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The After Wife

By Cass Hunter

Trapeze, Hachette Book Group, 2018

For a creeped-out experience, imagine this: Your wife dies and you and your daughter are devastated. Then your brilliant computer-scientist wife’s work partner comes to the funeral with an instruction – come to the lab immediately. When you arrive, you are confronted with a life-like robot who is the spitting image of your dead wife, Rachel. “She” is called i Rachel, and she is programmed to come home and live with the family.

This story captivated me on so many levels. First it is a very contemporary story about artificial intelligence. That robots will be built to resemble humans and will carry out many of the tasks we take for granted is not a matter of if, but when. That they will not be able to empathize, though scientists may do their best to make that happen, is also likely. At least in the near future.

In The New York Times on Friday October 19, a computer engineer, Yves Behar, is quoted as saying “we should imagine how A.I. can be both smart and compassionate, a combination that can solve the most important human problems…We should be thinking about A.I. in new contexts – the newborn of the overworked parent, the cancer patient who needs round-the-clock attention, and the child with learning and behavioral difficulties. A.I holds great promise for them.”

What? A baby needs human attention, as has been shown over and over again in neo-natal ICUs. A child’s learning experience can be warped by technology, as any parent knows. As for the cancer patient, that horse is already out of the barn; technology may save life for a time, but patients have repeatedly pleaded for more human interaction from their doctors. So, A.I. is not just science fiction. It is already upon us.

Cass Hunter, though, is not writing science fiction. Or not just science fiction. As if to prove her point about i Rachel, her human characters demonstrate the full gamut of emotion. We really feel the grief of Aidan, the husband, and Chloe, the daughter, of the real Rachel. Minor characters are fleshed out and have idiosyncrasies that make them believable. Ms. Hunter has such an ability to get inside her character’s point of view that we actually feel what it would be like to experience a catastrophic aneurysm. That fatal incident sets the story in motion. It is also a brilliant authorial choice. By getting inside the real Rachel’s head at the beginning of the story we empathize with her and can understand (sort of) why, anticipating her untimely death, she tried to “help” her family cope with her absence. But people are never replaceable.

This is a brilliant piece of work, well written and thought provoking. Artificial intelligence: is it a boon or a horror story?

What do you think?


By Hannah Lillith Assadi

Soho Press Inc., 2018

This debut novel was an honoree in the National Book Foundation’s 4 under 35, and a finalist in the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham prize for debut fiction.

My interest was piqued because the first half of the novel is set in Phoenix, my adopted home, and because the book is about friendship between girls. Would this author be a local Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels traced the closeness of lifetime female friendship and rivalry?

Assadi is lyrical in describing the desert in winter rain, when the creosote sends an intoxicating smoky smell into the air. Much of the book reads like memoir, overlaid with mysticism. In 1995, the Desert Mountain High School, which Assadi herself attended, was built, encroaching on native land. The book’s narrator is called Ahlam, and, just like the author, her father is Palestinian and her mother Israeli. So, in this novel, a sense of dislocation pervades. “The high school, Assadi writes, “was erected on Yavapai land. This was normal. The entire city was erected on someone else’s land. My father told me to be vigilant.”

Ahlam is not vigilant. She falls into teenage friendship with Laura, at first the stronger character. Laura transgresses at every turn, and drags Ahlam with her. The two meet an older man, Dylan, an artist, while freshmen in high school, and he remains in touch with Laura from New York, inviting them to visit. After leaving school, the eighteen-year-olds move to the Big Apple to pursue artistic careers and live with Dylan.

For the inexperienced girls, New York is a vortex of drugs and sordid parties. Laura slips further into dependency, while Ahlam seems unable to help her, to leave, or to confront Dylan, Laura’s enabler. The book weaves back and forth between Ahlam’s despairing life in the big city and her
parents, lonely, sick and depressed, back in Phoenix. The lack of a moral compass for these girls is apparent, and, as if to explain this, Ahlam several times refers to her parent’s warring backgrounds, their constant fighting, and the way they pray differently. The hard edges of everything inflict wounds on Ahlam. Rarely have I read a novel where the narrator seems so ill at ease in the world.

And yet, Hannah Lillith Assadi is a writer of great intelligence, insight, and with the ability to describe our changing world deftly. Here, for example is how she describes Phoenix: “The desert, once dark, is slurred with new lights, traffic on the freeway, sirens in the distance.” The word ‘slurred” is exactly how the rushing traffic looks on the 101 at night. Given its usual meaning, which refers to the sound of drunken speech, this word takes on significance, as Laura, and to a lesser extent Ahlam, trash their health and beauty in the pursuit of sophistication and “civilization.” The book is an elegy for an innocence that never really was.