In her magnificently complex and dizzyingly astute new graphic memoir, Artificial: A Love Story, Amy Kurzweil has attempted nothing less than to apprehend life’s deepest mysteries. Love and remembrance, the creation of the self, a theory of what it means to be alive — the ambition of her questions could only be matched by her filmic approach to drawn narrative. Past and present are miraculously contemporaneous on a single page. This becomes her point: We are the original AI, in a sense, trained on the genetics and life stories of our forebears. Our behaviors are patterned by the past, yet experienced afresh by succeeding generations.
Kurzweil, author of a previous graphic memoir, Flying Couch, makes her case by presenting three generations of her family as if their lives were running concurrently — which they essentially always are, in the person of any given individual. Each of us is made of others’ pasts, she implies. Simulations of current and past communication modalities mean her book contains many panels of screens — texts, emails, chats — as well as reproductions of her grandparents’ letters, paintings, and documents. The author differentiates each generational strand by assigning them a distinct pictorial style, even as they admix in a manifold account of one woman’s bid for agency and self-knowledge.
Kurzweil’s grandfather, Frederic, was a musician and conductor whose talent provided escape from Vienna at the last possible moment: His emigration to the US, sponsored by an American fan, was finalized just weeks before Kristallnacht. Her father, Ray Kurzweil, is a notable futurist and inventor who currently is engaged in building a chatbot trained on Frederic Kurzweil’s written archive, an invention he believes will permit him to communicate in a fashion with his dead father.
Amy is building a world of her own from her understanding of these predecessors’ inclinations and experiences. As the record of this project, the book is necessarily labyrinthine; the sail of her legacy is tested against the winds of change in the present moment — which for her include not only the existential threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the tension between the girl she was (born and schooled on the East Coast, tending toward free-floating anxiety) and the woman she has become, affianced to a man with a congenital health condition and a career likely to uproot them from the place she considers home. These crises have prompted her to question the fundamental construct of self, and through her interrogations of family she arrives at an answer. “I think we only exist through attachment to others. I care, therefore I’m real.”
In wondering, about her grandfather’s deliverance from the Nazis — “What’s it like to be saved by your own art?” — Kurzweil also makes a wish for herself. On the evidence of Artificial, it is likely to come true.
Artificial: A Love Story by Amy Kurzweil (2023) is published by Catapult and is available online and from independent bookstores.