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Meet the automated flash fiction writer you never knew you wanted

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The automated assist

Object Dreams

So often in modern literature, the would-be avant-garde talent grows stifled, boring. They attend the same parties and talk to the same people, and form movements and issue manifestos and so on. This activity in fact dominates the literature world so thoroughly that — paradoxically — it creates room for a new voice to thunder over that of all the party guests. The Beats were overtaken by the realist short story masters; they too were overtaken by door-stopping novels. More recently, n+1, The New Inquiry, and Muumuu House cast a shadow over all comers. They did not notice the bots were not at their parties.

And so the flash-fiction site, Object Dreams, comes along — based on code from Jamie Brew. Brew's code imitates the predictive text function on your phone. He then selects a word from the options. Brew wrote it — based solely on options from the emulator. One way of looking at it, certainly, is as amusing novelty. But perhaps, we should consider the possibility that future of fiction is the bot.

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Untitled (Batman Loves Him a Criminal)

Each piece is framed as a piece of online ephemera. The emulator that Brew selects his options from looks at the words that most recently occurred in the sentence and spits out a list of words from the source material that are most likely to come next. Once Brew selects a word, the process starts over. These results are picaresquely askew.

For instance, there's this specialized Wikipedia page for Batman: The Animated Series. In "Untitled (Batman Loves Him a Criminal)." The entry itself appears to have been written in imitation of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. The Steinian phrase "the death of his own death," in particular, is an unusually poignant way to reflect on the limnal space in resurrection.

Another standout entry, "Untitled (American Museum of Natural History Review)," reflects on the behavior of crowds of tourists."The crowds are so lifelike, you just want to go up to take pictures of all the crowds," the narrator writes. How true. How honest. The narrator is attending the museum with "my corporate friends, and their parents, the dinosaurs." The juxtaposition of the metaphorical dinosaurs and the actual dinosaurs is the kind of wordplay one expects of Clarice Lispector, as in her short story "Uma esperanca" (which means both "hope" and "cricket").


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Untitled (Review of the American Museum of Natural History)

At times, the bot takes a crack at TV scripts and inspirational quote memes, efficiently showing off its familiarity with online forms. Yelp reviews are a common format, as are Craigslist postings. In "Untitled (Great vehicle fun dog)," the very title of the post hints at why the seller is getting rid of the dog indirectly — "part of the interior is leather," the post brags. Perhaps what the author means is: the dog eats shoes.

But the true masterwork is probably "Untitled (Ford Focus Owner's Manual)," a scathing reflection on parenting and society. The narration is the impersonal style of a safety manual, but the aim appears to be anything but safety. "Your child is still too large," the final section, "Driver Controls" begins. "On the windshield is a device which will automatically cut off and remove the head of your child." Its inclusion in the project confirms what I have always suspected: owners' manuals were in fact written by Franz Kafka or very talented imitators.

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Untitled (Ford Focus Owner's Manual)

It is impossible to predict what the arrival of this massive new talent will do to the literary scene, but I must say after all the realism — hysterical and otherwise — of the last two decades, it is refreshing to see surrealism ascendant. And certainly, we must credit the flash fiction of Lydia Davis for having inspired the style.

Updated July 22nd, 7:54PM ET: Updated to add details from Brew about how the code works.