The machine

by Sam Kriss

It’s early when I wake up. I’m dehydrated, there’s a clammy taste in my mouth, but I’m not too hungover. It’s better, actually: if I’d drunk enough water the night before I’d have slept through my alarm clock, and as a writer it’s important that I get in to work on time. It’s not long after dawn, but the cold bright Moscow light is already shining through my curtains.

Ludmilla, my landlady, is already up, frying eggs in the kitchen.

“I didn’t hear you come in last night,” she says.

“I was quite late,” I tell her. “I’m sorry.”

She chuckles, showing her fractured row of coffee-stained teeth. “You artists,” she says. “You’re all such bohemians. Drunk all night, dishevelled in the morning… reminds me of my youth.”

I look down at myself. I hadn’t thought I looked too bad: my boiler suit is freshly pressed, and I’ve had a shave. Ludmilla is busying herself about the kitchen, salting the eggs, slicing bacon, boiling water. “Coffee?” she asks.

“Thanks,” I say. “Have the newspapers come in yet?”

“Only Izvestiya.”

“That’s fine.”

After breakfast, I take the tram to work. Early as it is, it’s already full. Minor Party functionaries in trim suits sit on the hard chairs, reading Pravda. I glance at the headlines over their shoulders. In front of me a fat babushka in an ugly floral blouse and a shawl sways with the jerking motion of the tram, at one point staggering backwards into me. She mumbles an apology through her gums.

Getting off the tram, I can see my workplace hanging ponderously on the horizon. The Pushkin All-Soviet Literature Factory sits heavily above the rest of Smolenskaya. The old six-storey buildings with their cracking paint, criss-crossed by tram lines and telephone wires, look like a gaggle of peasant huts under the shadow of an opulent gold-domed church. From some of the more narrow streets close by you can’t see it at all, until you turn a corner and there it is: lurking at the end of the boulevard, rising haughtily above the cityscape around you, its broad smokestack plunging blasphemously into the crystalline morning skies. It was built in the early years of the Revolution, I think, when stark modernism was still considered a virtue in architecture. I’ve seen old photos: back then, there was something quite elegant about its simple angularity, its sheer smooth sides folding together to form a vast tapering roof. Stalin hated it, of course: in the thirties, he had the smooth concrete faces overlaid with crinkly columns and false windows; he put onion domes on its four corners in the hope that they would detract attention from the huge chimney. It’s a shame, but what can we do? I’ve thought about petitioning the managing committee to restore the old façade, but there’s precious little money in the state coffers for architectural renovation these days.

Off to work, then. I walk down Kompozitorskaya to the factory, clocking in by the heavy wrought-iron gates that ring the building. “Morning, comrade,” says the guard. “Good morning,” I say. Past the freight bay, where a big lorry growls steadily as two men in overalls carry a pallet of magnetic tapes to be taken out to the printers, under the wide arch of the main entrance, into the factory floor. There are no windows here, but it’s bright and cool: a hundred or so fluorescent lamps hang down from the ceiling, and fans slice through the sweaty air. In the middle of the floor sits the Machine. Its tendrils reach out into every corner: conveyor belts stretch diagonally from the offices in the upper floors, pipes and wires come in from all sides, forming an electric web in which the giant spider-Machine sits, whirring. From its centre a single brass tube reaches out to the ceiling: this is where the steam and fumes from the underground generator are passed out through the smokestack.

During my first week at the job, I was shown round the whole Factory. The technicians explained in slightly condescending language exactly how every part worked and how they fitted in to the grand operation. I don’t remember much of it now: the vodka isn’t good for my memory, and I’ve never been much of a mechanically-inclined man – I am a writer, after all. But I’ll try to explain its workings as best I can.

The Factory produces novels at a rate of between three and five a day. Many of these are rejected at Quality Control, of course, but that’s still an impressive number, proof that mechanisation works in all areas of life. In the Concept Office is a huge punch-card computer. In the founding days of the Factory a team of typists was marshalled to input the basic details of hundreds of thousands of novels: Russian and international, popular and literary, classic and contemporary. More novels are still being added, of course: those from the Factory that have won particular acclaim or sold particularly well, and those from abroad that get past the censors. This information forms the computer’s database, a set of numbers that it continually re-arranges. When the computer comes up with a concept that one of the literature commissars in the office considers viable, it produces a punch-card which is sent on to Development. There, a series of engines take the basics – genre, plot structure, setting, hero, antagonist – and flesh them out. There’s a new computer there (made with American technology, although nobody likes to admit that) for creating characters based on not only the complex figures of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, but Freudian and Lacanian theory. Also in Development is a machine running an algorithm that produces titles and generates a name for the novel’s supposed author. This data is sent on to Structure, where another set of engines reconfigure it into chapters and paragraphs. Finally, a series of punch-cards is sent out to all the relevant areas on the factory floor, where hundreds of workers with their various machines do the messy work of actually writing the story. It’s all stored on magnetic tape. One final machine stitches together all the various fragments produced across the Factory into a single coherent story. Once it’s finished, two reels are sent out: one to the printers, and one to the Criticism Factory in Leningrad, where a similar array of machines condenses the novel for a review to be published in the Literaturnaya Gazeta.

It’s all very efficient, but I can understand that some people might find it a little soulless too. Surely great literature can only be produced by the mind of a single genius? Surely a machine can never do the work of a poet? But the fact is that the Machine writes very good books. The more literary ones are reviewed in foreign journals, in countries where nobody knows about the Factory: the Americans gush about the soul of freedom buried just below the surface of the text, the enduring libertarian sensitivity that survives Communist oppression; the French, meanwhile, are similarly enthusiastic about the wealth of psychoanalytical readings offered, the delicate handling of complex philosophical problems. The British, it must be said, tend not to like them all that much, but even there the odd book will win some praise: The Skylarks, for instance, or The Last Passion of Vasily Fyodorovich. Why is this? Well, it’s not really the Machine that writes the books, it’s all of us: all of the thousand or so writers at the factory. The Machine is just the tool we use to express ourselves. Some of the finest literary minds of our generation are here, in blue boiler suits, cranking machinery and tightening conveyor belts.

I work on the dialogue gears. They’re near the front of the Machine: dialogue is one of the last things to be slotted in to the novel. The gears themselves form a tall chrome cylinder, around which a dozen or so workstations are laid. They make a clicking noise as they spin, the clicking of a hundred declarations of love, a thousand confrontations between fathers and sons, grandiose speeches, morose reflections, angst-ridden confessions. If you have an ear for it, you can tell what kind of dialogue is being produced by the tone of the clicking. Right now, the gears are clacking along at a fairly high speed, so it’s probably a popular novel, or maybe a less important exchange in something weightier. The noise is quite high-pitched too, coming from near the top of the cylinder: the larger deep characterisation gears at the bottom aren’t engaged. A trashy romance, I’d guess. But then after only a few seconds there’s a whirr and the gears fall silent – it’s only a very short exchange, so probably from a war story or a science-fiction adventure.

I sit down at my station and clock in again. The conveyor belt to my right hums into life. While I wait for my first assignment I chat to my neighbour a bit. Pyotr is a heavy-set man with a bristly moustache and a long mane of slicked-back hair. He wears his boiler suit with two buttons open, revealing a pale flabby chest dotted with hairs and the silver Orthodox cross he wears around his neck. We don’t agree on much: I think he considers me something of a naïve ideologue. We’re still good friends. Before the full mechanisation of literature Pyotr had been a poet, a romantic nationalist. One stanza of his became quite famous; it was chanted by soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Before my time, of course.

The roaring gales of our land command you

The streams that cut through ice and snow

The pastures of your kinsmen implore you

Go on, to victory, go!

“Did you see Magda last night, then?” Pyotr asks.

“I did,” I say. “We went for a drink at that place off Khamovnichesky.”

“Anything?”

I shake my head. Magda’s family is Czech, I think, or Polish. She works as a typist at the accounting department, and so far she’s rebuffed all my advances good-naturedly but firmly. She has a lover in the Navy, Valentin. He’s stationed at Vladivostok, and sends a tearful telegram once a week. She showed me a couple. They’re all rigidly formulaic, the same soppy dross every time, far less inventive or emotional than the love-letters the Machine produces.

“I don’t know what that girl’s thinking,” says Pyotr. “Her boy’s probably getting up to all sorts of shit out in the East. Brothels on every corner out in Vladivostok. Fucking sailors get all the fun, right?”

“She’ll come round,” I say.

“You just need to man up,” says Pyotr. “Grab her by the shoulders, tell her you’re madly in love with her. None of this taking her out for wine and pirozhki. You’ll only spoil her.”

“Vodka,” I say. “Not wine.”

Pyotr sniffs. “I like a girl who knows how to drink.”

The conveyor belt makes a clunking sound and deposits a punch-card in the tray. I examine it. The exchange I’m to write is for Where The Mountains Meet The Sky, a rural melodrama set around the time of the emancipation of the serfs. Not my favourite project, but better than the war thrillers that have come to dominate the Factory’s output. A line of code is printed along the top of the card: the dialogue is between Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov, a small landowner who wants to sell the family estate and move to the city, and Olga, his conservative mother.

“What’ve you got?” says Pyotr, peering over.

“Melodrama,” I say. “Look at these figures.” I show him the row of numbers. “Seven for register. Seven for intensity. Eight for statement length.”

“You’re such a snob,” says Pyotr. “You’d rather every book we wrote was just terse despair, wouldn’t you? You’re like a little Kafka.”

I chuckle a bit at that. There’s another whirr from the gear-cylinder, and it falls silent. It’s my turn. I walk up and reconfigure the dials, set the stylistic parameters, input the novel code, then slot in the card. As the wheels churn I smoke a cigarette, leaning against the cylinder itself, enjoying the feeling of its throb. Eventually it clanks to a halt and spits out a reel of magnetic tape, along with a paper copy of the dialogue I’ve just written. I have to proofread, of course, and make such adjustments as are needed: I am a writer, not a mechanic.

Olga, her head bent low by her misery, went to stand by the window of their dacha. “Look at all this, Aleksandr,” she moaned. “This is your land. This is the land your fathers fought with musket and sabre to protect. These fields you disparage so cruelly are nourished not only by the tenderness of the earth but by the blood of your heroic ancestors. How can you refuse so solemn a duty? How can you turn your back on the history of our family?”

“I see only dead black soil,” said Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov. “I see only the dismal weight of the centuries bearing down on us. Our history is a prison! Yes, I dare to say it! Our noble ancestors keep us in as much servitude as they did the serfs! They stare at us with a baleful eye from the portraits on our walls and fix us in our allotted place! Don’t you want to be free, Mother? Don’t you want to escape the tyranny of our past?”

“What freedom, my son, what freedom? You would exchange the wide expanse of our homeland for the gutters and filth of the city? You would walk with beggars and Jews on every corner? Oh, how could I have given birth to such a son, one who spits on the graves of his fathers? Forgive me, Lord, forgive me! Mikhail, forgive me for giving you so impetuous an heir!”

“Mikhail is dead, Mother. He is dead, and I will not allow him to rule over me from below the ground! The farm is mine now, and it is for me to decide what will be done with it. Your pitiful wailing will not alter the course I have chosen.”

As I read on the exchange intensifies, insults fly from both ends of the room, until Aleksandr, overcome by fury, grabs a rolling-pin – and there the dialogue ends, of course; the matricide itself has already been written, and if I want to read it I will have to buy the book.

It’s not exceptional, but it’ll do: I punch the card number into a keypad and send the roll of tape down another conveyor belt to be stitched into the rest of the novel. More cards arrive. Writing Where The Mountains Meet The Sky is more of a mindless labour than I like to admit. Others are more engaging; the parameters are looser. For quite a few I have to make several versions on the dialogue gears, pick one that I think works the best, then feed the tape into the gears again and make such alterations as are necessary. For literary texts this input is important. The dialogue gears are an advanced piece of machinery, but the imagery and metaphor cogs used are far more rudimentary than those elsewhere in the Machine, and sometimes a writer has to fill the gaps. That makes all the difference. It’s the difference between this:

 “You do give me happiness,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “But my sadness is so huge, it swallows up all the happiness you give me. I love you, Yuri, but my misery is stronger than your love. It’ll destroy you. That’s why I can’t stay.”

And this:

 “Yes,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “You do give me happiness. But you can’t ever make me happy. There’s a hollowness inside of me. There’s a black hole right at the heart of my soul, and it sucks in all the love and happiness you give me. If you keep me, and keep giving me all your love and all your joy, it’ll suck you in too. You’ll be left like me. Yuri, I love you too much to let that happen. If I stay with you I’ll swallow up your soul.”

Eventually a whistle sounds out, and it’s time for lunch. I go upstairs to meet Magda. She’s sitting alone in front of her typewriter at the accountancy department, her head cradled in her arms, sobbing gently.

“Are you alright?” I say.

She doesn’t say anything. She just dangles a thin piece of paper in front of me with a limp hand.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s from Valentin,” she says. “How could he?” She collapses into tears. I read.

Magda,

The time I spent with you was the happiest time of my life. Your letters gave me solace in this distant city. But we are both human, and we both have needs, and I think it would be better for both of us if we moved on to other people. I will not forget you.

With love,

Valentin

“I know what he’s been doing,” spits Magda. “He’s been screwing some whore out in Vladivostok. I loved him. How could he?”

I put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”

We go to Presnenskiy Park and sit on a bench in the shade, under the haughty gaze of one of the skyscrapers that cluster around the banks of the river. I’ve bought some blini, which we eat with sour cream. She moans some more about Valentin, while I try not to reveal my inner exultation. She’s not crying any more, at least.

“Let’s get some vodka,” she says suddenly.

“I do still have writing to do,” I say.

“And I still have counting. Come on, you old reactionary. I’ve just been dumped. I want to get drunk.”

She seems more cheerful as we walk to a café. It’s on Krasnaya Presnya, a busy road, and the passing apparatchiks and bureaucrats look at us with thinly veiled contempt as we sit with our glasses.

“To new beginnings,” says Magda.

“To new beginnings,” I say. We clink glasses and drink.

After the third glass Magda is positively exuberant. “To be honest,” she says, “I don’t know what I was doing all that time. Waiting for months on end for Valentin to come back when there are so many other people here in Moscow. Like you.”

She sidles up to me a little, and stares into my eyes for a moment. We kiss. My hand moves down from her shoulder to the small of her back, hers strokes the back of my neck.

“Decadents!” shouts an old woman further down the street. Magda draws away, embarrassed. She pours herself another glass.

We walk back to the Factory hand in hand. At the gate Magda plants a kiss on my cheek. “Meet me tonight,” she whispers.

“Where?”

“Here. At the Factory. After the whistle. When everyone’s gone. By the description generator.”

I walk – somewhat unsteadily, it must be said – back to the dialogue gears.

“You stink of booze,” says Pyotr. “I didn’t see you in the canteen. Where were you?”

“I went out with Magda,” I say. “To Krasnopresnenskaya.”

“That girl again? You’re wasting your time. There are so many other girls here. What about Anna at the plot-device device? She’s pretty. And single.”

“Magda’s not with Valentin any more. I’m seeing her tonight.”

That gets him interested, he rubs his belly. “Where?”

“Here. By the description generator. After everyone’s gone.”

He whistles. “Nice.”

The rest of the day drags on a little. I write a few comic exchanges – the Machine can be surprisingly funny. In one, a village idiot finds himself unexpectedly called for an audience with the Tsar due to a bureaucratic mix-up. Another has two buffoonish philosophers discussing the nature of Hegelian ontological Essence in relation to a potato, and ends when one of them, in desperation, eats it. Then another from Where The Mountains Meet The Sky: Aleksandr is in court, charged with the murder of his mother. The judge accuses him with dread gravity of the heinous crime of not only killing Olga, but of hating her as well. In an impassioned plea, Aleksandr quotes Luke 14:26 at the courtroom, he argues for the eradication of all things old and the construction of a bright, shining new Russia, free from the strictures of Church and tradition. The judge, baffled by the radicalism of the youth, condemns him to death. The Machine gives the judge a demotic register, which I have to correct manually. Something must have got lodged in one of the gears again. These things happen.

Finally the whistle sounds and the machines start to wind down. Pyotr nudges me in the back as he leaves. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “Have fun.”

I stay at my desk until the guard comes. “We’re done, comrade,” he says.

“I’m just doing some proofreading,” I say. “I’ll be finished soon.”

The guard shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He chucks me a key. “Lock up afterwards, would you? Dedication to the job’s a commendable quality, but I need to get drunk.”

Only then do I set off: away from the dialogue gears, past the exposition engine, past the monologue machine, past the plot-device device, to where the description generator juts out of the main body of the Machine. It’s not a tall cylinder like the dialogue gears, but a big misshapen metal box from which cogs and conveyor belts extrude at seemingly random intervals. There aren’t any chairs, either. The writers on description have to work standing up.

Magda’s there already, perching on the edge of one of the desks that abut the machine. She beckons me forward with a single finger. I grin. We kiss.

“I thought today wouldn’t end,” she says.

“You’ve only had to wait a day,” I say.

She pulls me closer, and starts fumbling with the buttons of my boiler suit. I press myself against her. She overbalances for a second, reaches out with one hand, pulls down a lever on the side of the generator. There are a series of clunks, then a hiss, then the familiar whirring sound of a machine warming up. The desk starts to vibrate.

“Shit,” says Magda.

And then another noise, from inside the machine. A sudden scream that lasts for a fraction of a second before being cut off. Then a crack. The cracking of bones.

I lunge for the lever and turn off the engine. With Magda’s help I wrench one of the iron coverings from its surface. She screams. A body slides out and lands in a disjointed heap on the factory floor. Its back is broken, its legs are mangled, its head is twisted to one side, its eyes stare emptily into the distance. It’s Pyotr: fat, moustachioed, naked, one hand still clamped around his cock. There’s no blood. But printed all over his body are words, lines of text, random descriptions from the generator, weaving patterns across the dead poet’s thighs, his chest, his arms, his face, stamping their mark on him, claiming him as their own.

Across steppes and pastures she flies, yearning, endlessly yearning

The room was dark but cosy, warmed by the pleasant heat of a small stove that crackled merrily as we

the narrow streets, tinged yellow by cumulative layers of grime and misery

the grand prospect of the river itself, that

He was a short man, but with an intelligent face, one that never seemed to grow angry or to

thundering like a herd of wild beasts, full of fresh energy and vigour

given an eerie tinge by the soft light of the moon

deep in its sylvan tranquillity she

the inviting warmth of her body

as if nothing had come before this moment, as if this moment would never end, as

where the yellow beacon beckons

A narrow field was

next to the

splendorous

his desire for

if