I doubt I will raise eyebrows by confessing that this review was written with the help of a word-processing program. I feel quite safe seeing my words appear in yellow letters on a black screen. The computer bears me no malice, nor does it have an opinion of my literary ability. If it malfunctions, the problem is caused by the manufacturer’s oversight, or my own ignorance. The computer is a machine—nothing more, nothing less.
Even so, a growing number of scientists are convinced that one day my computer will reject my commas or debate my views of the universe. This optimistic faith in the power of machines only enhances the fears of those who are still more comfortable with a legal pad and a sharpened pencil. In Hence, his brave new novel, the poet and novelist Brad Leithauser plunges into the heart of this dichotomy, playing with our preconceived notions of man versus machine. He is no Luddite, and is far from viewing the conflict in black and white, but his forecast for humanity in a world of machines is not very sunny.
In Hence, the battlefield is the chessboard, as Tim Briggs, a twenty-year-old prodigy, plays ANNDY, an M.I.T.-programmed computer. The match is actually a publicity stunt for the Congam Corporation, who built the computer. Since the rules of chess have not changed in thousands of years, it might seem that the computer would have no trouble beating the pants off a human being in a game so ritualized. Yet even today, according to the United States Chess Fed eration, the best mainframe computer has a ranking of only about 2,400, which means that there are at least a few hundred human beings who can beat the best machine.
Mr. Leithauser pushes the time slightly forward, to 1993. Things have changed only marginally in Cambridge, Mass., where the novel takes place. There are mocha bagels, there is more madness on cable television, and, of course, there is ANNDY, capable of considering 365,000 positions in a second. The computer is daunting, but not necessarily insuperable. As Tim’s trainer Imre never tires of saying, “Play the man, not the board.” In this case, Imre changes “man” to “machine” and designs a tactic whereby Tim comes up with not the best moves but the most unusual ones—to throw ANNDY out of whack. Ultimately, it is men that Tim has to play, of course, the men behind the machine: Oliver Conant, the nerdy chief programmer, and his mentor Albrecht Zehnder, the self-described “freedom fighter” for computer rights. It is in this confrontation that the novel reaches high gear.
To the relief of those unable to tell a knight from a rook, Mr. Leithauser does not erect Sicilian defenses to ward off the uninitiated. Chess to him is poetry: “It is like a conversation between the deaf, this flood of hand signals, with its overlapping stops and starts, this onrush of motions that simply cannot keep pace with the thoughts that fly before it.” It is a pleasure to read someone who can strike such a fine balance between the cerebral and the visceral. But we should not leap to the conclusion that Tim sees himself as an artist: “... Timothy knows that [music] is supposed to be so much like chess, but it isn’t at all really: in the world of music, one never had to admit to being checkmated.”
Tim is an all-American boy genius, a cross between Luzhin, Nabokov’s fictional protagonist in The Defense, and Bobby Fisher, the real-life prodigy and arguably the greatest chess player in history. Like Luzhin, Tim is obsessed with chess at the expense of the world outside; like Fisher, he quickly becomes aware of the value of a properly cultivated public image; like both of them, he slides into mental and emotional instability; unlike them, he crawls back.
ANNDY’s handlers are well-rounded, flesh-and-blood characters. Zehnder, “the author of some curious essays, Utopian and misanthropic by turns, in The New York Review of Books” is a techno-oracle who envisions the day when computers will have emotions. In his absentminded-professor way, he is blissfully unaware of atmospheric conditions and finds himself in a Hawaiian shirt in the middle of a snowstorm. Conant, “small and bony and homely, pasty-faced and pimply,” dreams of designing software that can write jazz music à la Wynton Marsalis and Keith Jarrett.
Tim’s adversaries may be symbols of computer culture, but they are not caricatures, and Mr. Leithauser depicts them with dead-on accuracy. For example, they program ANNDY to flash supposedly funny messages like “OUCH! YOU’VE GOT THE SMARTS THAT SMART” and “OOH, I THINK I MUST HAVE DRUNK TOO MUCH LAST NIGHT.” This is vintage hacker humor—going beyond user-friendly to user-familiar. The messages are a hit with the crowd that gathers for the big match; but they distract and enrage Tim, who is used to the stark, gentlemanly etiquette of chess matches that take place away from the media’s glaring attention.
Thus, Mr. Leithauser uses chess and computers as material for a story about people. The book is rife with ideas, but it is populated with compelling characters positioned at odd angles to one another. Tim is not ANNDY’s diametrical opposite: he adheres stubbornly to his own brand of logic—for instance, when he insists at the hotel coffee shop that his hamburger be cut in two. (The waiter, trained in a different kind of logic, does not understand.) Tim’s brother Garner, a priggish adopted Brahmin, is also logical; when he helps Tim shop for clothes, he rationally chooses a blend of synthetic and cotton: Tim is not likely to change his shirt every day, he reasons, or every other day.
Yet Tim’s progress from an aw-shucks hayseed impressed by expense-account opulence to a folk hero comfortable with the limelight is not entirely rational. In the middle of the chess match, his libido interferes. Smitten with the PR girl Vicky Schmidt, and terrified at the awakening of his sexuality—the ultimate barrier between the human and the machine—he flees Boston for his hometown of Victoria, Indiana. There he gets engaged to Linda, the girl next door (literally). She is neither “Victorian” nor glamorous like Vicky. (She treats sex matter-of-factly and eats potato chips, not sushi.) The two of them eventually set up a trailer-park-like household in the luxury of the Totaplex Hotel.
The novel’s subsidiary characters are richly drawn. Besides Linda and Vicky, they include Tim’s mother, Doris, whom Garner calls a “foolish old woman”; Tim’s sister, matronly Nettie; Jack Westman, the yuppie Congam executive, brash and calculating; and Imre, the eccentric Hungarian expatri ate who does not go anywhere without his wife’s perfectly cut sandwiches. Mr. Leithauser treats these characters with a bit of satiric condescension, especially Doris (“She has seen her own son on TV, and what more could a mother hope to behold in this life?”), but his relentless attention to detail prevents them from becoming cartoons.
When Vicky suggests to Imre that Tim prolong his escape from the match—the Congam Corporation won’t object, since it loves the publicity around this “modern-day John Henry"—Hence moves away from the chessboard and into the larger world, most of which—surprise, surprise—is run by Congam. Naturally, the targets for satire abound. The Totaplex Hotel, for example: “TOTAlly modern, your business and pleasure, your working and resting, living-and leisure-comPLEX.” Yet the satire is double-edged: “Timothy perceives what he suspects is too subtle for most people to notice right away: the capital letters spell TOTAPLEX.” Good boy, Timmy.
Mr. Leithauser is mordant when he parodies the highbrow magazines com ments on the match. And he is funny when he quotes from the weather-laden diary of Tim’s peculiar father: “The steady rain which began shortly before noon gave way to drizzle at 2:15, which itself gave way to steady rain at 2:20.” He is less successful when he ventures into “lowbrow” humor— the aforementioned mocha bagel, or a reference to Rocky XXVII, or to television preachers. After ail, television parodies itself.
On the other hand, with Reverend Rabbitt, the self-mutilating preacher who floods the screen with blood, Mr. Leithauser has loftier goals. The Reverend puts the country under his spell and turns into a quasi-apocalyptic figure. Whereas Tim preaches homilies to the media (“People need to see that they can do anything, once they put their minds to it”), the Reverend erupts in fire and brimstone: “[My attackers] have lied about the Lord because they have wronged me .... I have stepped forth bled from the filth of the Lie to show them Truth.” Tim identifies with the Reverend, whom he sees as a fellow truth-seeker destroyed by the philistines, but another part of him feels kinship with his competitor for magazine covers—Masahiro Tatsumi, a musical prodigy. Tatsumi, we learn, grew up in isolation on a Japanese island without the benefit of a musical education, yet he man ages to compose music that is on a par with Mozart and Bach. According to Zehnder, the boy’s father managed to program him like a computer.
Among other motifs here, I could mention Tim’s sister Nettie’s “normal” life, which provides a vivid contrast to all this tumult with its focus on children and family duties. Or Tim and Garner’s inability to get over the accidental death of Tim’s twin brother. Or “going home again,” something that Tim, unlike Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant, manages to achieve. The book is so saturated with themes and subplots that I almost expected a KGB agent to materialize at some point: the Russians take chess seriously enough.
Hence is an attempt to create nothing less than a complete novel: one of grand themes, plots and subplots, clever philosophical puns and paradoxes. But all themes are not created equal. We need to step back and look at the “big picture” to find the dominant one here. You see, Hence is not written by Mr. Leithauser. It is a “meditation in voices,” composed by Garner Briggs and re-issued in 2025 by Rearguard Press—for nostalgia’s sake, writes its editor, one Robin Orrin, since books have become obsolete by then.
It’s a nice touch. It’s plain wonderful to be reading in 19 8 9 of the goings-on in 19 9 3, preambled from the point of view of 2025. In fact, the whole foreword, however lovely a parody of a bibliophile’s prissy style, serves as a twenty-three-page-long warning. “This is a serious modernist novel,” it seems to say. “Enter at your own risk. Seekers of cheap thrills will be turned away.” But when you combine the point it makes—that books will have become a curiosity in the not-too-distant future—with the novel’s forward-looking title, we begin to see the forest behind this spectacular arboretum. Mr. Leithauser views our era—or 1993, as he coyly suggests—as the one that will witness a farewell to culture as we know it, and its replacement by ANNDYs. Hence, as a title, signals the new era that will arrive henceforth; the passage of the old, silly one is accompanied by all the requisite apocalyptic signs, including a self-slashing preacher and an amazing Japanese Mozart.
Mr. Leithauser may mock highbrow publications (including this one) with much relish, yet he appears to feel an affinity with their seemingly outdated obsessions:
When computers first learn to write music that brings tears to the eyes, tenured philosophers will be still writing throat-clearing articles for The New York Review of Books designed to illuminate at long last what it was that Aristotle really said, or whether Plato was right or wrong.
This is sarcasm all right, yet sarcasm laced with nostalgia, and maybe a little hope. Which brings us back to the dreaded world of software and modems. In 2030, will a computer insist that Mr. Leithauser write poems in Spenserian stanzas?
I think we have more than a prayer. In the year 1989, the search for a computer with human creativity remains not unlike the alchemists’ search for gold—which led to the emergence of modern chemistry. The quest can be more valuable than the goal. In a way, this applies to Mr. Leithauser’s book as well. Travelling through his world is pure, unadulterated fun, even if we must take his forebodings about the computer age with a grain of salt. After all, it was not ANNDY that Tim played—but its nerdy designers.
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