(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Brad Leithauser’s widely praised first novel, Equal Distance (1985), was autobiographical at least in that a graduate of the Harvard Law School and former research fellow at the Kyoto Comparative Law Center was writing about a young American law student in Japan. That book exhibited the virtues of an observant and sensitive realist thoroughly familiar with his material: above all, a solid, evocative fictional world. Hence, Leithauser’s second novel, is a different sort of story altogether. Set a few years into the future, built on a tricky narrative device, it seems at once more ambitious and less successful than Equal Distance. Its appeal promises to be narrower, as well. Yet Hence has the single quality essential to any work of art that matters: Revealing throughout the intelligence and high-minded seriousness of its author, it is consistently interesting.

In 1993 Timothy Briggs, a twenty-one-year-old chess prodigy from a small town in Indiana, has come to Boston to play a match against ANNDY, a computer program capable of searching 365,000 positions per second. This situation in itself offers ample scope for a dramatic work of fiction, realistic yet speculative. The question of who will win the match provides narrative drive, with the media, which styles Timothy “a modern John Henry,” rooting for the young instant celebrity against the presumably invincible machine. An American myth-country boy struggling to make good in the corruptive big city-works itself out; romance blooms; familial relationships, under the pressure of what becomes a major media event, reveal themselves; questions arise along the way about the complex and troubled relationship between people and technology, especially—ultimately—artificial intelligence.

Such a novel would lend itself to a rather straightforward analysis of character, plot, and theme, but for better or worse it is not, or not altogether, the novel Leithauser wrote. The novel Hence, written by Brad Leithauser and published by Knopf begins with an introduction by one Robin Orrin, an almost invisible character in the story, to a book written in 1997 by Garner Briggs, Timothy’s older brother, now being reprinted by the Rearguard Press many years later, and entitled Hence: A Meditation in Voices. This fiction is worked out to the last detail: Leithauser’s novel actually includes a copyright page to Garner’s book. Garner, a professor of law, then goes on to tell the story in the first person for the first five chapters, in the third thereafter. With no knowledge of either computers or chess, he is limited in his understanding of the match and its implications, and he is unreliable in another, crucial way as well: He gives detailed accounts of scenes at which he was not present—notably, an almost—intimate scene between Timothy and a young woman with whom he has fallen in love—and even of characters’ states of mind. Among the secondary characters who figure in Garner’s narrative, some are clearly connected with Timothy and the match—his mother and sister; Timothy’s twin brother, who died in a freak accident when he was seven; Timothy’s love interest and other employees of the Congam Corporation, which owns the computer and sponsors the event—but Garner includes others as well who have nothing to do with the plot: a fundamentalist preacher who slits his throat on live television; a Japanese boy, a musical prodigy, who has never been allowed to hear music more recent than Mozart’s.

Finally, Garner refuses to divulge who wins the chess match, though that question is raised—at least it seems to be—throughout the novel. “What does it matter who actually wins this local and preliminary contest?” What matters if not that, then? According to Garner, and apparently to Leithauser as well, “the story of birth. .

In that striving to be born there is a story. Within the machine is a spark that wants out, it seems—as it seems we all want out.” That is, there is a desire for significant change, for life with direction; a desire, as Garner says much earlier, that “we may go hence—may actually get somewhere.” Thus the title. Then how moving finally, how intellectually compelling, is this story not primarily of a chess match but of the universal desire for meaning, set at a turning point in human history?

That the author thinks of it as a turning point, and wants the reader to, is suggested by a brief lyric interlude, a chapter in itself near the end. A common fictional device at climactic moments is to heighten and intensify the prose, as William Faulkner does, for example, in describing the symbolic crucifixion of Joe Christmas in Light in August (1932). Similarly, here is Leithauser on the birth of the machine’s mind: “Within, in cooled, dust-free spaces, behind metal alloys, behind polymers, behind glass the storage deepens and a massed shape comes evering forth by pyramiding inwards, a landscape where no one conceived a landscape, a terrain that opens only because something has come is coming to claim it.” And so on for two pages. This birth, the rhetoric suggests, is a far more serious matter than the outcome of the chess match. Here, however, a problem arises with the novel. Leithauser has developed a considerable amount of suspense about the chess; but about the workings of the machine, its growing psychology (if it can be said to have one), almost nothing. In his lyric interchapter it is future machines he seems to be talking about, not anything that appears in the book. The effect of the heightened language is vitiated by the lack of a dramatic context. What is going on here, then?

To a reader without an advanced understanding of chess, of computer chess in particular, the importance of what ANNDY (the program against which...

(The entire section is 2386 words.)