The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road: A Comparative Reading

I purchased The Scenarists of Europe and 1 the Road concurrently, though this was unintentional on my part. Or rather, the only intention was: “Ah yes, there are several books I’ve been meaning to buy for some time now, let’s pick them up all at once.” A third book in this same frenzy of book-buying, A City of Han, might even claim a tenuous thematic connection to the other two, but that’s only if you’re really reaching. It’s still a book I want to talk about, but more on A City of Han in another post.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I would do if I were given the infinite resources (time, money, mental stamina, ability to decipher subtext) to pursue a graduate or postgraduate degree, or heck, even just pick up another bachelor’s. I have a couple topics picked out for English literature, and one of them would be travel writing. I love it on a surface level—living vicariously through the writer in other times and places, opening yourself up to novel (hah, hah) experiences from the comfort of your couch. But as an immigrant, and as someone who’s worked abroad, I also live for the self-conscious reflection that comes with navigating cultural differences, Othering, and living between two worlds.  I don’t think that was really on my mind when I bought these books, and yet it’s a shared characteristic.

Straight up, I didn’t entirely enjoy either of them. I am, frankly, too much of an illiterate peon to fully grasp what Judge was up to in Scenarists, and novelty only carries AI-generated text so far. But something linked them in my mind, and the books began feeding off of each other.

They are both novels deeply about place. 1 the Road is literally a travelogue. The movement in Scenarists is much more oblique, and perhaps more psychological than physical, but the focus is nonetheless on locations and environments (though these environments seem to be external manifestations of interior conditions). So much so, in fact, that I would have had a hard time placing the book in its proper historical context if I didn’t have access to the back-of-the-book summary, and that I still will refrain from using the “historical fiction” tag. What if the undeniably striking Imagist* prose of Scenarists had been pressed through the banal cheesecloth of times, dates, cities, local businesses that constitute the bulk of 1 the Road?

The introduction to 1 the Road highlights the typewriter, and then later the word processor, as tools that didn’t replace writing or render it obsolete but simply helped writers do more writing by removing a lot of awful tedium. The implication is that perhaps an AI** can do the same thing. What if an AI could help you work through your writer’s block, or generate a plot to play around with? Of course, at that point we’re discussing higher-level procedures than simply collecting random input and spitting it back out in more or less semantically intelligible English. That’s where things like perspective, themes, characterization, and description come into play.

Maybe the AI writing tool of the future won’t be one that generates anything for you. Maybe instead it’ll train itself on more books than you could read in a lifetime—all the books you meant to read but never did, all the ones that people and crit partners keep comparing your work to—and highlight the differences, whether it’s as granular as sentence length or as “big picture” pacing or as abstract as characterization.

Certainly AI isn’t going to replace writers, or human writing, at least not human creative writing. (After all, the AP is already using computer-generated writing for sports coverage, among other topics.) But I feel like if you gave a writer like Judge the building blocks generated by something like the AI at work in 1 the Road it would be interesting. The banal input of date and time might have been all it took to ground Judge’s surreal writing and turn the book into something my tiny brain could more readily grasp. Judge’s deft hand at visceral and discomfiting images would have had a field day riffing on some of the weird stuff a computer trained on Beat writers spits out.

Sometimes you read a book because you like it, and sometimes you read a book because it’s good for you—the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road, together, constitute an experience that I didn’t particularly enjoy at the time, but that months after the fact I’m glad that I had.

*Bro I know Imagism is term usually reserved for poetry but I don’t care.

**Bro I know “AI” is a vague term that doesn’t really capture what this was and also invites popular imaginations (HAL 9000, Skynet, the Matrix) that are far from the actual truth of things (machine learning, neural networks, training sets, etc.) but I don’t care.

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