Kafka works I’ve read. If he hadn’t died at the young age of 40, he might have crafted a much finer, more focused novel, but as it is, The Castle is strictly for fans that want to see how he began to put together his brilliant work.

Poems to think over

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a challenging but very rewarding book of poems. Some poems, like “Aubade with Burning City,” about the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, are more straightforward and powerful. But this collection is best read slowly to give you time to think, reread, and digest the meaning of each poem before moving on. Each is rich, and I certainly didn’t fully understand all of them. I’d read Ocean Vuong‘s semi-autobiographical novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous recently, and it certainly helped me understand some of the allusions he was making. But with or without that background knowledge, these poems evoke strong feelings and emotions–of lost love, of cultural alienation, of a difficult family life. To borrow from “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” these poems pass through you like wind through a wind chime. Except Vuong is talking there about dead friends. It’s one of many sad and wonderful poems in this collection.