Do You Remember Being Born?: A Novel
Sean Michaels was the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his debut novel Us Conductors. His latest offering, Do You Remember Being Born?, is a timely literary novel that deals with the nature of art and family amid the emergence of technology that is changing our lives and art.
The story follows Marian Farmer, an aging poet of world renown, a legend in the making in the world of poetry, but she has regrets from choices she has made in the past when she has promoted her career over the relationships in her life. Then she is offered a lucrative deal, to co-write a poem with an AI computer program. She reluctantly agrees, not out of an artistic desire but in an attempt to atone for some of her choices, particularly in regard to the upbringing of her only child Courtney. She plans to gift the money to Courtney so he can make a substantial down payment on a home for his fledgling family.
Do You Remember Being Born? is structured around the week Marian travels to the technology company that created the AI program—simply called The Company—to be onsite with Charlotte, the AI program she needs to collaborate with. Each chapter is a day in that week as she struggles with her personal reluctance to sacrifice her art and reputation to meet her commitment. Interlaced between the day-by-day chapters are second-person accounts that detail Marian’s relationship with Courtney, her son, and her ex-husband Larry that focus on her past when her decisions to focus on her career were made at the expense of those relationships.
The most emotional parts of the writing are done in these second-person chapters when these relationships are detailed. The writing is particularly vivid and well done as in the following: “The sounds he made: soft, deep breaths and the occasional affirmative, like the small noise one makes when one discovers that a bouquet on the kitchen table has lasted another day.”
Some of the finest and most humorous moments are the scenes where Marian is with her driver Rhoda, whom The Company provided for her use for the week. In particular when the two of them visit the tortoises at the zoo: “Had an animal ever seemed so asleep and so awake at the same time? Tortoises! Staring at the largest of them, its half-lidded eyes. I had the feeling of being deeply fathomed and subsumed.”
Overall, the literary writing is emotional and engaging, and many of the scenes are compelling, but at times the abundance of metaphors bogs down some of the better writing. At the conclusion of Do you Remember Being Born?, Marian Farmer is left with a better understanding of herself and the world around her.