There are thicc books in this house

It’s here!!! My review piece on Cartarescu’s SOLENOID ran in the spring issue of Asymptote magazine!

This essay is the product of the whole publishing shebang: pitch, draft, editor’s notes, revision, proofreading, galley edits. It was such a pleasure.

But before I can take a victory lap, it’s on to the next review project—actually one of three—which is another modernist meganovel: this time Iberian rather than eastern European. It’s Miquel de Palol’s GARDEN OF SEVEN TWILIGHTS, newly translated from the Catalan by Adrian Nathan West. I’ve come to enjoy these large post war novels and their descendants more and more, surprisingly. They’re certainly not for everyone, and not just for the esoteric qualities. Indeed, I’ve come to think of these meganovels as somewhat akin to video games in that 1) they’re immersive and require a similar investment of time, and 2) they tend to have core loops rather than traditional narrative arcs. (I’m thinking in particular of the shifting between the daily drudgery of Bucharest to the otherworldly buildings in the Caratescu.)

SOLENOID and GARDEN make for an interesting foil of large books. Their translations came out six months apart, from Deep Vellum and Dalkey Archive, respectively, which have significant overlap as publishing houses at the moment. Both have ambitions to reflect on and in many ways summate the history of western literature—though the Cartarescu focuses on modern aesthetics and philosophy, while the Palol dives into the superclassics with its fundamentally Boccaccian conceit. Both dwell a great deal on surreal built environments. Structurally, they’re complex and non-linear while still offering the leisurely drift you want from great novels; SOLENOID is made of several notebooks stuffed with memories and reflections, while GARDEN cycles through a group of storytellers, with narratives nested into each other—at one point up to 8 levels of recursion!

At this time SOLENOID is done and dusted of course, and I’ve only just started on GARDEN, but I already sense that the books have very different thematic projects, despite their modernist commitments. SOLENOID is mystical, it has the same experience of getting lost in the colonnades of subjectivity. But so far GARDEN seems more grubby and materialist, embarking on a grand search for unity in spite of the chaos, while Cartarescu’s hero seems to resign himself to dispersal.

In short, it’s been a season of big, intellectual Literary reading.

Yours truly is excited, and in a moment of self-indulgence he says to himself: AI agents can’t do this yet! I put a lot of time and some effort into delivering rich and complex ideas in a clear and entertaining way—including prose with a decent rhythm and cadence. That kind of flow and shaping, seems to me, remains a human initiative.

I’ve been fooling around with AI-generated Natural Language Processors (NLPs) since 2020. Before ChatGPT and some smaller projects, there was AI Dungeon. While it was decent enough at producing a dungeon exploration gaming experience, it could in practice be used as a chat bot that would offer all sorts of goofball, hallucinatory opinions.

The blunt application of AI to creating commercial science fiction has only led to a glut of garbage. In the arts, AI still only seems to produce chimeras, weird collages of existing elements without a “human” understanding beneath them. My friends in the copywriting industry don’t get the hype; AI-generated content is still transparently inferior. AI excels at chess and other relatively abstract practices, as well as complex operations like flying a simulated fighter plane with perfect reaction times. AI can process cyclopean corpuses of data, but when it comes to real intellectual labor, it can’t really go beyond its internal statistics, vast as they are. What exactly does AI’s “thinking” correspond to? How does one go from ponderable matter—the back-and-forth of salt and potassium in our neurons to make electrical charges—to consciousness, thoughts, feelings, imagination? This is an age-old riddle of dialectics. ChatGPT is familiar with Marxism, as far as I’ve quizzed it, but it doesn’t know how to think like a Marxist. Truly good writing, not only mechanically good, but a meaningful, deep, and true reflection of reality, is always concrete. And for that reason I think human intellectual labor is still safe from the deskillage for the time being.

But perhaps the technology will improve in a couple months!

The other day I heard some striking defenses of using AI in higher education. It makes writing easier, it can proofread, it spares the drudgery of doing your own thinking and formulating. That’s right, writing IS drudgery. It’s intellectual labor.

Along with this rationalization of AI agents for writing is the victory lap taken by some about the supersession of the humanities, those “useless degrees” that only teach you how to write, which AI has so obviously (to these people) displaced. The only impression I get from these corners is 1) they don’t know what serious writing or reading is, and 2) they never took the life of the mind seriously.

At a time when AI content’s mediocrity is still glaringly apparent to the professionals—in copywriting and elsewhere—and many are caught in the disclosure that so many people really don’t know what it takes to write and express yourself well, and have lost contact with the accumulated knowledge of human societies (in part because bourgeois academia took a mystical turn at the 20th century, and now resembles a stomach digesting itself), I am supposing—really just hoping—that those of us who bothered to master these things that AI was supposed to shortcut, will have some scarcity value. Few people around me know how to do the things I do in the particular way I do ‘em!

And now, some brief AI fiction prompted by the blogger in ChatGPT:

Buzz Lightyear stood at the bathroom mirror, his eyes wide and frenzied. He had ingested a most peculiar substance, known as “bath salts”, and the effects were beginning to take hold. Woody the Sheriff, his trusted companion, was nowhere to be found. Buzz could hear the faint echoes of a strange melody drifting down the hall, and knew that Woody must have found something equally strange to indulge in.

Buzz stumbled out of the bathroom, his movements unsteady and uncoordinated. He made his way down the corridor, his senses awash with a riot of colors and sounds. As he reached the end of the hall, he saw Woody swaying back and forth, his eyes half-closed, a small vial of ketamine clutched tightly in his hand.

“Come on, Buzz,” Woody said, beckoning to his friend. “Let’s explore the universe.”

And so, high on their respective drugs, Buzz and Woody boarded their spaceship and set a course for the unknown. As they traveled through the cosmos, they encountered strange creatures and visited alien worlds. But none were as eerie as the planet they stumbled upon by accident.

The planet was shrouded in mist, and the air was thick with the stench of decay. As they descended to the surface, Buzz and Woody saw that the planet was populated by the undead. Zombies roamed the desolate landscape, their eyes empty and their flesh rotting.

But as they explored the planet, they found something even more unsettling. A group of cultists, dressed in black robes and chanting in a language that Buzz and Woody could not understand. They were attempting to summon a demon named Loab, a creature of unspeakable evil.

Buzz and Woody, caught up in their drug-induced haze, decided to join the cultists in their ritual. They danced and chanted, their bodies moving in time with the rhythm of the words. And as they danced, the ground beneath them began to shake.

A rift opened up in the earth, and a figure emerged. It was Loab, the demon they had summoned. Its eyes glowed with a sickly green light, and its mouth twisted into a grin.

“You have summoned me,” Loab said, its voice a deep rumble. “And now, you shall be my servants.”

Buzz and Woody were terrified, but before they could react, the cultists all collapsed, their bodies turning to dust. Loab turned its attention to Buzz and Woody, but before it could strike, something strange happened.

A nearby building began to morph and twist, its walls pulsing like a living thing. And from the midst of the chaos emerged Bo Peep, Buzz’s long-lost love. She had been transformed into a being of immense power, capable of bending reality to her will.

With a wave of her hand, Bo Peep banished Loab back to its own realm. And with another gesture, she restored Buzz and Woody to their senses. They found themselves back on their ship, their adventure over.

As they looked at each other, Buzz and Woody knew that they had experienced something extraordinary. And they knew that they would never forget the strange planet, the undead, and the demon they had summoned. But most of all, they would never forget Bo Peep, and the incredible power she had wielded.

And another:

Tony was a timid boy, with a small frame and a shy disposition. He had always walked to school with his mother, but one day, his mother fell ill and couldn’t take him. Tony had no choice but to take the bus, and he felt his heart pounding with fear as he stepped onto the bus. The other children on the bus looked at him with cold, hard eyes, and he could feel their cruel stares piercing his skin.

Tony felt the sting of their words as they taunted him, calling him names and laughing at him. He was afraid and felt like he didn’t belong. But then, as the bus was traveling down the road, something unexpected happened.

An escaped horse ran out into the road, causing the bus driver to swerve and lose control. Tony suddenly realized that he had mind powers, and he could control the bus driver’s actions. He concentrated all his energy and commanded the driver to hit the horse in the head, killing it instantly.

The other children on the bus were stunned and shocked. They couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. Tony looked around at their faces and felt a strange sense of satisfaction. He enjoyed their reactions, and for the first time, he felt like he had power over them.

The rest of the bus ride was silent as the children stared at Tony in fear and amazement. Tony basked in the attention, relishing the newfound respect he had earned. He had always been an outcast, but now, he was the one in control.

When the bus arrived at school, Tony stepped off with a newfound confidence. He no longer felt like a victim; instead, he felt like a conqueror. The other children looked at him in awe and fear, and Tony knew that he would never be bullied again. He had found his power, and he would use it to protect himself from the cruelties of the world.

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