Note: I wrote this post over a month ago—before the time of coronavirus. Maybe it is even more relevant now.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post about books. Ironic, because in the past three months I’ve read many wonderful books. Books have kept me afloat during a physically difficult time. In a two-day period (December 24 and 25), I had a cycling accident that left me with a fractured wrist and came down with a horrible two-week bout of laryngitis.
Even before these two things happened, I was feeling a kind of lethargy that left me almost paralyzed during most afternoons. This lethargy may have been caused by my chronic insomnia or worsened by the season, but to me its grip seemed mysteriously strong. During that time, books prevented me from going crazy (especially during wakeful nights). They comforted me and kept me intellectually stimulated so I could avoid negative thoughts.
I’ve recently finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed and The Last Picture Show, as well as Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel. I want to write about these books because I’m surprised by the way I responded to them.
Why did these books affect me the way they did—in some ways against my expectations? I have read many books by both of these authors. What I came to realize is that our responses to books can be affected by our mental states or experiences we are going through when we read them. Books nurture us, and just as a given type of food or a certain recipe may be perfect for us during an illness or after a hard workout, books can give us exactly what will most benefit us at a certain time in our lives.
I read McMurtry’s books first, starting with Duane’s Depressed. I got this book out of the library though I was pretty sure I had read it before, perhaps twenty years ago. As soon as I started reading it, I recognized it. Moreover, I wasn’t impressed. The writing seemed superficial and casual. “This book is not worth my time,” I thought.
Yet it was easy reading—perfect for my lethargic afternoons—and I found myself being drawn in. The protagonist, Duane, is sixty-one years old at the start of the novel, and he’s undergoing a major life crisis. Abruptly, he quits his job as an oil field boss and hands the reins over to his son. He vows to stop driving his truck. He starts walking everywhere—this in a small Texas town where everyone drives, and no one has even heard of walking for mental or physical health. He walks right out of his lively home, away from his wife of over forty years, and away from the children and grandchildren who also live there. He plans to stay at his rustic cabin ten kilometres away while he thinks things over.
I soon realized that despite having read this book before, I could relate to Duane in an entirely new way now that I am sixty instead of forty. Duane is facing old age. When I was forty, old age was far away—I didn’t even consider myself middle-aged! Now, at age sixty, though my life story is completely unlike Duane’s (my education, places I’ve lived, athletic life, and social life could hardly be more different than his), I’m facing some of the same existential questions that he faces in the novel. There is a summing-up of what life has been. There may be regrets. There are things we are no longer capable of doing. It’s an age when we understand that the years are finite—what will we do with our remaining time?
McMurtry’s great achievement in this novel is the way he creates a sense of urgency despite the apparently casual, wandering tone and actions of his protagonist. He creates an inexorable psychological climax.
In this scene, Duane is revisiting a place where he used to buy fishing lures from an old man who was valued as much for his wild stories about the first oil booms as for his lures. Finding no trace of the old man or his tackle shop, Duane’s thoughts take a melancholy turn. Here, we see McMurtry’s words sing with power against the perfect backdrop for Duane’s epiphany—the mighty Red River that separates Texas from Oklahoma. Despite his deceptively simple and casual style, McMurtry is perfectly in control.
Mixed in the sudden pain was the feeling that he had arrived at the far edge of himself. The list of things he had never done was far longer than the list of things that might be considered accomplishments. All that he had done in the way of building things had merely slipped away, into the great stream of human effort, gone as silently as the sand below him slid into the flowing water. What had happened to his life? Why, in sixty-two years, had he made so little of it? He was not educated, he had not traveled, he knew nothing of the great cities of the world, he could speak no language except a crude English; he had never visited a great museum, or seen a great picture, or heard a great symphony orchestra, or read a great book.*
The above passage gives only a taste of Duane’s interior monologue during this powerful scene.
At this point, I raced through the remaining third of the book. Finishing it, I realized how thoroughly it had gripped me emotionally. McMurtry had succeeded in making me identify with a character completely different from myself, a man who had limited choices and lived his whole life in a small Texas town. In fact, I had become so attached to Duane and his supporting cast that I immediately went to the library and took out The Last Picture Show, allowing myself to read another book that I had read at least once before. I wanted to revisit Duane’s youth (this book covers his life as an 18-year-old) and rediscover the connection between the young man and the older man he became. (The Last Picture Show was made into the 1971 movie of the same name. It was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.)
I found it very satisfying to revisit many of the same characters I had encountered in Duane’s Depressed. There was sadness, too, in comparing the youthful versions of these people with their older selves. The two books made me think about the limitations of small-town life (especially in the past, before cheap air travel and the internet). Small-town people may have so few choices in life, and it is only a few gifted or lucky ones who escape from predictable and mundane lives.
Yet who am I to judge? Some, maybe many, find great happiness. Most of us live now in dense urban places with almost limitless technologies and gadgets, with vast online lives running parallel to our “real” physical lives. Yet all of this gives us no guarantee of happiness or freedom from loneliness. The complexity of our lives and the endless decisions to be made can overwhelm us.
Immediately after finishing The Last Picture Show, I started reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me. Ian McEwan is one of my favourite writers and I consider some of his books, such as Saturday and Atonement (made into an acclaimed 2007 movie directed by Joe Wright and starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly), to be masterpieces.
McEwan’s style is completely unlike McMurtry’s. McEwan has won all kinds of literary prizes (including the Booker for Amsterdam), and would be categorized as a “literary fiction” writer in contrast to McMurtry’s more “popular” appeal (though both are prolific writers with numerous bestsellers to their credit).
What I’ve always loved about McEwan’s writing is the way he seems able to capture human relationships and the human condition in all their complexity, creating characters that seem completely real. At the same time his novels are both plot- and idea-driven, always set within a fascinating or suspenseful historical or political context.
In Machines Like Me, the story is set in an alternative-reality 1980s Britain where artificial intelligence is far more advanced than it was in the real 1980s. Charlie, the main protagonist and narrator, has just bought a synthetic human, one of twenty-five “Adams” and “Eves” who possess almost perfectly human appearances, movements, and abilities.
McEwan is going out on a limb in tackling the subject of advanced AI. This is fertile ground for so many questions about the plausibility and implications of having artificial humans around. What will the role of “real” humans be when the machines are vastly superior to humans in many ways? Charlie appreciates Adam’s taking over his stock market speculations and turning him into a rich man in a short time; but he is outraged when Adam has sex with his girlfriend, Miranda. He makes Adam promise to never do that again. Charlie and Miranda learn that Adam is unpredictable in disturbing ways. For example, he quickly learns how to disable his own “turn-off” switch.
Charlie finds that even though his rational mind keeps telling him that Adam is only a machine, he’s unable to hold back his emotional responses to Adam at times, and finds himself treating Adam like a fellow human being. McEwan’s fictional version of Alan Turing, one of AI’s greatest pioneers, insists that the Adams and Eves are “sentient,” and have a “self.” Adam himself proclaims that he is in love with Miranda, and he writes hundreds of haiku poems for her as proof.
Machines Like Me becomes increasingly dark as Charlie and Adam begin to disagree with each other in more ways than being in competition for the same woman. What are Adam’s “rights”? Why are many of his fellow Adams and Eves committing “suicide”? Why are Adam’s moral decisions so radically different than Charlie’s—how did the programmers get it so wrong?
This book, in its exploration of the potential incompatibility between humans and the machines that we might create in an attempt to replicate ourselves, forces us to confront what it means to be human. How are our decisions flawed, morally or otherwise, in ways that machines’ decisions don’t have to be? Will we always prefer human companions to machine companions because we instinctively value “humanness,” no matter how flawed?
McEwan’s scenario follows the familiar theme of humans losing control of the beings they create, but he also creates a new twist: the proposition that these machines do possess consciousness, and seem to become so depressed by their “lives” in the human world that they choose to commit “suicide.” They engineer their own destruction.
I finished reading Machines Like Me almost a week ago. I see from what I’ve written above that its ideas have stuck with me and provoked a lot of thought. Yet for sheer enjoyment, I preferred the two McMurtry books. Since Ian McEwan comes higher on my list of “favourite writers” than Larry McMurtry, I was trying to figure out why, as a reader, I didn’t like Machines Like Me as much as many of McEwan’s previous books.
I’ve decided that it’s because I don’t think the human characters, Charlie and Miranda, are as fully realized as McEwan’s protagonists usually are. Charlie, especially, is not likeable or admirable, and Miranda remains somewhat mysterious. This is a novel of ideas, set in an alternate 1980s world where AI has already advanced far beyond what we have now in 2020. Although it engaged me intellectually, McMurtry’s books, with their down-to-earth characters facing crises of youth, middle age, and old age, were the books that nourished me during this difficult winter.
*McMurtry, Larry. Duane’s Depressed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 279.