At the center of Dara Horn’s fourth novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, is a computer program called Genizah that makes Facebook seem benign: it uses omnipresent cameras to record your every move, tagging and filing your memories to save you the trouble. The software’s a hit, naturally, but the satire more or less ends there, giving way to a multi-layered meditation on memory that weaves its way through history, politics and sisterly rivalry while keeping the pages turning with a blockbuster-worthy kidnapping plot. In our exclusive excerpt, Josie, the socially off-kilter tech genius behind Genizah–named for a repository of holy-ish documents that can’t be thrown out–finds herself in unfriendly territory defending her creation to Nasreen, her skeptical host. —Judith Basya, HEEB Literary Editor
Nasreen was a young woman, stylish but severe, with frame-less glasses, fitted black pants, dark eyelashes, a pinched lower lip that made her look perpetually perplexed, and hair half-covered by a spangled headscarf that might as easily have been for fashion as for faith. The part of her hair that was visible was dyed an unlikely shade of orange. She invited Josie to dinner, and Josie assumed she would follow Nasreen back to her home when the day’s work was done. But Nasreen had other ideas.
“Let’s meet at half past ten,” Nasreen said. “Nothing decent is open until then.”
It was true. When Josie arrived at the waterfront restaurant whose address Nasreen had given her, she was amazed by the crowds. The city came alive after dark: by a quarter to midnight, thousands of children and adults were pouring into the streets, having dinner, shopping in stores that were closed during the heat of the day, eating ice cream beside the ink-dark sea. At the busy restaurant Nasreen had chosen, everyone was young and beautiful. Over grilled fish, Nasreen spoke about the library—the idea of reviving Alexandria’s past, the donors from Saudi Arabia and Dubai, the awareness of untapped potential, the possibility of creating the greatest scholarly resource in the Arab world. It was a sales pitch, blather from a brochure. Only afterward, when Nasreen offered to take Josie out for ice cream by the water, did Nasreen ask, “Are you enjoying your stay here?”
They were walking under a row of palm trees on a promenade along the docks. Even here, among children clutching ice cream cones, the eyeless beggars were out in force. Josie ignored them, following Nasreen’s lead.
Josie started to nod, but then gave up, sick of the show. “I have a six-year-old daughter at home,” she said. It was an answer to Nasreen’s question. She pulled out her phone, tapped it a few times, and showed a photo to Nasreen. On the screen, Tali was dressed as a fairy, vinyl wings tied to her back, her mouth hanging open. There was pink ice cream on her chin.
“She is beautiful,” Nasreen said. A platitude. Her tone was controlled, courteous. “What is her name?”
Josie hesitated. It was a Hebrew name; would Nasreen notice? “Tali,” she conceded.
“A lovely name,” Nasreen said, neutrally, and licked her ice cream cone.
Nasreen must be single, Josie reasoned, and childless. No mother in the world would have been able to resist the temptation to pull out her own photos. Even a young childless married woman would have expressed some curiosity. And Nasreen was taking Josie out for ice cream, alone, at eleven o’clock at night. But perhaps there was some cultural expectation of escorting guests that Josie simply didn’t appreciate? She wanted to ask Nasreen about her family, but Nasreen’s coolness held her back.
“I read that your company is very popular in America,” Nasreen said, “not just for libraries and businesses, but for ordinary people.”
Josie never stopped enjoying other people’s admiration. “You could say that,” she replied, pretending modesty. She couldn’t help smiling.
But Nasreen did not smile. Her thin eyebrows were drawn together as she glanced at Josie. “I do not understand it. Why would ordinary people need a cataloguing system?”
Josie laughed. “You underestimate the average American’s capacity for fascination with himself.”
Nasreen didn’t get the joke. “What do you mean?”
“You’d be surprised how many people want to keep records of what their cats ate for lunch over the past five years,” Josie said. “The program automatically catalogues the individual’s past, and then everything is stored on the network.”
“But how could that happen automatically?”
Josie launched into her own pitch, just as Nasreen had. “Wherever you have a computer—whether it’s a desktop or a tablet or a phone or pretty much any device—you probably have a recording component and a camera component,” she recited. “Our software runs those, either continuously or at the user’s request, then sorts the images and the voices with facial recognition and language processing. It also captures any text content you produce, like messages or tweets or whatever comments you post anywhere, and then archives everything based on your habits—or instincts, if you will.” The term instincts was far from accurate, she knew, but she also knew that consumers seemed to like it. “Then two weeks later, when you want to remember where you put something or what you said to someone or what your cat ate for lunch, you can call up a record of exactly what happened.”
“It sounds rather trivial,” Nasreen said.
“Of course it is,” Josie answered. “That’s why I’m rich.”
Nasreen did not smile, not even politely. It occurred to Josie that perhaps this sort of joke was less funny in a developing country. “There’s more to it than that, of course,” Josie said, trying to recover. “There’s a social component too. You can choose to share whatever material you want with whomever you want, according to your preferences, or the software can learn those preferences from you. And there’s also an augmented reality feature that compiles older materials and syncs them to wherever you are right now. On a mobile device, you can use it the way you use your eyes, but instead of seeing what’s around you now, you can see what used to be there. Here, I’ll show you.”
Josie held up her phone, tapped the screen, and then turned it horizontally, facing the buildings behind them. Through the windowframe of the phone’s screen, the city appeared, and then faded slightly. Over the ghosts of the dozen buildings in front of them, several structures appeared on the screen in black-and-white photos, lithographs and drawings, each labeled and dated with links to further information. As she moved the phone, other current buildings came into view, and occasionally another photo or drawing would appear superimposed on it. Most were labeled in Arabic, but five were labeled in English as well: Royal Army Hospital, 1942; Villa of Sheikh Omar al-Hakam, 1857; Temple of Osiris, 4th century BCE; Temple of Apollo, 3rd century BCE; Neve Tzedek Synagogue, 1834. Surprised, Josie tapped the screen on the last link. “The third-largest of sixteen synagogues in Alexandria prior to the Jewish community’s expulsion after the 1952 revolution, Neve Tzedek was first constructed in . . .” But now Nasreen was leaning in, trying to see the pictures.
“It’s like the City of the Dead in Cairo,” Nasreen said. Her voice was melodic, unassuming, lovely. She ought to have no trouble meeting men, Josie thought. But was that even how things worked here? Josie guessed that Nasreen was in her late twenties, but she might have been anywhere between twenty and forty. Without the understood reference points of clothing, hair, makeup, posture, slang, inflection, it was impossible to know.
“You can do this with any city in the world,” Josie heard herself say. “Actually this isn’t a great example, because it’s just pulling in what happens to be available online for this location. In New York or Cairo you’d see much more.”
“All cities are really cities of the dead,” Nasreen said.
The poetry of it surprised Josie. She looked around her, at the eyeless beggars and the children eating ice cream, and tried to imagine the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Osiris. It was ridiculous; even the gods were dead.
Nasreen interrupted her thoughts. “What did you mean by ‘instincts’?”
Josie bit her ice cream cone, feeling the crack of cookie and the wet sweet cream between her teeth. Suddenly it felt indulgent, almost obscene, to be enjoying this ice cream under these palm trees, in front of these beggars, on the ruins of the temples of dead gods. She retreated into script. “The software is designed to learn how you think, what your habits are, and even to learn the habits of people around you,” she said. “When you’ve been using it for long enough, it actually predicts your future based on your current trajectory. Let’s say the program notices that your usual habit is to drink one beer a day, for instance, but that lately you’re having two or three. Or that you regularly send messages to men who don’t reply to you three weeks after they first appear in your contact list. It tracks those sorts of things. That way, if you don’t like where you’re headed, you can see the pattern and make changes.”
As soon as she’d said it, Josie realized that drinking and dating examples were perhaps not the best selling points in a Muslim-majority country. She racked her brain for something more appropriate. But Nasreen sucked the last of the ice cream out of her nibbled cone, and spoke.
“You have clearly been quite successful,” Nasreen said, her voice level and thoughtful.
Josie absorbed the compliment, savoring its sweetness. They were standing by the railing at the water’s edge. She looked out at the dark velvet sheath of the Mediterranean, gleaming under orange fluorescent lights. All cities are cities of the dead, she thought, imagining the remains of lost worlds buried beneath the water’s darkness. It ought to have moved her, saddened her. But instead it intrigued her, as though it were a problem to be solved. She clutched her phone in her hand and resisted the impulse to drag its screen across the seascape, searching for dead maritime gods.
“But your idea is still rather foolish,” Nasreen announced. “Most things that happen cannot be predicted, and are beyond our control.”
Was it an insult, or just a badly translated thought? Nasreen was watching Josie, fixing her with her eyes to the railing above the sea.
“Well, of course you can’t predict everything,” Josie faltered. She gripped the iron rail, glancing down into the water below her. A white plastic bag hovered over the face of the water, a windblown ghost. “There are always going to be acts of God, as the insurance companies put it—earthquakes and all that. But even natural disasters are often at least slightly predictable. You’d be surprised.” The wave of data and evidence rose within her, unstoppable, swelling like the black water below. “Before the tsunami in south Asia in 2004, flamingos in coastal areas flew off to forests on higher ground. There were probably similar migrations before the tsunami in Japan. Animals are very sensitive to environmental changes. They can hear sounds we can’t hear, they notice temperature or pressure changes or magnetic fields, that kind of thing. There’s probably a way to track animal behavior so as to evacuate humans prior to natural disasters. That’s a great R & D opportunity, if you ask me.”
Nasreen clicked her tongue, a dismissive snap. “That isn’t what I mean,” she said. “I mean ordinary events, between people. Those are also beyond our control.”
“Some, sure,” Josie conceded, to be polite. But there was an edge in Nasreen’s voice.
“Not some. Nearly all,” Nasreen said. “Perhaps everything.”
Now Josie snorted, slipping her phone back into her bag. “That’s just something people say when they’ve failed and don’t want to take the blame.”
She tried to make her voice light, but she had said it. The insult lay like litter on the ancient sea’s edge.
Nasreen looked back at Josie, her eyes firm, then at the sea. Her nostrils were noble, her profile erect. She spoke, an incantation.
“There are innumerable ways for a person to be brought under the power of something or someone else.”
Innumerable. The passive voice. The diction and syntax were oppressive. Was she just making conversation, or was she making a point?
“You mean like falling in love?” Josie asked. She thought of Itamar, alone with Tali at home. Once your husband has finished with customs, we shall take you both to your hotel, one of the mustached men announced in her head. She imagined Itamar here with her, leaning against the railing beside her, skipping pebbles on the dark water. And Tali among the six-year-olds out after midnight, Itamar showing her how to cast a stone into oblivion.
“Perhaps that is one way it could happen,” Nasreen said. “But only one of many.”
Just past the noise of the night, the water was nearly still. Josie heard children shouting behind them as the sea rocked gently, echoing with the hollow bump of boats tethered to the docks. Nasreen leaned against the railing, took the stump of her ice cream cone, and hurled it into the sea. By the time Josie turned around, Nasreen had already found her a taxi back to her hotel.
Excerpted from A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel by Dara Horn. Copyright © 2013 by Dara Horn. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. For more about Dara Horn visit darahorn.com.