One writing skill I try to teach my students is how to consciously deploy metaphors in writing about a text. When we use the language of music to describe a staccato rhythm or a climactic crescendo, we are imagining the text as a piece of music. When we describe a poem as opaque, or an author’s style as lucid, we are imagining the text as a shiny crystal. And when we explain that an author pivots between narrative modes or switches from one theme to another, we are imagining the text as a machine.
Two recent novels have developed the text-as-machine metaphor through the presence of technology. Both The Candy House (2022) and Bewilderment (2021) are centred around a device that replicates some of the functionality of fiction.
In Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, the world is transformed by the invention of “Own Your Unconscious”, a service that backs up all of an individual’s memories and experiences and allows them to be relived and shared with others.
While tracing the various ways in which this technology has shaped society, Egan also plays with the metaliterary possibilities. At one point, a first-person narrator feels compelled to justify the credibility of the detailed description they are offering:
How can I presume to describe events that occurred in my absence in a forest now charred and exuding an odor like seared meat? How dare I invent across chasms of gender, age, and cultural context? Trust me, I would not dare. Every thought and twinge I record arises from concrete observation, although getting hold of that information is arguably more presumptuous than inventing it would have been.
The connection between the technology and fiction is made more explicit by Gregory, a character with literary pretensions, who is convinced that Own Your Unconscious represents “an existential threat to fiction.” The metaliterary element is foregrounded by a conclusion that closes the narrative circle, renarrating a key incident from the opening of the novel. This time, the characters in the book get to experience, through technology, a scene that the reader has already experienced through the machinery of fiction.
In Bewilderment, Richard Powers describes a different technological innovation that similarly mimics the capabilities of literature. The narrator’s autistic son, Robin, tries out an experimental treatment that uses “decoded neurofeedback” to sync his mind with the consciousnesses of others — a process that dramatically improves his creativity, self-control, and theory of mind. 1 In the book, the use of technology as a mirror to fiction is implied, but Richard Powers expresses the relationship more explicitly in an interview with Ezra Klein: “By living this act of active empathy for these two characters, [readers] are undergoing their own kind of neurofeedback.”
Both books thus ask the same question about the purpose of literature: if technology can more effectively allow us to inhabit someone else’s consciousness, where does that leave fiction? The pointillistic narrative, decentralised structure and stylistic heterogeneity of The Candy House provide a response to the linear monofocalisations of Own Your Unconscious. But the concerns of Bewilderment are ethical rather artistic, an extension of the argument about whether the value of fiction lies in its capacity to elicit empathy.
Last year, this debate moved into the domain of the courthouse, when right-wing extremist Ben John was sentenced to go read classic works of literature (including Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen) and think about them really hard.2 In the classroom, this can be a helpful case study in identifying the limitations of the “fiction catalyses empathy” stance (“this was an absurd decision, but why was it absurd?”) — limitations I have been thinking abut more carefully after reading Elaine Castillo’s sharp repudiation in “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions”:
The concept of instrumentalizing fiction or art as a kind of ethical protein shake, such that reading more and more diversely will somehow build the muscles in us that will help us see other people as human, makes a kind of superficial sense — and produces a superficial effect. […] The problem is, if we need fiction to teach us empathy, we don’t really have empathy, because empathy is not a one-stop destination; it’s a practice, ongoing, which requires work from us in our daily lives, for our daily lives — not just when we’re confronted with the visibly and legibly Other.