Edna O’Brien, the Irish writer of novels and short stories, doesn’t type. She wrote her new novel, “Girl,” which is about a Nigerian teen-ager, on loose sheets of paper, in a corner of her living room, in London, amid orchids, embroidered cushions, and a framed quote from Yeats’s “The Celtic Twilight.” Every Monday for three years, a typist who has worked with O’Brien for decades came to the house, and O’Brien dictated new pages. O’Brien, who is eighty-eight, recently told me that she may yet write “some little poem, or fragments,” but almost certainly couldn’t manage another novel. She added, “The time is getting shorter. Some melancholy—not to say fearful—thoughts crop up in my head. I saw a program last night about people in a care home, and, along with pity, I felt terrible apprehension: This is how it ends, this is how it ends.”
I glanced down at my left thumb, still resting on the Tab key. What have I done? Had my computer become my co-writer? That’s one small step forward for artificial intelligence, but was it also one step backward for my own?
The skin prickled on the back of my neck, an involuntary reaction to what roboticists call the “uncanny valley”—the space between flesh and blood and a too-human machine.
For several days, I had been trying to ignore the suggestions made by Smart Compose, a feature that Google introduced, in May, 2018, to the one and a half billion people who use Gmail—roughly a fifth of the human population. Smart Compose suggests endings to your sentences as you type them. Based on the words you’ve written, and on the words that millions of Gmail users followed those words with, “predictive text” guesses where your thoughts are likely to go and, to save you time, wraps up the sentence for you, appending the A.I.’s suggestion, in gray letters, to the words you’ve just produced. Hit Tab, and you’ve saved yourself as many as twenty keystrokes—and, in my case, composed a sentence with an A.I. for the first time.
And then, if you are destined to become someone who belongs to language, who lives in language, whether as a writer, an editor, a reader, or just a thoughtful speaker, something happens one day that puts you in a state of marvel. I remember that moment for me clearly. I was in grade one, attending an American school in San José, Costa Rica. The teacher had written a sentence on the board, one that included the word in and the word to. They were side by side, those two words. The teacher stepped up to them, and with her piece of chalk, she drew a curved line under the space between them, signifying that the two words could be joined. She erased the two words and did just that, joined them. She wrote the new word: into. I don’t know how the other students in the class reacted that day, but that indication that language was plastic, elastic, malleable, adaptable, blew my mind. That first feeling of surprise and marvel at language is still with me. Did I know then that I was going to be a writer? Of course not. I was six years old. I was going to be an astronaut. But I was going to be an astronaut who was into language.
No drink conjures a blue ocean, hot sand, and swaying palm trees more vividly than the pina colada. There are no pithy Hemingway or Mencken bromides about the consummate blend of pineapple, coconut, and white rum, but Beyoncé has sung about “pina colada-in’.” There’s also that song, which manages to sound how it feels to drink one — if admittedly more curbside Middle America than beachside Caribbean. The pina colada is often considered a tiki classic, even being hailed by some as “the most beloved cocktail to emerge from the tiki era.”
But the pina colada is not a tiki drink. It did not originate in the fevered island fantasia of an erstwhile Texan or through the relentless cocktail experimentation of a savvy bar mogul. It was definitively born, even in its most fantastic creation myth — which involves the folk hero pirate Roberto Cofresí in the early 1800s — in Puerto Rico. And though there multiple competing claims to its origin, the most generally accepted one for the drink as we know it is the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, where it was created by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez in 1954, using local Don Q rum and Coco Lopez canned cream of coconut. It is distinctly a tropical drink.
The one time I had an opportunity to meet Martin Amis, I ended up taking heroin instead. I’m not especially proud of this fact, it was a kind of accident, but also perhaps a lucky swerve from the more difficult experience of having to have dinner with Mr Amis himself. It was the very late 90s and I was teaching undergraduate courses in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of East Anglia. The university was, and still is, famous for having nurtured the talents of a generation of British writers – think Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro – and the department regularly hosted dinners for the writers who came down from London to give talks and public lectures.
I was working, largely, in a world of men, most of whom were privileged white men. Although there were some female academics in the department, the main tutors in the writing department at that time were men, the writers who came to speak were mostly male, and the grand fromage of the whole department had developed something of a bad reputation with the ladies. It was the poisoned duckpond of the late 20th century. And yet, it was the water in which I was swimming, and it’s hard to atomize the water while you’re trying to stay afloat. To an extent, this is an attempt to explain how I survived as a queer woman trying to make good on the freedoms, however limited, that the women who had gone before me had won.
“How could you publish this novel?” That’s what I heard after I chose to write about a girl falsely accusing a man of sexual assault during the #MeToo era. When The Liar was first published in Israel, a male journalist told me I should have delayed the publication. “You are hurting the struggle,” he said. It’s always nice to have a man telling me what a woman should or shouldn’t write about. But in the following weeks, I wondered: Am I a bad feminist?
“The Topeka School,” is an extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era. If you’ve been nervously hopping along the shore of Lerner’s work, now’s the time to dive in. As in his previous novels, this story is semi-autobiographical and the structure is complex, but “The Topeka School” is no Escher sketch of literary theory. Its complexity is beautifully subsumed in a compelling plot about two psychotherapists and their son. As Lerner revolves through these wholly realized characters, we come to know exactly who they are. And as we turn these pages with growing excitement, we know exactly where we are: here, in the middle of a rage-filled country tearing itself apart.
The form speaks eloquently. Indeed, the great pleasure of reading “Celestial Bodies” is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct. The ability to move freely through time, the privileged access to the wounded privacies of many characters, the striking diversity of human beings across a relatively narrow canvas, the shock waves as one generation heaves, like tectonic plates, against another, the secrets and lapses and repressions, at once intimate and historical, the power, indeed, of an investigation that is always political and always intimate—here is the novel being supremely itself, proving itself up to the job by changing not its terms of employment but the shape of the task.
On the last bus from Dublin to Limerick
Raindrops pelted the landscape
And held little photos