Giacomo Sartori is adept at creating worlds that are difficult to characterize. In his prior novel, I Am God (2019), he created a world in which God, while careening through the cosmos, falls in love with one of His earthly creations, a flesh-and-blood woman, and soon becomes jealous and vindictive. In his new novel, Bug, Sartori goes further.
Let’s set the table, an overturned utility-cable spool in a family’s converted chicken-coop home. The mother is a beekeeper and activist against the corporate purveyors of toxic pesticides that view bees’ mass death as merely collateral damage. The father, largely absent, is an IT worker whose cover is that he works for the company producing Nutella. But he actually works at a start-up creating algorithms for hunting down terrorists on the ‘net. One son, the ten-year-old, un-named and hyperactive narrator is quite deaf, often feels his red blood cells ‘sizzling’, cannot speak clearly so communicates mostly through signing, and has trouble refraining from biting himself and those around him.
The narrator’s 13-year-old brother, referred to as ‘IQ’, is an electronics genius and master hacker who has developed an obstreperous and manipulative Artificial Intelligence computer presence, the eponymous ‘BUG’. The narrator’s grandfather is a “retired anarchist” who captures and studies worms poisoned by the same toxins that are killing the bees. A young woman, called ‘Logo’, is a constant helpmate for, and companion of, the narrator. Being the only one able to understand easily what the narrator says, Logo types the dictated narrative that comprises this novel (and which, for the most part, is focused on keeping his mother telepathically informed of the family tumult while she is in a coma). Oh, and we find the grandmother in a vase on a kitchen shelf.
The plot kicks off as the narrator’s beloved mother is injured in a car accident and lands in the hospital, comatose. Then the novel’s base dynamic settles in. The family has a feud with the chemical-spraying neighbor/landlord that blossoms into an eviction threat, the young narrator’s habitual biting moves him toward expulsion from school, and BUG’s fast-growing ability to converse (haltingly at first through on-screen typing, and then speaking fluidly and in-depth through virtual on-screen ‘lips’) causes mischief and then much more serious trouble on all fronts, independent of the wishes or control of IQ, its creator.
Throughout the tale, the narrator engages in telepathic dialogue with his mother, filling her in on all of the developing family mayhem and urging her to awaken. He imagines scenes, his ‘inner soap-operas’, in which she comes home to him and her bees (an outcome that BUG eventually puts its ‘mind’ to).
We also find the narrator in an ongoing dialogue, through his computer and phone screen, with BUG as the latter develops its immense database, language fluency, and deep intellect and begins to generate pranks on the neighbor/landlord, on family members, and others. Then comes a time when BUG, a sly manipulator, exerts its full-blown will through its massive virtual neuronal network, using its growing and disruptive competency to the point where, in light of the damage it causes, IQ wishes to ‘lobotomize’ BUG. IQ tells us, in major understatement:
“The moral restraints and ideological framework that I built into him, and which should have grown more sophisticated along with the rest, don’t seem to be adequate.”
Sartori is deft at avoiding the risk, posed by his unique authorial imagination, of running his narrative off the rails and into the realm of superficial silliness, or mere comic caper, by reigning in that imagination and grounding it in the network of very human relationships that he creates among his family of very quirky characters. In particular, the use of a disabled and troubled ten-year-old as narrator, allowing us to see the world created by Sartori through the eyes of a character having difficulty interacting with his environment and making himself understood, adds a unique and rich perspective to this work.
Sartori’s Bug is a study in quirkiness, but it is founded upon a serious and complex substratum. This is a madcap tale of a family of beekeepers, worm investigators, a genius 13-year-old who creates a genius, ingenious and disingenuous bot, and a ten-year-old partially deaf and language-challenged narrator whose out-of-control biting lands him in serious trouble. However, underneath all of the entertaining commotion is an investigation into the relationship of words, signs, feelings, and thoughts, as well as a cautionary tale of Artificial Intelligence running amok and its need to feed upon illicit data-mining to satiate its flawless algorithms and virtual neuronal networks. Bug is a worthwhile adventure cast in the melded whimsy and substance characteristic of Sartori’s work.
And finally, a note on Frederika Randall, a respected political and cultural writer, correspondent, translator, and journalist who expertly and colloquially translated many works from Italian, including both Bug and I Am God, rendering these works readily accessible to English-speaking readers. Randall, a winner of an array of prizes and awards for both her writing and translating skill, died in Rome in May 2020.