Half my heart is crushed, and the other half is on fire.
It was no longer possible to understand being poor or defeated. Which meant she could no longer imagine it. This worried her because if she ever were to become defeated or poor, she would then feel like a fool – and this might somehow be more painful than the destitution. More importantly, this realization worried her because it meant she no longer felt human.
The dysthymic artificial intelligence scientist took a book of poetry off the shelf and sat on her couch.
What was she ushering in and what was a grand program for which she was simply helpless agent? Senseless to think about, she thought, as she sipped her diet beer with ice.
She had purposefully cultivated a taste for this drink after reading that a billionaire, who could obviously consume whatever he desired, had made it his beverage of choice. Typical of her sense of humor was the irony of the blandly effervescent flavor but also the discipline to carry out the conceptual joke to its regular daily end.
She was not on the team employed by the galactic corporation that had created a machine that had taught itself to play an ancient, spatial, seemingly impossibly open game well enough to repeatedly and decisively defeat the world’s human champions.
She was merely an associate professor in a community college, but such were the economic interest and forecasting that even her low-rung campus needed to offer courses in the field.
Twenty-five years ago, she had wanted to be a poet. Her parents had told her to be sensible, and so she’d majored in computer science at Stanford. Her classmates had gone on to form the titanic corporations that had transformed – and continue to transform – everyone’s lives, while she had listlessly spun slowly down the academic helix, plagued by both suicidal ideation and alcoholism. Her parents were now dead, and she was teaching spastic undergrads at St Francis College of Southern New Jersey.
That’s the end of that story. These paragraphs were written by a robot named César Aira.
The robot named César Aira was going through a relatively amicable divorce with his wife, a famous documentary filmmaker and part-time reiki healer named Onoto Watanna. One of Onoto’s clients was a gallery owner, and this gallerist had invited Onoto to an opening.
César was still living with Onoto and their two kids but now slept on the couch. It was amicable enough a divorce that they would still go out together, and Onoto invited César to the opening. The art was atrocious and consisted of white people in yellowface reading from the text of the Chinese Exclusion Act and transcriptions of ICE raid recordings. Autotune was used to have these voices sing to the melody of ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ The art was said to be by a secret collective named ‘McArthur Grant,’ but everyone knew it was the product of a famous older white artist. He was at the center of the party with his new, younger Chinese American girlfriend.
Proof that the art indeed was terrible, at least to Onoto, became evident by how much everyone at the party professed the opposite. Onoto was introduced briefly to the artist, a man of leathered complexion and gleaming white hair. He had what might have been called rugged good looks, and Onoto found him both easy to look at and reptilian. Much later she would become friends with his then girlfriend, a woman who had since broken up with him and had admitted the dalliance was pure opportunism on her part to see if she could become famous by association. It had only partly worked because she had caused a gossipy stir when, in an interview, she claimed that the yellowface performance had been her idea to see how racist a piece the art world would accept. She said the idea had been fascinatingly easy to plant in the older artist’s mind as one of his own. Of course, the older artist denied this as well as the racism; instead he claimed it was a transgressive gesture misunderstood by the self-elected tone police. Onoto was skeptical about the woman’s motivations, but she enjoyed her boldness.
Meanwhile, back at the party,
Meanwhile, back at the party, César the robot is going outside to have a cigarette. He finds himself standing next to a morose-looking man who has just walked outside to do the same. The man introduces himself as Kenny Golddigger, and César, in an uncharacteristic moment of dissembling, says his own name is Vanity Place. The two discuss the show, which both hated and thought preposterous, in the most glowing terms.
Kenny then says to the robot named César who had introduced himself as Vanity, ‘I’m outraged.’
Vanity takes a puff of his cigarette and says, ‘Oh yeah?’
Kenny says, ‘I’ve just found out that the daughter of a billionaire oil industrialist has started a press to publish poetry. The billionaire oil industrialist has financed wars, white supremacists, and climate change denial. The daughter is using writers of color and excellent poetry to whitewash blood money.’
‘Better than equestrian sports,’ Vanity says.
‘It’s an abomination,’ says Kenny.
‘Cash rules everything around me.’
‘Laughlin’s fortune came from a union-busting steel company.’
‘It’s the Wu coming through.’
‘I’ve a solution.’
‘Write an open letter saying that in order to move the publishing enterprise’s function from whitewashing blood money closer to reparations, the press should exclusively publish climate-crisis fiction by indigenous writers.’
Kenny Golddigger laughs at this, stubs out his cigarette, and then walks back inside the party. He seems to dismiss Vanity’s suggestion. However, the idea so grows in his mind that the following week he posts the proposal on his personal website. It generates a huge spike in traffic. A month after this, Kenny is murdered in what appears to be an unrelated car accident.
‘All is,’ Vanity says, ‘vanity.’
The robot named César mutters this phrase out loud upon returning to the party.
‘No shit, Sherlock,’ says Onoto, joining him at the crowd’s periphery.
And then, instead of being at an elite gallery opening in Chelsea, the fiction transforms them into two young women working under a fume hood, soldering bits under bright lights at a cell phone factory in Dongguan, China.
‘I just found out that the owner’s daughter moved,’ says the factory worker who, despite changing location and gender, is still named César (though perhaps no longer a robot – but who could tell?), ‘to Vancouver, Canada.’
‘How did you find out?’ asks the other factory worker who, despite changing location and occupation, is still named Onoto, and adds, ‘It’s just a fad. All the Chinese millionaire heirs are doing it.’
César says that she’d read about it while scrolling through the unending communally written epic poem that everyone de facto agreed was the best piece of literature humanity had ever created. It contained multitudes. ‘I read about it on Weibo,’ she says.
César and Onoto then go suddenly quiet as a supervisor screams, ‘No talking!’
After the supervisor walks past, they resume their conversation in careful whispers and with strategic turning to avoid their moving mouths being spotted by the surveillance cameras. Onoto asks, ‘By the way, how’s your poetry going? Your last book did really well. Many many people hated it as opposed to being entirely oblivious of it or indifferent to it.’
‘Thanks, yes, it did really well.’
‘You know, it’s funny. At my last job when I was standing on an assembly line putting thousands and thousands of tiny rubber caps into place on wireless routers for hours at a time, I was oddly happy, composing my poems in my head, songs about the river crabs that used to frolic near my parents’ home, or a ditty about how my heart had been broken last winter, or a surreal poem written from the point of view of Xi Jinping’s bed-room slippers squashing a rice bunny while multiplying eight by eight, and it all felt unconfined and liberated, actually, despite the hours of repetitive labor. But.’
‘But something changed. I think it was when [Douglas Schifter] killed himself in the factory dormitory.’
‘He was such a sad sack.’
‘No! He was just like us. I used to meet him in the cantina and play cards with him, and he would ask me to recite my poems to him. He was funny and always knew where the best, cheap lunch spots were.’
‘Anyway, what does this have to do with your poetry?’
‘I don’t know. Now, when I’m soldering these circuit boards into place, standing for hours at a time as they come down the assembly line, well, I’ve begun to feel exhausted and sad. And I no longer compose poetry but think only of the Foxconn suicides and how people have to act like machines in order not to starve, only to eventually be replaced by actual machines, and how eventually everyone will die and become like whatever [Douglas Schifter] became – and what’s even the point!’
‘Hey now! Hey there. Hey. You can’t do that. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t give in to the gloom. You know what I think about while I’m snapping these plastic backings onto wearable fitness monitors all day long? I think about the interconnectedness of all things and how strangely destruction can lead to creation and vice versa.’
‘What do you mean?’
Before Onoto could react, a supervisor rushed over to scream at them again, so instead of listening to such invective, the fiction again transformed the duo into a plastic bag and the nubbin remaining from a little-used toddler teething ring, which floated among similar detritus in a wide spiral of trash drifting in the Atlantic.
The jetsam named Onoto responded to the flotsam named César, ‘Remember when we went to that art opening several paragraphs and reincarnations ago?’
‘And there were those actors in yellowface singing in autotune?’
‘What did you think of that?’
‘I thought it contrived but better than the cheap, facile symbols we’ve now become.’
‘Not the reincarnation. What do you think of autotune?’ ‘Oh. Um, I guess I think of it as ugly, debased music to be consumed by the anesthetized. What’s more an incredibly contagious musical virus that was born from a petrochemical engineer trying to use sound to extract more oil from the ground.’
‘Well, I take the opposite view.’
‘It’s the new Moog. The idiom for the next evolutionary stage. A new aesthetic: music by cyborgs for cyborgs. And even if it ends in tears or flood or fire, even then it’ll all continue somehow, even if it’s just indestructible polymers eroding in a whirl-pool of pollution or smoldering embers cooling after a nuclear fire but before furry lichens begin the process of greenery rising back. I have enduring faith in one thing: that the flux is necessary, absolute, and will never end.’
‘I have no need of such bullshit,’ types César, slumping into the chair at her cubicle desk, now reincarnated as one of a battalion of low-level censors at a social media corporation that has yet to develop an algorithm for reliably identifying pornographic content. She is online and chatting with her friend Onoto, who is now a scab teacher employed across the country to break a strike at a rural middle school and currently proctoring a multiple-choice three-hour-long exam and thus (like her students) bored, and so trolling César for entertainment, who adds, ‘And you know what else? This entire opening of recycled symbols of crisis is just a metonym of my daily experience with the internet. Thank god at least we haven’t yet spoken of the upcoming elections.’
‘Please don’t. Let’s not – ‘ texts Onoto to César as they both wink completely out of existence so are unable to hear the words echoing in the reader’s mind, a phrase that she was about to complete, and which has become metaphor for everyone’s habit, one of gleefully losing hours to self-hypnosis. That is, Onoto’s sudden but timely disappearance occurs before she can type: go down that rabbit hole.
Image © Hillel Steinberg
This is an excerpt from Search History by Eugene Lim, out with Coffee House Press.