[ A few more notes from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, that might entertain]


When you listen to Helene Grimaud play the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto you understand the music itself a little better, I think. There are other, ‘bigger’ performances. ‘Grander’ performances. But in this one she is paired with Claudio Abbado conducting and it is quieter presentation of the work and you are not overcome with the brilliance as much as the substance. I am not qualified to criticize Martha Agerich’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Third, by comparison. It is stupendous, I know. I have loved it for the better part of my life. But the composer is such a genius of the language of music that I wonder if I am missing some of what he has to say simply by the overwhelming technical virtuosity of Argerich playing. She overwhelms you. You can’t escape. But with Grimaud, I’ve had people in the shop stop their browsing and stand in awe to listen.

This was the matter in my head the next day as I tried to write, not only because I had the Rachmaninov playing while I worked. What I was doing with my story had me trapped by the presentation. I had to concentrate more on the substance than the circumstance. What more was there to say than that humanity had failed an obligation to itself. The blatant proof of that was in their very absence from the Earth, was it not? And that was like saying that God’s creation had failed. Was that possible? Wasn’t the idea now that a creation of mankind itself, not of God, could possibly save the day—and perhaps even enough to draw the link back again to God?

The atheist would reject all of this quandary from the start and miss the substance of the argument. God or not, mankind had failed in its primary responsibility. That was, God or no God, to itself. Not to the robots, or to the birds and bees. The birds and bees would take care of their own priorities. As would the robots. The arrogance to believe that we knew enough to outwit nature was part of the problem, was it not? The question becomes: ultimately, what reason would I have then in my story for the robots to save the ass of mankind? We are obviously a failed species, yes? The robots would see this. Except for the fact that we’re not. Not yet. We are still hanging on, by a single mortal thread, perhaps—at least one of them, my Charley, was still in the fight, and what should he be doing now? What next?

That’s the way stories get along.

Remember now, Charley has returned to the earth after a long voyage—he is my Odysseus, and all the human beings are gone, either wiped out by disease or escaped into the heliosphere, but the robots have preserved human culture and continued to perform the various tasks necessary to support all the human facilities, awaiting their return. The robots believe there will be a return because they know some humans fled and others, like Charley, were sent out before the holocaust. And their own survival is dependent on the very same infrastructure and they don’t want to change anything because it might result in a chain reaction of failure they cannot resolve. They are not creators. They are duplicators, but by performing these mundane human tasks and the daily effort of caring for the things of human society, some robots have gained a human self-consciousness. As I have Charley realize, the very effort to act like humans has made them human. And now some of these self-conscious computers are concerned with the idea of actual human return because they understand people will want the robots as slaves again. Charley’s life is now in danger.

Where should my story turn? What I wanted just then was to coax the value of being human out of my protagonist so that he might persuade his digitally blooded captors of his worth. Commanding the keys with some pyrotechnic swordplay was not going to get him anywhere. And the deus ex machina of computer generated graphics simply would not do.

This is the sort of thinking that can put you in your own ether. You miss what’s going on around you. This has happened to me before. I’ve had customers leave the money on the counter and walk away. One moment, I was alone in the shop with the sun catching a corner of the window, and illuminating the glass like a chandelier, while Helene Grimaud explained to me with her fingers what I had been missing, and the next there was a fellow standing at the end of the counter staring at me.

By his look, I was sure he was FBI, but I was evidently wrong.

He says, “I’m here to inspect the building.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a building inspector.”

He handed me a card with the two words, ‘Liberty Mutual,’ in bold 24 pt. Garamond type, and the rest in an eight point nearly too small to read.

I held this card out at focal length between my fingers like a specimen. “You are Mr. Gregory?”

“That’s the name on the card.”

“I just wondered if maybe you had grabbed the wrong one in your rush to get out the door this morning. Besides, you didn’t call first.”

He has all the demeanor of Mr. Clifford. That is, none, which is a demeanor in itself. Sort of a missed demeanor.

He says, “That’s not required. The policy says that we may conduct periodic unscheduled inspections to assure compliance with the restrictions of the policy.”

I was not in the mood for this. I said, “You look like an FBI agent.”

He stood there a moment longer and stared back at me and then turned and went off into the shop to do whatever he had intended to do in the first place. But my concentration on the story was broken. I sat a moment longer and then followed him.

At first, he seemed very interested in the height of the shelves, hauling a rolling ladder over to the highest of those and pulling the tab on a tape-measure to hold the stiff metal strip up to a sprinkler head. I already knew the tops of all the shelves were more than eighteen inches from the sprinklers, which is what I understood to be necessary by fire code. I thought I could hear the disappointment in a released breath as he let the metal tape ravel back into the case.

I watched him from the end of an aisle.

He suddenly turned and asked me, “How much does one of these shelving units weigh?”

“Varies. Less than the weight of a horse. This was a stable at one time. The beams in the basement are all over twelve inches wide.”

He answers that with a, “Yeah?” as if the added detail wasn’t relevant. It was, of course. Margaret’s father had made a point of the fact years ago, to his own satisfaction.

A customer came in then and I went back to the desk. By the time she was taken care of, the ‘inspector’ had disappeared into the back room. My guess was that he wasn’t a reader, so the experience of that more obscure stock would not offer him any more subtle pleasures.

I stayed at the desk to answer a phone call, and then simply to act like I really didn’t give a damn. Ten minutes later Mr. Gregory was back at the counter himself.

“You shouldn’t have boxes on the floor back there. If there was a fire, it could impede egress.”

“That’s from a lot I just bought yesterday. I’ll be taking care of it this morning.”

Mr. Gregory wrote something out on a white form and then tore a pink sheet from beneath and handed that to me.

“Your insurance is suspended pending a follow-up inspection.”

“You can come back this afternoon. It’ll be cleaned up.”

“You’ll get a notice in the mail about when we can come back.”

“That’s not soon enough. My lease is dependent on having insurance.”

“You should have thought about that when you left the boxes there.”

Now, I have dealt with such personalities in the various officious departments of government and public utilities all my life, often displaying the symptoms of the insidious virus of petty power on the human mind. But this was a first for an insurance inspector. They usually issue a warning and give you thirty days to clear the problem up.

I went right to a more accurate defense. “I believe that constitutes harassment, on your part. I’ll be letting your company know about it directly.”

“I don’t care what you believe.”

“No. I don’t think you do.”

Another gauntlet had been thrown. The revolution was afoot, and I was somewhere beneath the heel of a boot. And all the while Helen Grimaud played Rachmaninov as if that was all that really mattered. And I think she is right.