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Deus ex machina

Who’s to say just what it is that inspires a reader? To my mind, the writer who answers this question with the most force and clarity is Erri De Luca. But then, I would think that, since I translate him. Here’s what Erri says:

"For those who stumble into a serendipitous reciprocity between life and reading, literature works at the level of nerve fibers. You can’t book such appointments in advance, nor can you recommend them to others. Every reader deserves to be astonished by the sudden interplay between his days and the pages of a book."

I like this quote on several levels, but mainly because in my experience it’s true. The connection between life and literature, when it happens, is electric, and it sings the body. But don’t try telling your friends—they’ll listen, but they’re not likely to understand, and it probably wouldn’t happen for them anyway, not like it has for you. Yet it is astonishing, nothing could have possibly prepared you for it, not before you found it on the page. You’d never seen anything like it, even though, in some sense, you’d lived it. Or you would.

Actually, you may have already heard me talk about all this, not long ago. In another review, written just after the first of the year, I recalled one instance when this did happen to me, back in the eighties, back when I was a student in Paris. For a class at Censier, I happened to read the French translation of El Limonero real, a masterpiece by the great Argentine novelist, Juan José Saer. Having read it, having had my frozen sea axed, I wanted all my friends back home to read it. So I asked the prof if there was an English translation. He didn’t know, but he did know Saer, who lived in Paris, and he gave me his number. And yes, eventually I did find the nerve.

In one of the conversations that followed, I told Saer that I didn’t know exactly what my Ph.D dissertation would be about, not yet, but I did know what books I would write on: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Beckett’s Malone meurt, and El Limonero real. As I recall, in response, he laughed. For a contemporary writer, the idea of a trilogy that put his work together with that of two Nobel prizewinners might have seemed slightly over the top. But what really matters to me was what he said next: Saer told me how As I Lay Dying, for him, was one of the most important books he’d ever read, that it had helped him survive one of the most difficult times of his life.

All these years later, that’s how I remember it, though I can’t say I necessarily trust my memory entirely. You see, for me at the time, Faulkner’s novel must have been doing precisely the same thing. If you don’t know it, well, this novel’s majestic, grotesque, operatic work of mourning begins with the death of the mother in a Southern Gothic, dirt-farming family, four boys and one daughter. My own mom had recently gone through a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemo. The cancer would return, a year or so after I returned to the States from France, and it would kill her. Faulkner helped me survive too.

Left-turn signal flashing. All the above verbiage, I need to warn you, is mere prelude. What I really want to talk about is how, just now, serendipitous reciprocity has happened again. This time the book is by an Italian writer, Giacomo Sartori, and the novel is called, in its English translation, Bug (Restless Books, 2021). At this point, it’s still at the level of nerve fibers: I can’t fully explain why it struck me as it did, because I don’t know myself. Surely, given its content, the fact that we’re in the process of putting a special issue on the climate crisis has something to do with it.

Come to think of it, though, the Sartori and the Faulkner are not unrelated. Sure, it’s hard to imagine any characters more distant than Sartori’s from Faulkner’s Bundrens. The book’s promo materials call his central characters a “family of geniuses,” not something you’re likely to heard said about the family in As I Lay Dying. On the other hand, the Italian novel does begin with a hell of a storm, not to mention an auto accident that puts the mother of the family in a coma.

The mom’s an apiculturist and heads a local association of beekeepers; before the accident, she had been preoccupied with growing signs of bee colony collapse disorder, perhaps due to the influence of neonicotonoid pesticides like Imidacloprid (Bayerã). Her father is authoring a taxonomic study of earthworms, and he also gathers evidence of how pesticides and radiation have affected their dwindling numbers in local farmland soil. Her husband, on the other hand, is a coder and possibly a hacker or cracker, ostensibly working for Nutella but apparently also scouting for terrorists. Her boys aged thirteen and ten, we quickly learn, are the real geniuses—though both, I think it’s safe to say, are also what these days we call neurodivergent. And I should mention as well that the youngest boy, our protagonist, is profoundly deaf, that he seems to suffer from ADHD, and that he struggles in speaking to the hearing community, though he’s eloquent in sign. Such difficulties lead to him getting mocked and bullied, by both classmates and teachers; at times he responds with violence, both to others and to himself.

Back, just briefly, to Faulkner. I don’t think I’ve even successfully explained to anyone why the shortest chapter ever written in twentieth-century fiction was, for me, both heart-rending and immediately, utterly clear. As you’ll recall, if you’ve read it, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is told with multiple first-person narrators, and each chapter is named for the character whose voice it contains. One, voiced by Addie Bundren’s youngest son, Vardamen, is just five words: “My mother is a fish.” You see, earlier that day, the boy caught the biggest fish of his life, so big he could barely carry it home. But when he gets there, his mother stares straight through him, then dies. How could these events not be conflated? Neither, in the child’s experience, had been conceivable until now. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Sartori’s narrator is Vardamen reborn for the digital age. Although he’s mostly treated as an idiot, even by his older brother (who we know as IQ), both boys understand at least as much about computers and code as their father. The narrator also serves as a model for IQ’s pet project: an artificial intelligence program, powered by supercomputers and named BUG, like the novel.

The parallel does go deep. As Frederika Randall, Sartori’s unfailingly brilliant translator, notes, the narrator is “not so different from BUG, the AI creature that IQ has programmed for machine learning, whose first remarks on the chat line begin with broken sentences, his only verb tense the infinitive, but soon is dishing out complex précis of scientific discoveries.”

As readers, we are asked to identify, perceive, and comprehend this boy’s world, and I suspect no single fan of the novel has, or perhaps ever will, done so more intimately than Randall. She goes on to observe:

The child’s language is personal, odd, and even moving [. . .] He’s different, he reminds us, he’s not familiar with the stock expressions people use to communicate and must fall back on his imagination, fed by the gestures of sign language and by what he sees when he looks out on his world. The mouths and faces of other people are his horizons; he studies their lips trying to determine what they’re saying, and their expressions to guess the tenor of their remarks.

Only by seeing anew, through this lens of difference, can we understand and perhaps even share this child’s fury, suffering, and grief. As Randall reminds us,

Because his universe is mostly silent, [the child] perceives the world around him without the social protections, the niceties, that soften the purely visual evidence. His English teacher is ugly, and he’s fascinated; he sees her ugliness from every angle. As he travels through the land of the hearing and their foreign language, everything he sees is etched with alien vividness. Intellectually an adult, as children of that age can be, he’s able to understand complex concepts despite his difficulties communicating. Emotionally he’s a mess: furious, suffering, grieving. “My neurons were floundering like bees when they fall in the fountain out front of the house,” he says.

I won’t give away too much of the story, since I want you to read it. I will say, however, that with mom in the hospital, things just keep getting worse: the narrator is threatened with expulsion from school, the father loses his job, the neighbor, who is both their landlord and a proximal source of pesticide contamination, makes plans to evict them. Either IQ or BUG may be mounting counterattacks, and yet the threat level only seems to rise.

What I will do, now that I have given you some indication of how and why this story “works at the level of nerve fibers,” is say a little something about it on an entirely different level; specifically, why it should be considered one of the great works written thus far about the Anthropocene—and I say “thus far” because, frankly, I can’t wait to see what Sartori will do next.

As he himself tells us, his novel provides a staging ground for

the pressures—in reality very distant from each other—of nature conservation and those of technoscience. Two characters [the mother and the grandfather] deal with issues related to nature [. . .] and two others (the elder brother and the father of the young protagonist) are experts addicted to artificial intelligence. My story does not want to give answers, but only to show the frictions between different ways of seeing the world and of seeing the future, and the contradictions and unspoken truths of each viewpoint.

The great Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, describes the essence of all novels in exactly these terms: their stories must be dialogic, not monologic, since our world itself is—and that world surely cannot be saved if we ourselves don’t see it that way. Nonetheless, it’s also clear that Sartori himself is not on the fence; he isn’t offering “fair and balanced” commentary during a crisis that needs clear and distinct responses. In the same author’s note, he observes:

Today we live in an age in which technology is presented to us as the most effective answer, and perhaps the only one, to all problems, and above all to environmental ones and to the lack of resources. My scientific and agronomist experience tells me that we cannot make nature do what we want, because it has very complex functions, and is difficult to study; we can try to live with it, but we cannot master it.

Here, to me at least, the skepticism and cautionary tone really resonate. I do also seem to remember hearing something somewhere that assigned us the role of stewards, rather than masters.

As such, I think the best way to end this overtly partisan review will be to add a cautionary note of my own. One feature of the novel did trouble me, viz., a character that I haven’t yet mentioned, a female character named, again interestingly, Logo.

As usual, the narrator himself puts aptly: “Logo burst into my life right after Mamma’s accident.” Frankly, at times I wondered whether this character—who is initially described in some of the most Petrarchan, male-gazing terms possible (“this angel,” “her pensive Virgin Mary face,” “her blond baby doll cheeks,” her “grissini-colored curls”)—was more persona than person, whether she existed at all. Like him, she’s hearing-impaired, and she’s apparently his tutor, with “two contractual hours a week”; her official task is to help him speak more clearly, and thereby better assimilate into the hearing world. Though not, one expects, part of her job description, Logo also delivers hugs and kisses, as well as some much-needed massages, she takes the narrator rock climbing (both cheering him on and saving him after a fall), and she soon takes over most of the shopping and cooking for the household too—her specialty is a frittata with zero-kilometer-sourced parsley or nettles.

More importantly, though, Logo is also apparently writing the book that we read. In the second chapter, the protagonist notes that

we agreed that [Logo] would write down what I told her in sign language, but then these letters would be parked in my computer and remain on file there until the end of time. Like an ancient amphora buried in a sunken ship in some deep ocean trench.

Or not, since we’re reading it.

Given this boiled-down description, you must see where I’m going with this. What’s up? Why this manic pixie dream girl fantasy in such an otherwise sage and self-aware story? Luckily, I live more or less surrounded with feminist fact-checkers, so, even if I myself have already copped to some sort of mind-meld with the protagonist, it’s not hard for me to find a consult. Sometimes I imagine I can hear their voices in my head.

Here’s how they sliced and diced this knotty issue: Jim, they told me, you are talking about a novel in part written in, by, about, and perhaps largely for the technosphere, aren’t you? Do you actually think that lot of aspirational GatedBesosZuckerburgerMuskmelons has any other sort of ideas on gender? And isn’t this story told from the perspective of a ten-year-old, to wit, more or less precisely the developmental age and maturity index that most of those guys share? So what exactly were you expecting?

As someone who has never regarded themselves as a teacher, and yet has spent a good slice of life playing one in the classroom, I don’t have many pedagogical precepts. But what my consults counseled next does fit with one: when it comes to learning, you have to meet them where they are. One way to read this novel, they told me, is to trace its narrative arc, to read that conflict between the ecologists and the technophils as repeated and mirrored in the neuronal tension between Logo and BUG. As readings go, frankly, that seems wise, and it also presents a rare opening for hope in this time of climate crisis.

Of course, I’m not going to say how, within the context of the novel, that conflict turns out. I will say that Logo is given the book’s last word, and its last gesture. And what she ends up saying to the narrator is simple: I’m fed up with writing, it’s time you did it yourself.

Your move.

GIACOMO SARTORI is the author of BUG (Restless Books, 2021) and I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), along with six other novels and several collections of short stories and poetry in Italian. By training, Sartori is an agronomist. Born in Trento, he lives in Paris.

FREDERIKA RANDALL grew up in Pittsburgh and lived in Italy for more than thirty years, until her death a year ago. A journalist and translator from Italian, she wrote cultural reportage for numerous US and Italian publications. Along with Giacomo Sartori’s I Am God, she  translated Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of An Italian, and fiction by Guido Morselli, Luigi Meneghello, Ottavio Cappellani, Helena Janeczek, Igiaba Scego and Davide Orecchio, as well as three volumes of nonfiction by the historian Sergio Luzzatto. Her awards include a PEN/Heim grant, and with Luzzatto, the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature, as well as, for her earlier translation of Sartori, the Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.


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