Joyce Carol Oates: “EDickinsonRepliluxe” from Virginia Quarterly Review

mod

Art from the USFCA JCO page: “JCO as Emily Dickinson”

So lonely! Shyly they glanced at each other across the dining room table in whose polished cherry wood surface candle flames shivered like dimly recalled dreams. One said, “We should purchase a Repliluxe,” as if only now thinking of it, and the other said quickly, “Repliluxes are too expensive and you hear how they don’t survive the first year.”
“Not all! Only –”
“As of last week, it was thirty-one percent.”
So the husband had been on the Internet, too. The wife took note, and was pleased.
Four in her heart she’d be earning for more life! more life!
Nine years of marriage. Nineteen?
There is an hour when you realize: here is what you have been given. More than this, you won’t receive. And what this is, what your life has come to, will be taken from you. In time.

A few weeks ago, I heard about Oates’ “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” a story of a grad student’s encounter with Robert Frost, through ModPo, the poetry MOOC I’m taking. While I was working on that story, Prof. Al Filreis told us about this story about Emily Dickinson (it’s available online), the poet whose work kicked off our class. It’s from the story collection Wild Nights!, an entire collection of Oates stories about other writers: Poe, Hemingway, Henry James, Mark Twain, and, yes, Emily, whose poem gives the collection its title.

I found this to be lighter than the Frost story, perhaps because it’s in the form of speculative fiction. At some point in the future, it becomes possible to order a Repliluxe: a sort of android which somewhat conforms to certain characteristics of a famous person.

“What the Repliluxe is, technically speaking, is a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original individual, as if his or her essence, or ‘soul’ – if you believe in such concepts – had been sucked out of the original being, and reinstalled, in an entirely new environment, by the genius of Repliluxe.… What you have in EDickinsonRepliluxe is a simulation of the historical ‘Emily Dickinson’ that isn’t quite so complex of course as the original. Each Repliluxe varies, sometimes considerably, and can’t be predicted. But you must not expect from your Repliluxe anything like a ‘real’ human being, as of course you know, since you’ve read our contract, that Repliluxe are not equipped with gastrointestinal systems, or sex organs, or blood, or a ‘warm, beating heart’ – don’t be disappointed! They are programmed to respond to their new environment more or less as the original would have done, albeit in a simplified manner.”

While the details of the industry are interesting in themselves and feed into the plot, the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between a couple and their EDickinsonRepliluxe, and thus, is, as most stories are, the story of peoples’ relationships with and to each other.

The Emily automaton (one of the many benefits of Modpo has been that I now consider myself on a first-name basis with a number of poets, including Emily Dickinson) is indeed quite stilted, at least at first. So are the Krims, Maddie and Harold. The electronic Emily is initially as reclusive as she was reputed to be in life, but she starts baking and gardening, and eventually Maddie filches a scrap of paper from her pocket:

Why am — I —
Where am — I —
When am — I —
And — You? —
A poem! A poem by Emily Dickinson! Handwritten in the poet’s small, neat schoolgirl hand, which was perfectly legible if you peered closely. Eagerly the wife consulted the Collected Poems and saw that this was an entirely original poem that could only have been written in the Krim household in Golders Green.

It’s an interesting question – JCO wrote those lines, of course, as part of the story, but in the world inside the story, is this an Emily Dickinson poem? Is it a poem by whomever created the electronic brain of the EDickinsonRepliluxe? Is it a distillation of other poems, or the confused ramblings of an imperfect automated computerized language generating system? Right now in ModPo we’re considering poetry written by chance – rule-generated extracts from other text – and we’re sorting out where the creativity lies. Is the art of John Cage’s “Writing Through Howl” in the Ginsberg source material, in the creation of a process to extract the mesostic, or in the decision to use the name “Allen Ginsberg” as the spine and the text of the poem as the source? Is there art there at all? Add to that the issue of “What is a Mind?” from last week’s Intro to Philosophy course – if artificial intelligence hasn’t yet reached a state of sufficient complexity to be considered a mind, what about the system consisting of programmer and computer, is that a mind plus, a shared mind, an offspring mind? – and that’ll keep me busy for a while.

But back to Emily and the Krims. On second read, I was struck by how much like an automaton Maddie seemed in the opening paragraph. In fact, I dabbled with the notion that she, too, was a replica Harold had created from an earlier wife, adding to his reluctance to bring in another model, but that didn’t really fit. The voice of the story overall is odd, keeping me at bay much of the time, with third person omniscient head-hopping on a grand scale, zooming out to long shots and in to Maddie and out again, and to Harold. Not a good place to be, Harold’s head. Even worse to be in the same room with him, Emily discovers.

The ending brings it all home – poetry, Emily, Maddie, Harold – in a perfect little circle. Or, more accurately, frees it out into the world, where perhaps it should’ve been all along, and leaves a satisfying aftertone.

Last year, Oates turned the story into a play titled “Wild Nights!”, read at Vinyard Playhouse on Martha’s Vinyard. Emily is a central figure for her: “She represents something mysterious, elusive; I’ve read her poetry every day all my life”; she’s written quite a bit about the poet. So it’s fitting she’s created this story, perhaps a wish to bring Emily into the future for herself.

It’s equally fitting that in the past year I’ve come to appreciate both Emily and Oates (with whom I’m not yet on a first-name basis, though I do sometimes follow her on Twitter during those times when I’m not overwhelmed by the whole Twitter thing) far more in the past year.

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