Nowhere is this idea of a place that really exists only in your mind more true than it is in Paris, although many writers seem to want to overlook this. The world’s bookshelves are overstuffed with earnest first novels by fresh-faced expats, backpackers, and dreamers who have journeyed to Paris for one reason or another and were swept up by the beauty, the culture, the food, the wine, the fashion, the scarves, and the Vespas. For a while there was even a Facebook group of expat women who were all writing first novels about Paris. I’m 98 percent sure they all featured sidewalk cafes, croissants, and cute boys named Jean-Claude who will, in the end, or maybe even from the get-go, fall madly in love with them.
Ironically, one of the questions a writer of fiction hears most often is, How much of the story is true? It is a slightly annoying question. One is prompted to ask whether the story does not stand on its own. Yet it is an understandable query. What is being asked is, How did you do it? Where does it come from? These are questions we all wish to ask but can rarely answer. Behind them lies all the mystery of art.
I am, in short, a half-hearted participant in what observers like Anne Trubek, in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, and Aileen Douglas, in Work in Hand: Script, Print, and Writing, 1690–1840, identify as our contemporary moment of media transition. Is handwriting history? Trubek’s and Douglas’s histories of penmanship illuminate the complicated feelings—indignation and nostalgic regret, tinctured, maybe, by relief—this question provokes. Readers mourning handwriting won’t find comfort in these books. But they will learn about the social preconditions that shaped the romanticizing of the writing hand and its work in the first place.
Both Douglas and Trubek emphasize how recent and historically contingent that romanticization is. Each homes in on the familiar association between handwritten (as opposed to mechanically produced) communication and values like self-expression, authenticity, and individuality. Their books show instead how often ideals of replicability—of accurate, uniform, mechanical copying—have overshadowed the value system that prizes in handwriting those distinguishing lapses from legibility that lend communication a personal touch.
In his latest novel, The Clockwork Dynasty, Wilson once again responds to an all too plausible scenario: what would it mean if artificial intelligence were the preeminent life on Earth? In his two previous novels, Wilson wondered what would happen if the incipient artificial intelligence decided that humans were inimical to the future of life on Earth. Here, he’s more interested in what aspects of humanity might transcend our physical obsolescence, because in our current economic and political situation, it’s not clear why any neutral arbiter would choose us over enlightened AI.
The City Always Wins is a tale of defeat and dashed dreams and of hope’s persistence told in a poetic prose. The style is at once pared down and highly expressive. The tension between exuberance and restraint fits the subject matter and defines Hamilton’s method. He splits scenes to great effect, interspersing text messages, tweets and real headlines, raising the pitch until the final stretch of Khalil’s stream-of-consciousness. This private, continuous flow of thought at the end of the novel is an apt reflection of the retreat from collective, social energy to the individual and interior realm.
The relentless acceleration of pace mimics the confusion of the events, the sense of the people – who once seemed to hold the reins – losing control. Here is the novel form proving itself again, revealing far more than journalism can.