“So what happens when you don’t need a human being to write anything anymore? When you can just turn to your magic smartbox and say, ‘Write me a novel about ornithologists and spies?’”
This question, placed in the mouth of a youthful poetry prodigy named Morel (“like the mushroom”), can reasonably serve as the central line of inquiry in Montreal writer Sean Michaels’s third novel. The story revolves around Marian Ffarmer, a renowned septuagenarian poet – not so loosely inspired by the American poet Marianne Moore – who is hired to collaborate on a long poem with an artificial intelligence named Charlotte. The company that engages her, known in the novel only as “the Company,” wants to prove the potential of AI to mimic human capabilities in realms beyond the merely empirical; the executive who contacts Marian tells her they want to create “the kind of work that endures as a monument in all of human history.”
It is such a lofty goal that the workers at the Company refer to the top-secret project Marian and Charlotte embark upon in almost mystical terms, calling it “the Poem.” As Marian gets drawn deeper into the project, she is forced to confront existential questions about the nature of art and, more deeply, of humanity itself. Finally deciding she is not up to the task of creating a history-altering poem, she clandestinely enlists the help of Morel to finish.
If this were all there was to the novel, it would be intriguing enough. But Michaels, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of Us Conductors, is more audacious in his approach. To create the “character” of Charlotte, Michaels used actual AI chatbots – both OpenAI’s ChatGPT and a bespoke creation of his own (in collaboration with Katie O’Neill) called Moorebot, after Marianne Moore herself. In a note at the end of the novel (spoiler alert), Michaels informs us that “[a]ll of Charlotte’s poetry and some of the prose … was generated with help from” these software programs.
The bits of text that are computer generated within the novel are highlighted in grey; it is unavoidable, once a reader knows where these lines of prose and poetry come from, that they give in to the impulse to determine – or, for a very skeptical or cynical type, outright reject – their literary merit. And indeed, in many cases, the computer-generated lines are, to be polite, not of superior quality. They frequently appear simply extraneous: “I would propose a line, a portion of a line, and what the system spat back upended my expectations,” Michaels writes in the voice of Marian. “I had been seduced by this surprise.” To which the AI redundantly adds, “I had mistaken a fit of algorithmic exuberance for the truth.”
Elsewhere, the software offers up vapid clichés (“His back stiffened”); redundancies (goose pimples crop up on Marian’s “skin,” as though there were anywhere else for goose pimples to appear); and awkward similes (the connection Marian has with Morel feels “as if I had invited her into my clothes with me”).
But such a dismissive reader can easily be caught short by an artificially created original image (“The birds looked like little monks, meditating”) or solid observation (“When I was first drafting the Poem, I had been trying to convey a sense of confusion at the assault of surrounding voices, and Charlotte’s lines always conveyed a sense of certainty”). It might have been more interesting not to highlight the computer-generated text in the novel proper, but to save this for an appendix, thereby making it harder, potentially, for a reader to determine the author of any given line.
As a timely experiment in computer-assisted writing, Do You Remember Being Born? is a piquant artifact of our current unsettled zeitgeist. Which of course leaves the big question unanswered: is the resulting novel any good? The poetry in the book is largely doggerel, save a few inspired moments, such as the reference to “the days of prismatic color … when there was no smoke and color was / fine.” It should come as little surprise that this and other similar instances are the verbatim work of Moore herself.
But Marian is a strong protagonist: self-assured and self-doubting in roughly equal measure, a poet so famous that garbage collectors and carpet cleaners have read her. (Rather than being a kind of pallid wish fulfillment, Michaels uses these brief incidents as a sly commentary on the modern economy’s lack of jobs for people trained in the humanities.) And as a 75-year-old, she is that rarity in modern fiction: an older protagonist in a culture that fetishizes youth.
Michaels asks big questions and does not always provide clear answers. The implications of the book are discomfiting for those who believe that art cannot be ceded to unfeeling, insensate machines, or those who prize humanistic qualities such as depth of emotion and uniqueness of voice over efficiency and predictability. Whether the novel will endure as a monument in human history, or end up as a kind of time capsule reflecting a fleeting cultural moment, is impossible to predict.