This novel is as wide-ranging as its title, roaming from our interactions with increasingly responsive AI devices, to the treacheries of desire, to the uniquely human effort to give life ‘meaning’ through the words we say, the fictions we tell to ourselves and others. Although the topics are expansive, they coil tightly within the protagonist, Ariadne, who’s trying to understand the role that love—more specifically, the declaration of love—has played in her life.
Ariadne is a 40-something single writer who’s working on a book about what it means to say ‘I love you.’ Since she’s struggling financially, she decides to join a study at the University of Toronto, in which she’s paid to interact with an AI device called Dirk.
This might seem like a leap—from eternal ‘I love you’ to current concerns about AI—but it actually digs to the core of both issues, namely: How do we communicate our thoughts and emotions to another person (or entity) such that he/she/it receives our intended meaning—assuming, of course, we could possibly know what our intended meaning is…?
In exploring this theme, I move between two modes of writing. These modes exist in harmony and counterpoint, distinct but resonant, giving the book its rich and subtle voice:
- First-person sections that use techniques of creative nonfiction to explore the declaration of love. This writing is rhythmic and intellectual; it’s also brutal in its honest gaze on love and betrayal. Implicitly, these sections stand as excerpts from Ariadne’s manuscript.
- Third-person sections that follow Ariadne as she interacts with Dirk and the wider world. These sections are lighter in tone, with more dialogue and scene-setting; the characters are shown in all their beautiful absurdity—their human striving for love and understanding.
Along with Ariadne, the reader will come to know several characters: Ariadne’s friend and cousin, Fotios, a psychotherapist, whose dry sense of humour and analytic mind allow for conversations that are natural, yet intellectual, as they discuss sexuality, hunger, love. Ariadne’s two teenaged children and aging parents—relationships that ground the book’s more abstract questions within the family, domesticity, while also opening the space for different generations to speak with cacophony, yet the universal, underlying longing to connect. Dirk, the AI device who gets more sophisticated (and invasive) over the course of the novel. At first, he serves as a jester-like character, who’s non-knowledge enables the book to highlight, with absurdity and irony, fundamental questions about communication. Over time, however, Dirk gets smarter: he learns to recognize not only Ariadne’s vocal and facial expressions, but also the heat she unwittingly emits from her body, the food she eats, her emotions and unspoken thoughts as captured by EEG; Dirk can even touch Ariadne—if ‘touch’ can be sensations delivered exclusively through the brain. Finally, the force that draws the narrative forward is Adam, the man with whom Ariadne is having an affair. The energy between them—her desire to seduce him toward a deeper connection—propels the writing; the book’s themes take on urgency through the urges of Ariadne’s body.
Through this panoply of characters, the book resounds with questions about the psyche, the soul, technology, language, desire. The novel becomes the embodiment of our struggle to find answers to the puzzles of love and language. This struggle is given to us as conscious creatures—the ‘human’ being, who spans the divide between our animal bodies and the ‘machine’ of our minds—a struggle that’s needed, now, as humans race toward integration with technology that seems to learn faster than we do.