Patrick Doherty

Paddy Doherty is from Longford but lives in Seville. His short stories have appeared in the Irish Independent New Irish Writing, The South Circular, The Bohemyth and have been broadcast on RTE Radio One.

The Orchard Weeps for Song

Victor reached the hotel half an hour before the interview was scheduled to begin and sat down in the quietest corner of the residents’ bar. He took stock of the postmodern opulence surrounding him, the thoughtful-looking furniture and kitsch indecipherable artwork, and sensed there was something in the decor that was mocking him.

The screen on his table lit up with crystal-blue menus. Drinks suggestions and gourmet dishes glistened in high definition, prickling his appetite. He selected a Scottish whiskey he could scarcely afford and waited for it to be delivered. The group nearest to him were engaged in a business meeting of some description, stroked tablet screens and talked quietly to each other while their eyes remained fixed on their devices. Elsewhere, a couple flirted at the bar while a lone drinker watched a film in one of the booths by the window.

A waiter left his whiskey on the table in front of him and shuffled off. Victor studied the ice floating in the alcohol, absorbing the warmth of the liquid in a chemical reaction he struggled to recall. The strength of the first sip momentarily distracted him as he winced in appreciation of its potency. He took up the square paper napkin that came with his drink and admired it. He saw the name of the hotel faintly autographed in the corner, felt the texture of the paper in his fingers and thought it was so finely crafted that it could have passed for linen. He took another sip and peered out the window. Outside the city sprawled, sleek glassy modernity giving way to industrial ruin further toward the horizon.

Across the bar, elevator doors purred open and the journalist strode across the lounge, her heels tacking the cold marble floor, a grey-blue scarf barely tethered to her neck. She had a thin, confident face, shoulder-length brown hair that curled gracefully around her jaw line, and a look that was at once curious and contemptuous. She sat down opposite Victor and gave him a polite, business-like smile.

‘A pleasure,’ she said, letting go of his hand and taking her tablet out of her bag.

‘Likewise,’ he replied, and already felt the need to warn himself not to be hostile or defensive.

She propped up her tablet on a stand, with its camera pointing towards him.

‘Are you going to film me?’ he asked.

‘Yes, just for my own records,’ she said.

‘I would prefer that you didn’t. I don’t like being filmed.’

‘I film all my interview subjects. You can’t rely on memory these days, can you?’

‘All right, then.’

Victor imagined how he might look on the screen of the tablet, his complexion pale and grainier than he realised, and felt his stomach lurch. He reached for the whiskey and drank. The journalist’s gaze narrowed, as if some vital aspect of her subject’s character had been revealed to her in this nondescript act. Victor could feel the sentences writing themselves — the nervous drinker hopelessly self-medicating to assuage the anxiety of having to uphold a lie subject to scrutiny.

‘First of all, tell us why you wrote the book, where you got the inspiration . . .’

She lingered on the word as if the very notion of it amused her. She would let Victor play out his author fantasy for a while before she made her accusations.

‘Why does anyone write a book?’ he replied. ‘Human beings have imaginations. Hypothetical fictions are part of the way we process things, our minds are full of what ifs. . .’

‘But the story itself . . .’ she persisted. Victor’s book was about a father and son who decided to leave their city one day and go on a journey across country on foot. It had little in the way of plot, the narrative being driven by the relationship of the father with his son and their interactions with the people they encounter on the way. In the end, the reader learns that the boy’s father is dying, and the purpose of the trip has been to teach his little boy as much as he can about the world before his death.

‘I lost my own father quite suddenly at a young age. I wrote this book in an effort to recapture a little more time with him, perhaps.’

‘So it’s a memoir?’ she said, eyebrows raised.

‘A memoir of things that never came to pass, if you like.’

The book had received good reviews when it was first released and people had assumed that, like most books published at the time, it was a work of the Lit Org application. That had been Victor’s plan, to let it out into the world like it were any other litgorithm and then claim it later if the response was good. Most human authors made the mistake of announcing it immediately, as such, the claim of authorship rather than the work itself, would receive the most attention.

‘And it isn’t the work of a litgorithm?’ the journalist asked with a slight grin.

‘It isn’t.’

‘There’s no shame in that, you know. In fact, if you developed and programmed your own litgorithm it’s equally, if not more, impressive.’

‘I acknowledge that. But this is my own work. It’s a novel written in the traditional sense, by human imagination.’

Litgorithms had been developed more than half a century before. They processed all the data of the reader, their likes and dislikes, traumas and life experiences, the kind of things that moved and appalled them, which feelings readers desired to experience, which themes and motifs critics admired, and used this data to begin formulating customised, as well as culture-oriented, literature. At first they published their works under pseudonyms like Carson Vonn and Edna Roth to test the response. But no sooner had they been published than critics were hailing these authors as ‘the greatest generation of writers in the history of literature’. The nature of these works’ true authorship was subsequently revealed and a revolution in artistic endeavour ensued, which spread to music, dance and all visual arts.

Some human authors around the time railed against the technology, composing dark experimental works of dystopian futures in protest, but no one could pull off dystopian fiction better than the Lit Org app. It was a golden age for readers but most writers didn’t share in their enthusiasm. Their egos couldn’t live with the sudden obsolescence of their imaginations.

But somehow Victor’s book had snuck into the litgorithm’s mainstream charts and passed itself off as the genuine article. The makers of Lit Org had confirmed that the novel was not one of theirs and so readers’ attentions turned to smaller independent applications, none of which laid claim to the work. The industry subsequently concluded that Victor was a programmer who had developed his own litgorithm, as had happened many times in the past, and as such it was the journalist’s job to extract this admission from him.

‘Most people don’t believe you,’ she said.

‘I know,’ said Victor, who wanted to order another whiskey but felt awkward doing so in her company.

‘So why bother publishing it? Why not write it and keep it to yourself? Why bother to challenge the litgorithm system so brazenly.’

‘It was not my desire to challenge it. I only wished to show that I too could write good literature, that humans could still move other humans with their words.’

‘Not to the extent that litgorithms can. Litgorithms have been moving us in ways we’d never even conceived of before. Their scope is infinite. Haven’t you read last year’s big hit, The Orchard Weeps for Song? Some are saying it’s the greatest piece of work that Lit Org has ever produced.’

‘They say that every year.’

‘But you haven’t read it?’

‘No, I haven’t read any of Lit Org’s work.’

‘But it’s the greatest literature ever written! It’s one of the few things most literary critics can agree on!’ she protested.

He attempted to remain calm, though every cell inside of him shivered with ire, but it was hopeless. His voice trembled and he sounded desperate and pathetic, even to himself.

‘It means nothing if it isn’t human. It has to come from us or else it’s worthless.’

The journalist smiled, for she knew she had him here. ‘But it does come from us. You seem to forget that we make the litgorithms. Works like The Orchard Weeps for Song are among humanity’s greatest artistic achievements.’

The journalist looked at her watch. That was all she had time for. She would write it up as a hoax, which was what their readers would assume in any case, and let the man play hero among the luddites of the literary underground. She shook his hand and congratulated him on the book, whatever the nature of the achievement. Victor remained there in the bar for some time after the journalist left, with his whiskey now watered down with ice and the napkin that almost passed for linen.

© 2020 Patrick Doherty