The Machine of Understanding Other People

In his review of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Matt Rowan wrote:

This latter tale is the kind of story I wish I’d written (but didn’t / can’t), because it so perfectly encapsulates all those ideas of contemporary pluralism and social equity of modern liberalism, and the realistic challenges of actually understanding someone else from their point of view.

This is in reference to “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” the final story of the collection. And while that story clearly engages with those issues, I would argue that most if not all of the others do as well, to some extent, and that “The Machine of Understanding Other People” is a sort of capstone that confronts themes head-on that have been dealt with in various ways throughout the book.

In “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature,” Lucy makes a project out of secretly monitoring a family’s home, inhabiting their lives in her mind and living out their tragedy vicariously.

In “No Sun,” a slightly science-fictiony story where the earth has stopped rotating, the problem of understanding other people appears even during a medium-intensity apocalypse. First, the narrator and his girlfriend, who have only been dating for a few weeks, must decide to flee civilization together. At the beginning of the story, he leaves her alone for a while,

more for her sake than out of any compulsion to get away from her. Of the two of us, she was the one who liked to be alone, and I had begun to see the same fidgeting and irritability that meant she needed two hours to gather herself amidst her introverted rituals, developed over a lifetime of quiet moments within her own mind, without me wandering around the house, making noises, planning, asking her questions about her allergies.

She was faced with the prospect of never being apart from me again.

And then on top of that, there’s the division of the narrator and Sara vs. the rest of the world: they are moving away from the city while others move toward it, and they must fight for what’s theirs even to the death if they want to survive.

“Vaara in the Woods”: a man considers himself, as he starts a new family, in the context of his ancestors. “Easy Love”: a young American doctor encounters a transplanted Iraqi family that owns his corner store. “The Mother” works differently: one of the stories focused on the direct experiences around Jeremy’s stabbing, the story is itself an exercise in understanding other people, a stream-of-consciousness burst from a woman whose son has been murdered.

“The Wildlife Biologist” takes us to the understandings between family members during an awkward divorce and reconciliation, and the isolation of misunderstood teenagers. The old couple in “The Peach,” telling old stories and teasing each other, have a mature understanding of each other that can enfold their granddaughter, who’s not having as easy a time with her own husband. “The Cop” is like “The Mother.”

“Hair University” returns to the setting of “No Sun,” and to its slight sci-fi-ness, though with a different conceit. Here, a family outcast is determined to risk “full-body disintegration” so he can have hair again; the plan does not help his non-bald brothers understand him better. The next, a story about aliens, is a breezy two pages of understanding-ourselves-by-understanding-other-cultures sci-fi where the aliens are so much like us they too talk about how “[w]e share in common our existence. As conscious beings we are linked by our loneliness and by our questions of BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.”

There are a few more, but I’ll stop. So we get to the end, “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” and what does Somerville have to say about all this? One way to break up the last story is in three parts, based on who understands whom:

  1. Neither Tom nor Eliza understands anyone else.
  2. Eliza has used the Machine on Tom; she understands him, but he doesn’t understand anyone.
  3. Tom has used the Machine on many people back in Chicago and has decided never to use it again. He does not understand Eliza, but she does him.

In the first part, Tom and Eliza must accomplish a goal together, finding the Machine, in order for each of them to get their inheritance. They don’t really like each other and don’t really trust each other, and they have unequal desires to reach their goal, but they accomplish it in spite of those obstacles. They can agree to work together for mutual benefit but neither has a very good time and succeeding doesn’t necessarily change that.

In the second part, Eliza has warmed to Tom dramatically. Now she understands him, she knows why he does much of what he does and what he feels while they are together. She still doesn’t completely like him, but her tension about what he might do or how he might act is greatly relieved, and she has greater confidence that he might not turn out terribly. Tom’s feelings toward Eliza haven’t substantially changed in themselves, but he does seem a bit warmed up as a possible result of her own drop of hostilities.

In the third part, Tom has changed just about his whole outlook on life. His experiences with the Machine have changed him irretrievably and in many ways he now has trouble dealing with the normal world. Now, even without the helmet, he empathizes with other people—painfully. And he feels a connection to Eliza.

The first part is normal human existence, functional but unfulfilling. Empathy is intriguing, and can be helpful, but it’s also exhausting, and you can completely lose yourself in it. And I still don’t know what to make of the fact that the Machine was designed as a weapon.

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville

Matt Rowan of Bob Einstein’s Literary Equations broke my rules when he challenged me to read some contemporary literature, but with a local hook I decided to go with it. Good move: Chicago writer Patrick Somerville’s collection of short stories, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, couldn’t have impressed me more. The writing is just what I want from contemporary fiction—not anything I can really describe, unfortunately, but it’s good—as is the form of the quasi- or semi-linked short story. And I’m a fan of Somerville’s themes: his humanism, his appreciation of the surreal and dreamlike, and the primacy and all but insuperable difficulty of emotional connection between humans.

In the title story, the first in the collection, a group of three friends is at work together on their projects for the School of Surreal Thought and Design. Right off, it’s important to think of things like “projects” and “schools” very loosely. Dylan’s project is to write a novel, Lucy’s is surveillance of a former classmate in a persistent vegetative state, and the narrator’s is creating a model of the universe in miniature in miniature:

“Do you know,” I say, “how sometimes little boys, for science fairs, decide they want to make a model of the solar system?”

“Sort of.”

“So they find maybe a basketball and cut it in half for the sun? And then they use, like, a marble for the Earth? And so on? And their dads probably help and it turns into this huge project with cardboard and rope and everything? And how maybe sometimes the dad even says to the little boy, ‘You know, Timmy, if we really wanted to be accurate about this model we’d have to drive five whole miles away to properly include Uranus,’ and the kid is totally into it? Like his mind is blown by the scale?”

“Yeah,” says Kevin. I know about that.”

“I make models of that.”

“Cool,” he says. “Wait. Of what, now?”

“I make models of little boys and sometimes their father making models of the solar system.”

Poor Kevin then goes on to ask if this is the narrator’s job. “Kinda,” she tells him. But it’s also just a project, a school project, for a school that isn’t all that real, or at least doesn’t give any degrees or certificates, but for which the students seem to take their projects awfully seriously. The three friends hang out in their surveillance van, watching and listening to the Conrad family taking care of their son Ryan. Dylan finishes his novel. The narrator ends up visiting the SSTD and finding it even more bizarre and unexpected than it would have seemed already. And soon she has a new project, encouraging Lucy to make genuine contact with Ryan and his mother.

In this way Somerville takes a path from alienation to emotional connection via whimsy and unreality. Not all the stories are connected in terms of taking place in the same fictional world (or are they?), but for the ones that are—let’s call them based on the Pangea-world—this is a key concept.

The basis of the Pangea-world is made clear, as much as that is possible, in the final story of the collection, “The Machine of Understanding Other People.” Tom, a middle-aged American divorcé, and Eliza, a mid-twenties English social worker who has yet to spend any time in what we would call much of the “real world,” both find out a long-lost uncle has died. They must meet with his lawyer to gain their inheritance, which Eliza knows about already but Tom does not. She’s going to walk away with a few billion dollars. He gets a helmet.

No, no, not a helmet. It’s the Machine of Understanding Other People. Eliza’s grandmother invented it during World War II, as some kind mysterious secret weapon (it was never used as such). While Eliza knows what she’s supposed to do with the cash—“design an institution whose sole purpose was to prevent the destruction of the world,” then build it—Tom has no idea what to do with the contraption he’s awarded and wants no part of it.

Eliza’s project is Pangea, a university for adults to take classes in anything and everything and just do projects. The whole thing is based on whimsy; a footnote lists several of the “departments and programs at Pangea U,” including The Department of Meaningless Projects, Anti-Gravity Fucking, Sweetness, Cetacean Role-Play, Understanding Joy, Giving Gifts, Gifts, and Gift Giving. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the School of Surreal Thought and Design is also a program. It turns out that the world at large isn’t so fond of whimsy, though, and Eliza nearly destroys herself trying to save the world. That’s when Tom will find out why he has this awful machine.

And it is awful, because it works. That’s right, you put a helmet on your head, point an antenna at someone, and boom, you’re inside their head. You experience what they’re experiencing, feel their memories, and have some effect on them as well. And this changes the world in both a smaller and a much larger way than Pangea.

Eliza’s mother created the machine by reducing poetry down to its most distilled essence. The machine of understanding other people is already in your hands, at least one version of it. Patrick Somerville has put it there and he hasn’t done a half-bad job.