Kate Brody lives in Los Angeles. Her debut novel “Rabbit Hole” comes out on Jan. 2, 2024.
I am sorry to report to my team that Katrina finds Chapter 4 “all wrong.” She’s not sold on Chapter 3 either.
“Why? What did she say?” whines Brayden.
I shrug. He knows as well as I do that our esteemed editor, despite her legacy title, does not give notes. A chapter is either “all wrong” or “perfect, as though Hemingway himself had written it.” Which is, after all, the whole point.
“Where are Nova and Maverick?” I ask, gesturing to the empty chairs.
“Did they clock out?”
So we wait. Brayden jots something in his notebook, a gorgeous, leatherbound Japanese number that he strokes like a pet during meetings. He often boasts that his home is free of screen-based technology. Maybe this means he is more evolved than I am. Maybe he can use this time to ruminate on Chapter 4. Maybe he can stop his brain from picturing Maverick and Nova fucking each other’s brains out in the nap room.
“What?” he says when he notices me staring at him.
I look away. “Nothing.” I feel my nipples harden in my bra. I wonder what would happen if I suggested to Brayden that we fuck each other’s brains out sometime. I know I’ll never work up the nerve. I’m seven years older than he is, and older still than the others on my team. Seven years isn’t much, but sometimes it feels like an eternity. Back when I started this job, for example, the nap room was only for naps. It was considered poor form to fuck your coworkers.
Maverick and Nova reemerge, refreshed. Maverick bounces to his seat, slapping Brayden on the back. Nova slides into the chair beside mine, her face flushed.
“Bad news,” I say. “Katrina hates it.”
“All of it?” Nova asks.
“Chapter 4,” Brayden says, a sour note in his voice. Nova designed most of that chapter.
She doesn’t take the bait. She remains floaty and stress-free, thanks to the dopamine and oxytocin coursing through her veins. Whatever I feel about the nap room, it is hard to argue with results.
Maverick taps on his tablet and it links to the projector. He taps again and it beeps and starts transcribing our voices, throwing our words up on the wall.
“Where did we leave things in Chapter 3?” he asks.
“Jake is in Paris,” Brayden begins. “And he’s wandering around the city looking for hookers.”
“What?” Brayden demands. Chapter 3 was his.
“Not sure where we go from there,” Mav says.
Nova raises her hands in the air, like: thank you!
“It just feels kind of … tired,” Maverick says. “Been done.”
Brayden huffs and looks at me.
I hesitate. Been done could be the motto of our department — New Classics, Hemingway. It’s all been done — that’s kinda the point.
“Let’s stick with it for a minute,” I venture. “He’s walking around Paris, and —”
The room stays silent. On the wall, the projected cursor blinks continuously before [silence] appears so that PAPA will know we hit a block.
Plot design is like this sometimes. More frequently these days, since we got the mandate to stop writing about the Spanish Civil War.
“No one even knows what that is,” Katrina had said to me, a pitying look on her face.
“What should we do instead?” I responded.
“Keep the … themes.” She snatched at the air like she was grabbing her own brilliant idea. She had a way of saying words like theme as though she was inventing them on the spot. “Disillusionment, alcoholism, masculinity. But move them into the 21st century.”
“Right,” I said.
“Keep some animals in there. Everyone likes animals.”
“Don’t get me wrong. We like Spain! We like Paris! You can keep the travel porn element. Maybe spice that up a bit, too. Could Jake be in Singapore? Could he be mixed race or perhaps bisexual?”
Our first design took two months. We kept getting it “all wrong.” We ended up structuring it as a collection of short stories instead of a novel. Easier for us, easier for PAPA to process. We couldn’t put novels off forever, though, the market for short stories being what it is.
“He’s in Paris,” Nova says, picking up where Brayden left off. “And he runs into that woman —” she snaps her fingers. “From Chapter 1. What did we call her? The socialite?”
“Kylie,” Maverick says.
“Kylie,” Nova echoes.
“Maybe he sees her through the window of a bar,” Brayden adds. He’s back in with them, designing.
“Yes!” Nova says. “There she is, drinking alone. And he zooms in on the bra strap hanging from her shoulder.”
“She would never let it hang like that,” Maverick chides.
“Unless she was shitfaced,” Brayden notes.
“Exactly,” Nova says. Behind her, on the wall, the transcription is keeping up, organizing our chatter into bullet points:
- Wandering, Paris
- Looking for hookers
- Spots Kylie, shitfaced in bar (bra strap detail)
“Hold up,” I say, reluctantly. I hate interrupting my team when they’re on a roll, but if I don’t tag now, it’ll get messy later.
I speak as clearly as possible in the direction of Maverick’s tablet: “Tag Kylie — alcoholism, dejection, depression, women, sex. Tag hooker — alienation, women, sex. Tag wandering — Paris, expat, alienation.” Dots of various colors appear next to each bullet point. Many people don’t realize this, but books are systems that move in patterns. There are major themes and minor themes, and they weave together like the strands of a braid. Our job is to help PAPA figure out which strand is which.
I turn back to Nova. “Ok go ahead.”
Nova takes Jake and Kylie from the bar back to the hotel. She starts to introduce a sex scene but hits a wall when they reach the threshold of the door, wrapped in a passionate embrace. I can see in her eyes that she is exhausted by the possibility of designing sex right now. It is best to design sex when you are horny, not when you are freshly fucked. Maverick, too, is going to be useless. Brayden takes over.
Brayden, we quickly realize, is so horny he might actually die. He designs the most graphic sex scene we’ve heard in a while, for 15 straight minutes walking us through the sucking and slapping and thwapping of every possible combination of body parts.
We know it will all be cut. It’s not Hemingway. It’s all wrong. But most of what we write gets cut, and we’re having fun. Fitz and Faulkner call us Baby Shoes, even though Hemingway probably never actually wrote that devastating little story, but they don’t understand negative space. I’d rather be here, with PAPA slashing our designs to ribbons than over at New Classics, Joyce. They don’t design shit. Those books are incomprehensible.
“Wow,” Nova says, when Brayden is done.
“Maybe you guys should —” Maverick nods his head in the direction of the nap room.
“I can’t,” Nova says apologetically. “It’s my anniversary. I promised Cosmo. I’d be sore.”
I’m holding Maverick’s tablet, adding the colored tags by hand, little dots next to each bullet. I wait for them to look my way and comment on the fact that my nipples are poking through my blouse, to suggest that maybe Brayden and I could have a quick fuck — wouldn’t that be nice?
I would demur of course: “No, no,” I’d say. “I’m fine. It’s cold in here, that’s all.”
And Maverick would snicker and say, “Sylvie, it’s 70 degrees in here.”
And I’d look to Brayden, and he’d be looking up at me with his head at an angle. “You’d be doing me a solid.”
Nova might chime in: “Come on,” she’d say, looking even more than usual like my childhood bestie, Olivia, when she crushed up my first Adderall in our middle school bathroom. “You need this.”
“Sylvie!” Maverick says, pulling me back to reality.
“Are you falling asleep?”
My team shares a look of concern.
“Are you going to feed that through?” Nova asks.
“I’ll do it now,” I say. “Why don’t you take a break, come back in 20.”
They leave for lunch. Or maybe they take a quick detour to the nap room so Nova or Maverick can suck Brayden off. Probably not. That’s a surefire way to ruin an appetite.
I feed the design through PAPA and wait. It takes the AI a minute to rewrite Chapter 4. It used to be quicker, but now that we’ve added in the patterning steps and learning requirements, things take a full 60 seconds or so.
I watch the progress bar move toward completion. I rub my own nipples with my palm, hoping the heat will bring them down. They are beginning to chafe.
From what I gather, all the teams use their nap rooms to one degree or another. New Classics, Fitzgerald is apparently a pansexual free-for-all. Team Woolf is more into therapeutic massage and light kissing.
The day that we had our New Sexual Harassment Training marked the end of my youth at 37. I felt it in real-time, somewhere between the presentation on “Ethical Non-Monogamy Paperwork” and a “Biological De-stressing” seminar, the ground slipping from beneath my feet, the world moving too quickly, leaving me behind.
PAPA beeps. I scan the first paragraph, all the text already formatted like a book, perfectly copy-edited. It’s Hemingway — or, at least, PAPA’s approximation of him:
The Seine was lined with rocks and bottles. The water was gray under a gray sky. Boats with passengers and cargo moved up and down the river, sending small waves to the shore. I turned away and saw her in the window of the Bar de Loup.
Our program — PAPA — is special. It is built with proprietary technology designed specifically to replicate Hemingway’s voice, characters, structures, sentences and themes. Anyone can do a close approximation of syntax and vocabulary, but what we do is so much more than that. The gap between a pretty good impersonation and the real deal is the uncanny valley. It is the worst-case scenario for our thing — our readers are counting on resurrection, no more, no less.
By the time the team returns from Taco Bell, stinking of Cheesy Gordita Crunches, lips stained blue with Baja Blast, I have the new pages loaded, and I have chosen George Clooney to read to us.
“George Clooney,” Maverick moans. “He’s like a hundred.”
“This voice is from when he was in his 70s,” I say.
“Jake is young,” Nova points out, like she’s telling me I have spinach in my teeth.
“I know,” I say. “Trust me. It’ll be good.”
Within moments, I am vindicated. Clooney’s voice is soft and grainy at once, like old music. I read along, and I am transported to my childhood home, to watching movies with my mom, after she first started to lose her memory, when she only wanted to watch the same five films over and over again — easy romantic comedies from her youth.
Brayden’s sex scene has been cut down to a few lengthy sentences. The only word that PAPA carried over from Brayden’s design: in.
He followed the girl. Into the room, now in further, with the smell of Paris on the sheets and elbows pressed; in and only in and more in, yes in, now in, deeper in, into the night and into himself and into the morning to come.
“Oh man,” Maverick interrupts, laughing.
Everyone knows about our boy’s clipped prose. The lack of adjectives. The plain English — monosyllabic, Germanic, poetic. Many forget about the sex scenes. Euphoric, anaphoric, breathless. Hemingway can go head-to-head with Joyce. We’ve run the tests.
Nova identifies the influence. “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”
All that slurping and sliding and licking — it was just for us. It’s the story behind the story. The negative space. The shadow. You feel it.
Clooney wraps up the chapter: And the old woman at the desk also slept.
“So?” I say.
Nova is already on her tablet, flicking through the new pages and tweaking sentences. This is her specialty. She is our ear. She has perfect pitch when it comes to Hemingway — has read all the originals hundreds of times. She knows when a sentence is not quite right, when PAPA did its best but didn’t nail it. She’s our fixer.
Brayden and Maverick are big-picture guys. Mav flicks through his plot map, checking how we’re doing on threads.
“We could use one or maybe two more beats on expat experience unless we go hard in Chapter 5. Same for masculinity. Kind of lacking there.”
“I have an idea for masculinity,” Brayden says. “Right before Jake steps into the bar, he has a flashback. To his days as a police officer.”
Nova clicks her tongue.
“Why? Why not police?” Brayden says. “How is police different from soldier?”
“It is,” Nova says. She doesn’t even look up.
“Fine,” Brayden says. “A flashback to his time as a … a …”
I step in. “War reporter.”
“He’s a reporter now,” Maverick notes. “He’s going to flashback to more reporting?”
“You’re right,” I say. “A medic. A humanitarian worker, someone delivering aid.”
We all look to Nova. She thinks on it. “Fine.”
I add a bullet point: Medic. “What’s the flashback about?”
Brayden licks his lips. He doesn’t have Maverick’s sense of story, of shape, but he’s good with image and pathos. He’s a romantic, which is why he’s always writing with pens and paper, and why he mostly eschews the nap room.
“A man — no, a boy,” he begins. “A child on a stretcher. He’s badly injured. No wait — not a stretcher. He’s buried under rubble. It’s after an earthquake or in a warzone or something. Jake can hear his voice, but he can’t see him. He can tell it’s a boy.”
“He can only see the boy’s hand!” Maverick jumps in.
I’m taking it all down.
“Yes!” Brayden says. “One small hand, coming through the rubble. And they talk and the hand moves and then finally, after days trying to save the boy from the rubble, the hand stops moving and Jake calls out and no one answers.”
I shudder. “That’s great.”
“Is it masculinity though?” Nova says. She’s still scrolling the text on her tablet, hunting for sentences in the wrong key.
“Let’s see what it comes up with if I tag it.” Sometimes that’s enough. You can put “waffle” into the machine but tag it “violence” and it comes up with the most fucked-up waffle story you’ve ever heard.
The door opens as I finish tagging. Katrina. She has another woman with her, someone I don’t recognize.
“Don’t mind us,” Katrina says, escorting the woman into the room. “This is Suri, head of YA.”
I hear Brayden gasp and then compose himself. Brayden dreamed of writing YA once upon a time. I know because he told me so the first time I met him, in his interview.
“If you want to be a writer,” I had said, “this is not the place.”
“No, no,” he said. “Used to. That’s all.”
I could tell he was lying, but I didn’t push. Most of us wanted to be writers at one point; we grew out of it. (Who is stopping you? Katrina always says when she catches wind of such ambitions. Write! Write poetry! Make pottery! Dance like no one’s watching!)
Suri waves to all of us at the table. She is immaculately dressed in a tailored pink suit and pink heels. Her hair is braided in long rows and tied in a knot at the nape of her neck. Her skin is a creamy brown, smattered with freckles. It glows even under the fluorescent lights.
“Hi,” Nova says awkwardly before turning back to her tablet. Nova never wanted to write — she is the only true editor among us. But even she is cowed by YA. YA is where the money is. YA, as Katrina is always reminding us, keeps New Classics afloat. And against the odds, YA still employs human authors.
“Do you mind if I sit?” Suri asks.
“Sure,” I say, gesturing towards a seat.
Katrina shoots me a look: Don’t fuck this up.
“Pretend I’m not here,” Suri says into the awkward silence.
“Right. Well.” I finish my notes and send the new design through the program. It spits back a fresh draft almost instantly; the revisions were modest.
This time, I pick a more conventional reader (old reliable: Timmy Chalamet), and we listen to the new-new Chapter 4. I am struck by the power of Nova’s small adjustments. The flashback works — how it begins to illuminate Jake’s character. I feel a wave of pride for my team and our work.
The narration stops and we all look to Katrina. She glances at Suri. Suri is stone-faced, impenetrable.
“Good,” Katrina hedges. “A good start. Fine.”
“I thought it was remarkable,” Suri says. Her voice is low and quiet. I find myself leaning toward her and silencing even my body’s tiniest sounds. “Sounds just like him,” she finishes.
“Thank you,” Maverick says, as though the chapter was his alone.
“So you see,” Katrina says. “It’s quite fast. Quite a bit faster than what your des — your authors — can handle.”
“This is all from today?”
I nod. “Yes. A fresh draft that we started this morning.”
“Do you shoot for one chapter a day?”
“Depends,” I say. “But most of the time, that’s a good pace.”
“Impressive,” Suri says. She sighs, and I can’t tell if it’s a good sigh or a bad sigh.
I want to ask her what her authors do — how they think about characters, how they design. I want to tell her about the fun we used to have years ago when we fed designs into programs where they didn’t belong. Before the Morrison estate pulled the rights, we would feed my spare, masculine Hemingway designs through SULA and strange, magical Morrison designs about Blackness and cultural inheritance through PAPA. The results were mostly nonsense. The programs had been trained to find what doesn’t belong and cut like crazy, and their confusion led to big gaps in the narratives. Still, every three or four sentences, we’d find something interesting. Something that felt new and exciting. Something that we could polish up, tweak the language until it gleamed like a shiny stone.
Katrina speaks. “This novel is something new. Not just for New Classics, Hemingway but for all of New Classics. Since the department was put together two years ago, we’ve kept the books set during the author’s lifetime. The idea was that every book was something the author could have written, but just didn’t have time to.”
“Right,” Suri says.
Katrina went on: “Recently, the Hemingway estate agreed to a trial period where we would be released from that mandate. If it goes well, the others may follow. There’s a crossover market as I’m sure you can imagine.”
I think of the listicles Katrina had shown me, spinning her monitor so I could read. At the top of a women’s website: 25 Things The Man in Your Life Doesn’t Know to Ask For, etc.
My mind went somewhere filthy almost immediately. As she scrolled, I realized the list was all shearling slippers and ergonomic backscratchers. She wanted new Hemingway books on there — not just for superfans, but casual readers too. People who would love his work if they could get past the associations with “Classic.”
“What if we made Hemingway fun?” Katrina had wondered. “Sexy? Modern? Get him out of the classroom. Get away from the period details.”
I replied that I thought Hemingway was fun, sexy, modern.
“You’re so right,” Katrina said. “He is. But how do we convey it? How do we take Hemingway from a man to a brand?”
Suri stands to leave. “I’ll let you get back to work,” she says. “Thank you for letting me observe.”
Katrina nods, surreptitiously, in my direction. Her tacit approval feels like sunlight. I am not used to being bad at my work, but I have been, lately. It feels good to be back on solid ground.
Nova watches them leave through slitted eyes, like she suspects them of a crime.
The door closes, and I exhale. “Nice work, team!”
Maverick offers a weak smile, but Nova studies her hands. Brayden looks upset, his jaw pulsing, his nostrils flared.
“We just helped them kill YA,” he says.
“No,” I say. “No, we —”
Nova looks at me, her brows low and heavy. “We did.”
“Well,” I say. “If we did — good for us. That means we did our job well.”
The others are not convinced. Maverick shakes his head. Nova pushes away from the table. “I’m going to finish this tonight if that’s ok,” she says, meaning the sentences.
“Sure,” I say. “Happy anniversary. Nice work.”
Maverick doesn’t even ask to leave, he just follows Nova out. Through the glass walls of our room, I watch them file towards the elevators, not talking.
Brayden is furiously scrawling in his leatherbound journal. “What are you writing?” I ask. He doesn’t respond.
“Can I read it?”
Brayden stops and looks up. I can see he is surprised.
“Ok,” he says.
He hands me the journal. I take it from him and open it to a random page. His handwriting is small and cramped. The ink from his pen has smudged the pages, dark smears of blue.
I can’t read any of the words. There doesn’t seem to be any discernable pattern in the weird loops.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“I can’t read your writing,” I say. “But it looks beautiful.”
I try to hand the journal back, but Brayden won’t take it. I lay it back on the table. He has come behind me and leans over my shoulder, his longish hair grazing my ear. He reads aloud: “The lair was stone, carved into the side of Mount Hollor and as a big as a banquet hall. Inside, the dragonettes slept atop their eggs, warming them with the heat from their velvety undersides.”
As he reads, he relaxes his weight down on top of me until I am hunched over the table and he is pressed on top of me, and we are both inches from the swirling, looping text on the page. I stop trying to track the words. I unfocus my eyes. I worry that I’m panting or that I need a mint or that I might accidentally drool onto one of his linen pages, so I hold my breath. I feel faint.
Brayden seems to have forgotten about me entirely. He is in a trance, flipping pages so fast, going, further, deeper into his story. The dragons have breasts — six of them — large and swollen with dragon milk, marked by pale areolae the size of a knight’s head. I find it all a bit hard to follow. But I enjoy the music of Brayden’s voice work — high for the dragonettes and deeper for their human lovers.
“The fire that blew from atop the mount that day burned blue — a scorching icecap, and a warning.”
Brayden stops, sucks air through his nose like he’s trying to huff the story, take it straight to the bloodstream.
I wait for him to continue, but he stands and shakes his head, almost like a dog, flicking some hair away from his forehead that had become slicked with sweat.
“So,” he says, eyes focused on me. “What do you think?”
“Beautiful,” I say. I say so many things, so many things that draw him to me. I can’t tell where my thoughts end and my speech begins, if I’m still talking or if he’s reading my thoughts or if he’s sucking them out of my mouth.
He pushes me back onto the table, climbs on top of me. We are fused.
“Should we —” I try. “Should we —”
I want to go to the nap room. It’s not the glass walls or the sanctity of this space or the fact that I’d rather not fuck where I design. It’s just that I’ve never gotten to use the nap room. Sure, I’ve laid down on the chaise longue and stared at the recessed lighting and imagined Brayden and Maverick and Nova and even Katrina licking my pussy. But that doesn’t count.
I push Brayden away. He’s undeterred. He tugs my pants from my waist and makes a sound of approval when he sees my underwear — old-fashioned Days of the Week briefs.
“Let’s go to the nap room,” I say.
“It’s fine,” he says, not looking me in the eye. “No one comes by here.”
I know this. “But it’s softer,” I say. “The cushion.”
Brayden looks down at the cold table under my bare ass.
“Let’s switch,” he says.
I think he means ok, let’s go to the nap room, but no. As soon as I hop down, he hops onto the table and shimmies his pants off in a single gesture. His erection pops out like a jack in the box.
I want to object: If the table was too hard for my ass, it will obviously be too hard for my knees. But maybe he wants me to perch on my toes, like they do on the internet, and bounce. In any case, he is growing irritable. I am testing his patience. I say nothing.
I climb onto the table like a primate, squat over him, and try not to imagine how this would look if anyone from Woolf walked by. I stare at Brayden, who looks to the side and then up, past me.
I start to worry that he is logging the details for later use. That at some point, he will design a sex scene that resembles this one in some small, humiliating way. That Nova and Maverick will be able to tell.
The way he is looking all around, eyes wide, palms flat against the table — I know he is. He’s recording in the leatherbound Japanese notebook in his mind: the blue veins of my upper thighs, where they meet my groin; the noises I make as I struggle to complete an infinite set of tiny squats; the sour smell of our bodies meeting.
“What are you thinking?” I ask.
He twists his head more rapidly — up, side, side — avoiding my searching gaze.
I go faster — up, down, up, down. I try to think of something sexy to say. I repeat a line from his story, as best I can remember it.
“The eggs,” I say, “are warm and ready.”
Brayden looks at me now. For a split second, he is perfectly still, lips pressed tight. I assume he is about to come. This is his come face.
Instead, he starts to cry. A loud, wailing cry that I associate with small children and hysterical women. He begins to hyperventilate.
Quickly, I dismount. I prop him up to a seated position. I wait for someone — a gaggle of someones — to appear in the glass windows that surround us, responding to his cry, but no one comes. We are alone, wearing our work shirts and socks, naked from hips to ankles. We sit on the table, hunched and sweaty. Brayden tries to steady his breathing, pursing his lips and pushing out little puffs of air.
“Are you ok?” I ask. “What happened?” This would never have happened in the nap room, which is scented like eucalyptus and has a dehumidifier and disposable blankets.
“It’s over,” Brayden says. “We killed it.”
“We killed YA.” He gestures to his notebook. “It’s dead.”
“Your little story?”
Suddenly, his breathing is fine, and he glares at me. “My little story?”
“You know what I —”
Brayden starts to dress.
“We didn’t kill it. Suri didn’t say that.”
Brayden shoots me a look: Be serious.
“I don’t think your dragon story is YA,” I say. “Sure it’s fantasy, but it’s awfully sexy. You could put it online.”
I mean this as a compliment, but I can tell from the look on Brayden’s face that it is not.
“’The Fires of Tolleckmire’ is a five-part epic,” Brayden says. “It’s not jerkoff reading for middle-aged —”
“Brayden,” I say. “I had no idea you wrote so much. You can bring more of your ideas to design. Katrina said we need to spice it up!”
But Brayden knows as well as I do that his work is all wrong. It’s not Hemingway. “I’m done,” he says. “I can’t do this anymore.”
I open my mouth to respond, but nothing comes out. I close it again. Brayden looks to me for something, and I stare back helplessly. I suppose it comes off like apathy, because he huffs indignantly.
“Fine.” He storms out of the room before I have a chance to put my pants on.
I lay back on the table and watch the SAD lamp’s timed sunset. I flip through Brayden’s journal, which he left behind in his hurry. I imagine what he might write about me, eventually. I imagine what we could design together, about ourselves. The tags: sex, alienation, negative space.