It’s 06:45 on a cold vernal morning and no light, as of yet, has snuck into the basement. You have dreamt, once again, of emails and hari-kari. Your partner snoozes beside you while you go through the motions: a quick alarm-silence, a slow digital rise. You stroke not the cat at your feet but the screen in your palm, absorbing international and interpersonal news, then slide out of bed and get dressed in the dark. You are in New Germany, Nova Scotia, and while indeed you are new here, you are above all welcome: you are safe. All the same, your task this morning is one about which you have been anxious for days: to put a start on the review whose deadline is near, and which looms over your head like a free-weight on a shoelace. As you fill the kettle in the cluttered kitchenette, you tell yourself to calm down, to be practical. This, after all, is not your first rodeo.
A time later you are where you need to be: sitting before thousands of words that you typed up in preparation. Last weekend you read Actress, Anne Enright’s seventh novel, and though your verdict is clear, you are unsure how to sell it. To be sure, after perusing your stale notes, you realise you have little to say other than that Enright’s novel is worth reading. And while, on other mornings, you would inflate this sentiment to an eight-hundred word piece, today you do not. You have no faith in words and, besides, other critics have beaten you to it; the good lines are all taken. You will not write the piece.
Because you have nothing to say, you migrate to a place where the empty signifier roams free. You click into Instagram and Twitter and there you check up on others, like the silent camera you are. After ten minutes, and in search of more dopamine, you head for the Mail app and pull down your inbox. The loading wheel spins. It is your own personal slot machine, and some day, you think, you will take home the jackpot, even if you do not know what it is. But today there is only a promotional code from EyeBuyDirect. You look at the time, then tell yourself not to refresh your inbox for another hour.
It’s 08:47 on a harsh winter morning and you are dreaming of a time in which you move on to something else. You are in Halifax, Nova Scotia, though it’s not a new city that you seek. Your concerns, rather, have to do with your novel, which you are line-editing for Glass Tokens against a March 26 deadline, and which you have wanted to leave behind since you tired of it last month. In the kitchen, you procrastinate: you boil water for more coffee, you reply to WhatsApp messages. You switch your phone to airplane mode before sitting back at your desk.
But you procrastinate further. You have not written a review since you ran away from Actress last year, and you are excited at the prospect of redeeming yourself as a critic. So you pull up your computer’s Spotlight Search and type in: 2021 Wishlist. Then, opening the Word doc, your eyes scan the titles and your choice is almost instant. You decide to review the book whose release you are most anticipating; the book whose author has been on your radar for three years; the author whose essays, like the technology about which she writes, always leave you wanting to consume more. Yes, you think, the book you are most drawn to review is Róisín Kiberd’s debut collection of essays, The Disconnect, to be published next month by Serpent’s Tail.
To an editor you therefore dash off an email. You pitch a review-essay whose methodology, at best, is obscure. At worst, unsound. You tell the editor that you would like to interrogate the materiality of modern reading experiences. Accordingly, you will not only be reading Kiberd’s collection as an e-book. You will also be reading it via JPEGs. You will order, for example, a physical copy to your parents’ home, in Kildare, then get them to message you a single essay at random, and this essay you will read on your phone. The point of this experiment, you write, will be to investigate whether digital readings influence one’s literary judgment, and, if so, to consider what this might mean for the future of literary composition and reception. You do not yet grasp your idea for what it is: terrible. So, happily deluded, you send the email and head back to your novel, where you make small emendations in a state that is not unlike happiness.
Your line-editing, thereafter, becomes less of a chore. You are more lively around the flat. You dance as you sweep, you croon Nick Cave ballads into forks and toothbrushes. What’s more, your alcohol consumption — at an average of three Oland’s a day — is down by one can, and at the end of the week you receive good news in your inbox. It is not quite the jackpot for which you pine deeply each day. However, it is just what you want: the editor has gladly accepted your pitch, and will be in touch next week regarding a commission.
In the weeks that follow, you stick with your routine. You line-edit, you read, you exercise, you drink. You make mediocre meals, heavy on cumin and chicken stock. You pre-order The Disconnect from an independent Irish bookstore. You sometimes have sex, though rarely during the week; such evenings are reserved for The Wire and washing dishes. At the weekend you see friends and recover from ghastly hangovers. Most weekends, too, you go to a beach with a fierce wind and stare keenly at the Atlantic. And though the distant land is, no doubt, America, you imagine swimming for it and discovering it is Ireland.
At the end of March, you submit your novel to your editor at Glass Tokens, and inform her of upcoming projects: a review-essay on The Disconnect, and a long story for Dwelobnik. You reward yourself with bagged wine and drunken posts to Instagram, though in the morning you regret the things you wrote in haste and inebriation. Later, an Insta-ad assuages the fear. It takes you out of yourself. It is neither for Grammerly nor for some kind of alcohol — the two types of advertisements that most pop up of late — but is, rather, for an application called the LBR Smart Composer.
Normally, with Instagram ads, you immediately swipe left to get to another friend’s story, but this time you are curious. This time you hold the screen down to scrutinise the ad, then click deeper into the internet, where you find the product more intriguing. You doubt whether you would actually use its services, but you are shocked, nevertheless, by the nature of the product. For though you have never verbalised your desire for this application, though your yearning has gone undetected by your phone’s microphone and, consequently, the ad-bots to whom Facebook sells your data, Zuckerberg’s minions know precisely what you want. And you have to hand it to them. Indeed, you do. You click again and input your Apple ID password. You purchase the application for $7.99.
The app, of course, is the Literary Book Review Smart Composer: a Google-helmed product for would-be critics, or writers too lazy to start or finish their pieces. Want to get more out of your reading time? its copy says. Then start Smart Composing now! Should you read The Disconnect while the LBR Smart Composer is turned on, the app will use your laptop camera to log the emotions on your face as you peruse the book; it will compartmentalise the lines you nod and mumble along to, and the lines you highlight, and the lines you frown at and re-read; it will even record your digital marginalia, and any notes about The Disconnect you commit to a corresponding Word doc. There is nothing the LBR Smart Composer does not see, and little, therefore, it leaves out in a review. The algorithmic parameters are variable and equally compelling: one can vary the tone of the generator in order to appear more woke, insightful, self-sanitised, irascible, neutral, privileged, marginalised, or engaging. In short, one can tweak the review depending on one’s political views, sense of humour, or target audience.
After skimming this instructional material, you become somewhat paranoid. Why, for example, would a Facebook-owned company sell you a Google-helmed product? And who, specifically, designed it? But you do not search for answers. Today is no day for web-trawling; no day for reading. You are hungover and weary. You will start The Disconnect tomorrow, once you have recuperated from alcohol poisoning.
In the meantime, you put on your shoes to go for a walk. The cold air will do your brain-fog some good. You say goodbye to your partner, who watches Ginny and Georgia. You tell her you love her. You do your bit to lighten up, to reach the neighbourhood trailhead in one piece, and when you do, there are dog-walkers and cyclists and roller-bladers and children. You pinpoint your vibe: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ No More Shall We Part. But as you take out your phone and the wind whips your bare hands, you realise, with regret, that your headphones are at home. So you walk along the Chain of Lakes Trail and hum “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side” in your head.
It’s 15:32 on an unseasonably warm day and you have noticed, to your horror, that the ghost of Actress has returned. Though you have finished The Disconnect and have written extensive notes, you have no compelling insight into the materiality of modern reading experiences. That you read Kiberd’s book on your computer — and, for one essay, on your phone — did not impair your reading experience in any way. If anything, on account of COVID-induced shipping delays, it only enhanced your experience, since it allowed you to read Kiberd’s book less than a week after its Irish release. And this you find repellent, for it was not your intention, in pitching this review, to defend iBooks or Kindles, but their ergonomic facility in this instance is unavoidable. You curse Apple for the crafty bastards they are, then remember why you are anxious: you have neither the ability nor the acumen to deliver a 4000-word piece to your editor.
Indeed, all you can say, glibly, about The Disconnect is that you agree with Kiberd’s thesis, insofar as she has one: that the internet is a complicated beast, that it is banal, ubiquitous, invasive, addictive, disturbing, whacky, horrible, beautiful. This, you know, is the essence of The Disconnect, and it is this blend of the mundane, the dark, and the wonderful — not to mention the inscrutably weird — that you want to convey to your readers in your piece, should you ever get around to writing it.
Now, though, you don’t know if you will. You remind yourself that reviews are typically short written pieces, whose most general function is to inform a reader whether a book is worth reading. But because you did not pitch a work of criticism, your bind is more pronounced: your piece, if realised, will be too wordy for a review but not thorough enough for criticism. You wish, instead, you could write your favourite kind of review, namely those you give to friends in which you give away no plot points, nor any salient details, but only say, thrusting a book in their hands:
“Here. Take this. It’s fucking savage. Excuse the underlines, ignore the marginalia. Don’t worry about getting it back to me soon. All that’s important is that you read it.”
It may be more noble, you think, to make a similar statement to what few Instagram followers you have. But posting on Instagram generally fills you with a distracting amount of adrenaline, so you compromise. You scrap your ambitious plans for this supposed review-essay, and decide instead to compose a professional 800-word review. To that end, and for the first time since downloading it, you open the LBR Smart Composer.
Quickly you see that their interface is not unlike Gmail, though a Gmail crossed with Microsoft Word. A blank page fills the middle third of the screen. Red and white banners line both sides of the page. The left side lists all you have read in the past week, while the right panel displays a set of adjectives with which to shape the tone of the review. But you may only select three adjectives, and one must not contradict the other. Nuance, then, is not something the application is capable of.
You are mildly surprised to see other titles underneath The Disconnect. There is Margaret Atwood’s Paris Review interview, and Kevin Breathnach’s “Dancing at the ardfheiseanna,” and Chekhov’s “The Darling” — but there are also Irish Times articles, miscellaneous tweets, your friends’ Instagram posts, your WhatsApp conversations, each page from your Google Chrome history, and even the gay and straight porn you watched while Incognito. The number at the bottom of the scroll reveals over three hundred titles.
Nothing, you realise, is off the table for the LBR Smart Composer; no text or image is of so little worth that the application cannot generate a review for it. You are somewhat embarrassed that you never considered this before, that you believed the app would be restricted solely to e-books, and you are curious to see what the porn reviews look like. You do not, however, get carried away. You remind yourself of your deadline and click The Disconnect – Róisín Kiberd – 10h 43m, and the three adjectives you select for fun are derivative, honest, professional. You expect an error to pop up, to say that derivative and professional are an incompatible pairing, but no such error appears. This, you think, must be a quip from a Google employee whose book mainly received bad reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and who, as a result, has no faith in critics, professional and amateur alike.
The generation is quick, though not instant, and is both contemporary and nostalgic. During the eleven seconds in which the LBR Smart Composer generates the review, a pop-up window displays a loading bar whose progress is measured in tiny tote bags, and accompanying this, on the speakers, is the sound of clacking typewriters. Again, you suspect that this application is an elaborate joke, and this suspicion gains further credibility when the review finally loads and you see that the piece, if nothing else, is an exercise in cliché. The work of a seventh-rate hack, it is redolent of a book-review bingo card which once went viral on Twitter.
You read every shit word, but most cringe-worthy is the unoriginal sentence that closes the first paragraph: “Kiberd’s essays pull at one’s heartstrings as much as they stimulate one’s mind: they are shot through with such brio that one cannot put them down.” And yet, though the review is derivative, you are impressed that the application has managed to capture your opinion about the book. But you understand that should you submit this review to your editor, you will most likely be barred from ever submitting to them again. Thus you click the back button and return to the drop-down adjective menu, and choose, this time, informed, elegant, professional.
To your dismay, the result is the same. You go back to the menu, try another three adjectives, then another, and another. But nothing changes: there is one stock review, and no parameter you vary will generate a different one.
You are disappointed. And yet, what did you expect? That a computer program in 2021 could write a fool-proof review for you? Did you not, you tell yourself, just read a collection of essays in which the author, at one point, talks about the failures of Microsoft’s Tay and Zo chatbots, who were disbanded after internet users manipulated them for trolling purposes? You realise that there are no shortcuts to good writing, and that, following Kiberd, you should strive to communicate with readers in a way that data never can.
And that is precisely what, over the course of three beers and ninety minutes, you now plan to do. You head to the fridge, but all of the Oland’s are gone. Only three lime White Claws, the flavour your partner does not like, stand on the bottom shelf. They will do. You snatch them and return to your computer, to your Disconnect notes, your outline, and a blank Word doc. You close the LBR Smart Composer, you drag the app onto the trash icon, then double-click and empty it. And while you feel accomplished, you also feel remorse for the 300+ items whose reviews you never experienced. You have never read a review of a twelve-minute porn video, and you feel as though you have missed out on something special. Regardless, you think, it is a sacrifice worth making.
You open the White Claw and throw half of it back and instantly you feel better. You re-state your intentions for your newly-planned review. To encourage all internet-users to buy and read The Disconnect. To give away as little about the book as possible. And, most of all, to convey the essence of Kiberd’s subject, namely that the internet is a weird and mysterious place on which to exist — as beguiling and intangible, perhaps, as Mark Zuckerberg’s robotic interiority.
“Dear Declan,” starts the email from the editor, “I’m baffled. This is a joke, right?”
It’s 07:49 on the weirdest day of your life and nothing about this email makes sense in the slightest. A week previously, you sent them a respectable eight-hundred-word review, and while, in it, you made little reference to the materiality of modern reading experiences — a passing sentence, in fact — the piece, you felt, was ultimately of a high standard. Your commentary was balanced, your applause glowing but not unctuous. You divulged an appropriate amount of exposition. Your instances of citation, unlike those in some periodicals, were not so excessive as to encourage readers to skip them entirely. In short, the piece was far from clichéd. All in all, you do not know where you went wrong, you do not know what the editor is talking about.
Your eyes go towards the attached Google doc, to verify that it has not changed. And it has not. You re-read the title: “The Tara Connection,” then click into it to investigate further, and though what loads on the screen does not shock you — you are, by now, expecting to confront it — you are nevertheless nauseous, and full of fear to boot, for on the screen is Google’s LBR review:
“Róisín Kiberd’s debut collection of essays is one of the best books about the internet that you will read all year. Similar to Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, The Disconnect is a timely reflection on humankind’s fractious relationship with the internet in the twenty-first century.”
Your stomach drops. The Disconnect, you know, is not a reflection on humankind’s relationship with the internet; it is a journey through the history of the internet, led by a single individual who, like many of us today, cannot live without being online. As for the Oyler and Lockwood comparisons, they are justified but lazy. You wonder how this could have happened. You check your Word docs, your folders, your desktop, your trash, but there is no sign on your computer of the hack-piece to be found. There remains, thankfully, the genuine review that you wrote — which you immediately attach in a new response to your editor. Your reply is a weak, rambling lie, in which you apologise for the mix-up, and say you attached a previous draft.
Despite the flimsiness of the excuse, you send off the email, and while you have not guzzled the last of your morning coffee, you know that your day has already gone to pot. Any writing you do will be high-wired and incoherent; any reading, soon to be forgotten. The only thing you have any mind to do, is to ascertain how this miscommunication could have occurred.
So you begin your investigation, though it’s five hours and many whiskies later when you admit you are stumped. Your one conclusion is that Google has something to do with it; after all, it is Google who made the LBR Smart Composer, and Gmail through whom you made contact with the editor. Worse is that when you google the LBR Smart Composer — you are frustrated you never did this earlier, and you curse your tendency to under-research — nothing comes up. It’s as if the application does not exist. You are tipsy now, full of self-loathing and paranoia, and reason that the only way to make amends for this horrendous day is to get trailblazingly drunk: that is, so inebriated that your actions deliver you to a place where no boozer has gone before, like the roof of your basement apartment, which is to say, your landlord’s house.
You pour another good skelp of Jameson and, after some time, decide there is only one solution: the original email must have been intercepted. But why? You cannot say. However, it is in search of an answer to this question that you play your slot machine for the forty-sixth time that day: you re-open Gmail. And though there is no jackpot in sight, nor any information pertaining to Kiberd-gate, there is a welcome addition to your catalogue of eleven thousand emails. Your contact from Glass Tokens has dropped you a line. You were not expecting to hear from her until May. A Small Update, reads the subject. And, momentarily, you are distracted from the mystery of the generated review.
“Hi Dec,” she says, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but myself and the rest of the team at Glass Tokens have no choice but to place your character under external review, and to shelve your novel until we reach a decision regarding your fit with us. Glass Tokens are committed to upholding at all times the integrity of the company and our authors, and what we witnessed recently with your review of Róisín Kiberd’s The Disconnect poses serious problems for the future of our relationship. As you can understand, we cannot be seen to rush into business with someone who plagiarises an AI-composed review, however beautifully or terribly the algorithm writes.”
You are glad you are drunk, for otherwise this email would do damage; a sober you might be driven to madness by the sudden heartbreak of a shelved novel. But you abstain from psychosis, as though it were something one may choose to abstain from.
When your partner returns home, she is surprised, at first, that you have failed to prepare dinner. Then she is alarmed to see you are stotious, full of expletives and fury and nonsensical interjections. She re-heats last night’s curry, of which you refuse to eat any. There is an hour in which you repeat yourself to no end.
“But I only tried it,” you say, “I never drew on it.” You remove from the wall a pink A4-sized painting, of a lady whose head is a flower, which you hand to your partner. “This, Laura? You see this book?”
“That’s a painting, Declan.”
“No, no. Róisín Kiberd. Good shit. So this book, yeah? Fucking savage. Rubba-dub-dub, my friend. There are some underlines?”
“But above all: take your time. It’s just a book, like?” Once she has taken the painting and put it back where it belongs, you drain the last of the whiskey and show her your cup. “Did you see I chipped the damn mug?”
Shortly after, your energy crashes and you shut up. Laura delivers you to the bedroom, and, drunk as you are, you remove your clothes and put on pyjama shorts. Though you do not boop the head of your mechanical alarm clock, you open your essential oils and dab your two wrists and right temple. Sleeping, however, will come easy tonight; you will pass out in minutes. And as you quickly drift off, you know that your review of The Disconnect is dead: that it will never appear online or in print. And for this you are grateful. There is much to say about The Disconnect, but so little too. Why should you say anything when others could just read it?
You wish you could do away with your critical airs and pretensions, and simply thank Kiberd for writing her book, and tell her The Disconnect affected you like all fine art should. But since, tonight, there are no alternatives on offer, you return to the facts: you think once more of the past sixteen hours, of whether or not this whole affair is a joke, and that you will awake to an email from either editor — or from Google, or Facebook, or some NSA agent — and all it will say is April fools! even though April Fools’ was last week. And it is in this sorry funk that you wonder who, exactly, is trolling whom, and who surveilling whom, and to what exact end — since there are, to be sure, far too many players involved. There is no easy explanation, there are only several stray facts, and you are fucked if you know how all of them are connected.