The Water Lily Pond Excerpt

This is one of my favorite parts of the book. By this time, Walter has “retired” to live in Aspen. His friends have come to his house for a few weeks and the engineers among them — Brian and Nancy — want to demonstrate a painting robot. After watching the robot replicate works and try its hand at an original painting, Brian suggests that Walter try painting with the robot to see what happens. It’s more science fictiony than the bulk of the book, but I still like it.

      “Why should this work?” Walter asked Brian several hours later as he finished adjusting and reprogramming the robot.
      “The computer thinks the way we all do,” Brian said, moving the palette to a better position. “You know the history of art, you know your own preferences, you know your style and the image you are looking at. It has the same information, only more thorough. And it reaches the same conclusions.”
      “It’s programmed to,” translated Chuck.
      “No, it’s not. It’s programmed to think. It’s programmed to reprogram itself, to think in a non-linear way, the same as humans do.”
      “But it still needs something from Walter,” said Sarah. “His spirit. His soul. His inspiration.”
      Brian slid the last bolt into place. Walter found himself sitting across from the sleek metallic thing. He felt like a chess player. He was white; it was up to him to make the first move. The computer, black, would react.
      “Whenever you’re ready,” said Brian.
      “I can’t do this with all of you watching,” Walter said.
      Sarah laughed. “Of course. Come on, everyone. Walter promises not to cheat.”
      They filed out, the last comment from Chuck (“who knew painting was like taking a shit”) fading into silence.
      Walter stared at the thing for a while. It was completely immobile but the way it held the paintbrush gave it a predatory look, like a mantis. For a moment, he had a vision of a different painting — one in which he bent over the canvas and the machine attacked him, pinned him down, cracked his skull. Then it was gone and it was just a machine, waiting, no more animate than a dishwasher.
      Walter bent over the canvas. His mind was cluttered, nervous from watching the machine. He closed his eyes and forced himself to take deep breaths.
      After about half an hour of thinking, he picked up his favorite brush — the one for quick sketches. It was something his predecessors over the millennia would never have recognized. It could change color, width or saturation with the proper flick of the wrist. Walter had first used it in New York — also at Brian’s insistence. An in-depth long affair of a painting would have been worthy of standard brushes and oils. For this quick kiss in the dark, the magic brush was perfect.
      He started with just a few random blue strokes. The machine held back, its own brush poised, waiting. Walter felt it was cocking its head to one side, dog-like, wondering what he was up to.
      After about five minutes, it reached in and added a quick brush stroke of its own, in blue. Walter jumped back in alarm. He wasn’t sure if it was the sudden motion or that the computer had placed precisely the stroke he was intending next.
      He resumed. He wasn’t even sure what he was painting. His free painting usually ended up abstract, but this felt a little more structured. It was as though his brush were a shovel, unearthing something beneath the canvas. He wasn’t adding paint; he was brushing away dirt to reveal the paint below.
      The computer began to make more movements, each time enhancing or anticipating his own brush strokes. All this did was intensify the feeling of digging up the picture. The computer was helping him brush away the dust and grime, like a very smart dog.
      Steadily, they both became more active. Walter’s brush strokes became longer and more determined. He began to change colors and widths, seeing where lines and dots of color were needed. And the computer kept up with him, marching in synch. There came a moment when he looked at one particular section — it looked almost like a human leg — and wasn’t sure which of them had done it.
      He went faster, uncovering more of the image. It was not a human leg, it was the lip of a valley that resembled a human leg — a woman’s leg. It was definitely the computer that abandoned the motif before it could become too blatantly sexual or physical.
      The cleared section of the canvas expanded, revealing more and more detail. There was a figure, now standing over a lake within the valley. Walter realized that it was the water painting, the one he’d many dozens of drafts over the year. The primordial shape had evolved over the years. But he and the computer were mutating once more into a new direction, a direction that led, dozens of drafts in the future, to Lazarus at the Waters. It wasn’t quite there. It wasn’t really close. This iteration was a group of women standing over a lake, deep within a ravine. He wasn’t sure who it was they were washing. He felt that he wasn’t meant to know. But this felt far more right than the image had ever felt. With each stroke of the brush, he realized the wrong turn he had taken twenty years ago. The effort to make it look like Lake Ontario was falling away. It was something older, more primal.
      “Biblical,” said Chuck. But it would be another fifteen years before that word resonated within the painting.
      Throughout this, the computer continued to work as an extension of him, like he had a third arm. Now it was going off on its own, but he was pleased with what it was doing, finding it perfectly consistent with his work. And alarmed to find that he was not alarmed. He found himself occasionally working off the computer’s painting, following its lead, then letting it follow his.
      There was a light tap on the door and Walter jumped. His back suddenly ached.
      “Is everything all right?” asked Sarah.
      He nodded.
      “You’ve been in here for five hours. We were wondering if you were all right.”
      Walter was startled. He looked up to find that the sun had moved across the sky, that the light was coming into his studio low and red, illuminating dust motes that danced in slow loops.
      Sarah walked into the room. Walter was intensely aware of the gentle click of her heels on he wood floor and the small ballerina steps she took. The light fell on her face and he was struck by how young she looked. She stopped and looked at the canvas, peering over it but holding her hands close to her, like a girl peeking over a railing. She walked around in slow steps, the light shifting her age backward and forward. She looked again. The art agent appeared in a small wrinkle in her forehead.
      “You did this in five hours?”
      “I guess so,” replied Walter. He noticed Brian peeping in the doorway, one eye visible like another unruly child.
      Sarah surveyed the rough sketchy painting. Decades of evaluating art left her unable to see it with anything but an expert’s eye. He could see five decades of his painting flickering behind her eyes.
      “It’s … it’s … you,” she said. “This painting is yours. Did that machine do anything?

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Astronomy, Sports, Mathematical Malpractice, Whatever Else Pops Into My Head