Too Near Real
by Jonathan Safran Foer
(narrated by L.J. Ganser)

On the first day of my forced sabbatical, I noticed a car driving down Nassau Street with a large spherical device extending from its top. It looked like the past’s vision of the future. I assumed it was part of some meteorology or physics or even psychology experiment—another small contribution to our charming campus atmospherics—and I didn’t give it much thought. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it in the first place had I not been taking my first walk for walk’s sake in years. Without a place to get to, I finally was where I was.

A few weeks later—exactly a month later, I was to learn—I saw the vehicle again, this time crawling down Prospect Avenue. I was stopped at a corner, not waiting for the light to change, not waiting for anything that might actually happen.

“Any idea what that is?” I asked a student who was standing at the curb beside me. Her quick double-take suggested recognition.

“Google,” she said.

“Google what?” I asked, but wanting far more to know what she thought of me, and how other students on campus were talking about and judging me.

“Street view.”

“Which is what?”

She sighed, just in case there was any doubt about her reluctance to engage with me. “That thing above the car is a camera with nine lenses. Every second it takes a photograph in each direction, and they’re stitched together into a map.”

“What kind of map?”

“It’s 3-D and can be navigated.”

“I thought you used a map for navigating.”

“Yeah, well.”

She was finished with me, but I wasn’t ready to let her go. It’s not that I cared about the map—and if I had, I could have easily found better answers elsewhere. But her reluctance to speak with me—even to be seen standing beside me—compelled me to keep her there.

I asked, “No one minds having all of these pictures taken all the time?”

“A lot of people mind,” she said, rummaging through her bag for nothing.

“But no one does anything about it?”

The light changed. I didn’t move. As the student walked away, I thought I heard her say, “Fucking pig.” I’m virtually positive that’s what she said.

* * *

A few days earlier, while eating pasta out of the colander, I’d heard an NPR piece about something called “the uncanny valley.” Apparently, when we are presented with an imitation of life—a cartoon, a robot-looking robot—we are happily willing to engage with it: to hear its stories, converse with it, even empathize. (Charlie Brown’s face, characterized by only a few marks, is a good example.) We continue to be comfortable with imitations as they more and more closely resemble life. But there comes a point—say, when the imitation is 98 percent lifelike (whatever that means)—when we become deeply unsettled, in an interesting way. We feel some repulsion, some alienation, some caveman reflex akin to what happens when nails are run down a blackboard.

We are happy with the fake, and happy with the real, but the near real—the too near real—unnerves us. (This has been demonstrated in monkeys as well. When presented with near-lifelike monkey heads, they will go to the corners of their cages and cover their faces.) Once the imitation is fully believable—100 percent believable—we are again comfortable, even though we know it is an imitation of life. That distance between the 98 percent and 100 percent is the uncanny valley. It was only in the last five years that our imitations of life got good enough—movies with digitally rendered humans, robots with highly articulated musculature—to generate this new human feeling.

The experience of navigating the map fell, for me, into the uncanny valley. Perhaps this is because at forty-six I was already too old to move comfortably within it. Even in those moments when I forgot that I was looking at a screen, I was aware of the finger movements necessary to guide my journey. To my students—my former students—I imagine it would be second nature. Or first nature.

I could advance down streets, almost as if walking, but not at all like walking. It wasn’t gliding, or rolling or skating. It was something more like being stationary, with the world gliding or rolling or skating toward me. I could turn my “head,” look up and down—the world pivoting around my fixed perspective. It was too much like the world.

Google is forthright about how the map is made—why shouldn’t they be?—and I learned that the photos are regularly updated. (Users couldn’t tolerate the dissonance of looking at snow in the summer, or the math building that was torn down three months ago. While such errors would put the map safely on the far side of the uncanny valley, it would also render it entirely uninteresting—if every bit as useful.) Princeton, I learned, is reshot on the fourth of every month.

I wanted to walk to the living room, find my wife reading in her chair, and tell her about it.

* * *

The investigation never went anywhere because there was nowhere for it to go. (It was never even clear just what they were investigating.) I’d had two previous relationships with graduate students—explicitly permitted by the university—and they were held up as evidence. Evidence of what? Evidence that past the appropriate age I had sexual hunger. Why couldn’t I simply repress it? Why did I have to have it at all? My persistent character was my character flaw.

The whole thing was a farce, and as always it boiled down to contradictory memories. No one on a college campus wants to stand up to defend the right of an accused harasser to remain innocent until proven guilty. The university privately settled with the girl’s family, and I was left with severely diminished stature in the department, and alienated from almost all of my colleagues and friends. I believed they believed me, and didn’t blame them for distancing themselves.

I found myself sitting in coffee shops for hours, reading sections of the newspaper I never used to touch, eating fewer meals on plates, and for the first time in my adult life, going for long, directionless walks.

The first night of my forced freedom, I walked for hours. I left the disciplinary committee meeting, took rights and lefts without any thought to where they might lead me, and didn’t get back to my house until early the next morning. My earphones protected me from one kind of loneliness, and I walked beyond the reach of the local NPR affiliate—like a letter so long it switches from black pen to blue, the station became country music.

At some point, I found myself in the middle of a field. Apparently I was the kind of person who left the road, the kind of person who walked on grass. The stars were as clear as I’d ever seen them. How old are you? I wondered. How many of you are dead? I thought, for the first time in a long while, about my parents: my father asleep on the sofa, his chest blanketed with news that was already ancient by the time it was delivered that morning. The thought entered my mind that he had probably bought his last shirt. Where did that thought come from? Why did it come? I thought about the map: like the stars, its images are sent to us from the past. And it’s also confusing.

I thought that maybe if I took a picture of the constellations, I could e-mail them to my wife with some pithy thumb-typed sentiment—Wish you were here—and maybe, despite knowing the ease and cheapness of such words, she would be moved. Maybe two smart people who knew better could retract into the shell of an empty gesture and hide out there for at least a while.

I aimed the phone up and took a picture, but the flash washed out all of the stars. I turned off the flash, but the “shutter” stayed open for so long, trying to sip up any of the little light it could, that my infinitesimally small movements made everything blurry. I took another picture, holding my hand as still as I could, but it was still a blur. I braced my arm with my other hand, but it was still a blur.

* * *

On the fourth of the next month, I waited on the corner of Nassau and Olden. When the vehicle came, I didn’t wave or even smile, but stood there like an animal in a diorama. I went home, opened my laptop, and dropped myself down at the corner of Nassau and Olden. I spun the world, so that I faced northwest. There I was.

There was something exhilarating about it. I was in the map, there for anyone searching Princeton to see. (Until, of course, the vehicle came through again in four weeks, replacing the world like the Flood.) Sitting at my kitchen counter, leaning into the screen of a laptop I bought because, like everybody else, I liked the way it looked, I felt part of the physical world. The feeling was complicated: simultaneously empowering and emasculating. It was an approximate feeling had by someone unable to locate his actual feelings.

I asked myself: Should I go on a trip?

I asked: Should I try to write a book?

Should I apologize? To whom should I apologize? I’d already apologized to my wife in every way possible. To the girl’s parents? What was there to apologize for? Would an apology retroactively create a crime?

There were the problems of shame and anger, of wanting to avoid and manufacture encounters like the one with the student at the streetlight. I needed to be away from judgment, and I needed to be understood. There was nothing keeping me. I’d never been enthusiastic about teaching, but I’d lost my enthusiasm for everything. I felt, in the deepest sense, uninspired, deflated. I’d lost my ability to experience urgency, as if I thought I was never going to die.

I took a left on Chestnut, and suddenly heard something beautiful. Heard, so I wasn’t in the map. This was real. The music was coming from someone’s earphones, a student’s. She was wearing sweatpants, like the athletes do after their showers after practice. It was a beautiful song, so beautiful it made me ecstatic and depressed. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know how to ask what the song was. I didn’t want to interrupt her, or risk a condemnatory look. I kept a fixed distance. She entered a dorm. There was nothing to do.

Afraid of forgetting the tune, I called my phone, and left myself a message, humming the bit I could remember. And then I forgot about it, and after seven days my phone automatically erased saved messages. And then, too late, I remembered. So I took my phone to the store where I bought it and asked if there was any way to recover an erased message. The clerk suggested I send the SIM card to the manufacturer, which I did, and seven weeks later I was e-mailed a digital file with every message I’d received since buying the phone. I found nothing remarkable in this, felt no even small thrill in the confirmation that nothing is ever lost. I was angered or saddened by its inability to impress me.

This was the first message:

 

Hi. It’s Julie. Either you’re hearing this, and therefore deserve to be congratulated on having entered the modern world, or—and this seems equally likely—you have no idea what the blinking red light means, and my voice is hanging in some kind of digital purgatory . . . If you don’t call me back, I’ll assume the latter. Anyway, I just walked out of your office, and wanted to thank you for your generosity. I appreciate it more than you could know. You kept saying, “It goes without saying,” but none of it went without saying. As for dinner, that sounds really nice. At the risk of inserting awkwardness, maybe we should go somewhere off campus, just to, I don’t know, get away from people? Awkward? Crazy? You wouldn’t tell me. Maybe you would. It goes without saying that I loathe awkwardness and craziness. And the more I talk about it, the worse it gets. So I’m going to cut my losses. Call me back and we can make a plan.

 

That was how it began. Dinner was my suggestion, going off campus was hers. It was a pattern we learned to make use of: I asked if she wanted something to drink, she ordered wine; I wiped something nonexistent from her cheek, she held my hand against her face; I asked her to stay in the car to talk for another few minutes . . .

The final message was me humming the unknown song to myself.

* * *

I went to Venice in the map. Never having been to actual Venice, I have no idea how the experience measured up. Obviously there were no smells, no sounds, no brushing shoulders with Venetians, and so on. (It is only a matter of time before the map fills out with such sensations.) But I did walk across the Bridge of Sighs, and I did see Saint Mark’s Basilica. I walked through Piazza San Marco, read Joseph Brodsky’s tombstone on San Michele, window-shopped the glass factories of the Murano islands (bulbs of molten glass held in place at the ends of those long straws until the next month). I looked out at the digital water, its unmoving current holding vaporettos in place. I tried to keep walking, right out onto the water. And I did.

Only someone who hasn’t given himself over to the map would scoff at the deficiency of the experience. The deficiency is the fullness: removing a bit of life can make life feel so much more vivid—like closing your eyes to hear better. No, like closing your eyes to remember the value of sight.

I went to Rio, to Kyoto, to Capetown. I searched the flea markets of Jaffa, pressed my nose to the windows of the Champs-élysées, waded with the crows through the mountains at Fresh Kills.

I went to Eastern Europe, visiting, as I had always promised her I would, the village of my grandmother’s birth. Nothing was left, no indication of what had once been a bustling trading point. I searched the ground for any remnant, and was able to find a chunk of brick. I download images of the brick from a number of perspectives, and sent them to a friend in the engineering department. He was able to model the remnant, and fabricate it on a 3-D-rendering printer. He gave me two of them: one I kept on my desk, the other I sent to my mother to place on my grandmother’s grave.

I went to the hospital where I was born. It has since been replaced with a new hospital.

I went to my elementary school. The playground had been built on to accommodate more students. Where do the children play?

I went to the neighborhood in which my father grew up. I went to his house. My father is not a known person. There will never be a plaque outside of his childhood home letting the world know that he was born there. I had a plaque made, mailed it to my younger brother, and asked him to affix it with Velcro on the sixteenth of the following month. I returned to his house that afternoon and there it was.

Instead of dropping myself back down in Princeton, I decided to walk all the way home. It is quicker to walk in the map, as each stride can cover a full city block, but I knew it would take me most of the night. I didn’t mind. I wanted it that way. The night had to be filled. Halfway across the George Washington Bridge I looked down.

Nothing ever happens because nothing can happen, because despite the music, movies, and novels that have inspired us to believe that the extraordinary is right around the corner, we’ve been disappointed by experience. The dissonance between what we’ve been promised and what we’ve been given would make anyone confused and lonely. I was only ever trying to inch my imitation of life closer to life.

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t pause halfway across a bridge and look down. I wanted to call out, but to whom? Nobody would hear me because there’s no sound. I was there, but everyone around me was in the past. I watched my braveness climb onto the railing and leap: the suicide of my suicide.

* * *

On the fourth of the next month, I walked beside the vehicle. It was easy to keep pace with it, as the clarity of the photographs depends on the car moving quite slowly. I took a right down Harrison when the car did, and another right on Patton, and a left on Broadmead. The windows were tinted—apparently the drivers have been subject to insults and arguments—so I didn’t know if I was even noticed. The driver certainly didn’t adjust his driving in any way to suggest so. I walked beside him for more than two hours, and only stopped when the blister on my right heel became unbearable. I had wanted to outlast him, catch him on his lunch break, or filling up at the gas station. That would have been a victory, or at least a kind of intimacy. What would I have said? Do you recognize me?

I went home and turned on my computer. Everywhere you looked in Princeton, there I was. There were dozens of me.

 

Hi, it’s me. I know I’m not supposed to call, but I don’t care. I’m sad. I’m in trouble. Just with myself. I’m in trouble with myself. I don’t know what to do and there’s no one to talk to. You used to talk to me, but now you won’t. I’m not going to ruin your life. I don’t know why you’re so afraid of that. I’ve never done anything to make you think I’m in any way unreliable. But I have to say, the more you act on your fear that I will ruin your life, the more compelled I feel to ruin it. I’m not a great person, but I’ve never done anything to you. I know it’s all my fault, I just don’t know how. What is it? I’m sorry.

 

I was spending more time each day inside of the map, traveling the world—Sydney, Reykjavik, Lisbon—but mostly going for walks around Princeton. I would often pass people I knew, people I would have liked to say hello to or avoid. The pizza in the window was always fresh, I always wanted to eat it. I wanted to open all of the books on the stand outside the bookshop, but they were forever closed. (I made a note to myself to open them, facing out, on the fourth of the next month, so I would have something to read inside the map.) I wanted the world to be more available to me, to be touchable.

I was puzzled by my use of the map, my desire to explore places that I could easily explore in the world itself. The more time I spent in the map, the smaller the radius of my travels. Had I stayed inside long enough, I imagine I would have spent my time gazing through my window, looking at myself looking at the map. The thrill or relief came through continual reencounters with the familiar—like a blind person’s hands exploring a sculpture of his face.

Unable to sleep one night—it was daytime in the map, as always—I thought I’d check out the progress on the new dorms down by the water. Nothing could possibly be more soul-crushing than campus construction: slow and pointless, a way to cast off money that had to either be spent or lost. But the crushing of the soul was the point. It was part of my exile inside of the map inside of my house.

As I rotated the world to see the length of the scaffolding, something caught my attention: a man looking directly into the camera. He was approximately my age—perhaps a few years older—wearing a plaid jacket and Boston Red Sox hat. There was nothing at all unusual about someone looking back at the camera: most people who notice the vehicle are unable to resist staring. But I had the uncanny sense that I’d seen this person before. Where? Nowhere, I was sure, and yet I was also sure somewhere. It didn’t matter, which is why it did.

I dropped myself back down on Nassau Street, drifted its length a few times, and finally found him, standing outside the bank, again looking directly into the camera. There was nothing odd about that, either—he could have simply walked from one location to the other, and by chance crossed paths with the vehicle. I rotated the world around him, examined him from all sides, pulled him close to me and pushed him away, tilted the world to better see him. Was he a professor? A townie? I was most curious about my curiosity about him. Why did his face draw me in?

I walked home. It had become a ritual: before closing the map, I would walk back to my front door. There was something too dissonant about leaving it otherwise, like debarking a plane before it lands. I crossed Hamilton Avenue, wafted down Snowden, and, one giant stride at a time, went home. But when I was still several hundred feet away, I saw him again. He was standing in front of my house. I approached, shortening my strides so that the world only tiptoed toward me. He was holding something, which I couldn’t make out for another few feet; it was a large piece of cardboard, across which was written: YOU WON’T GET AWAY WITH IT.

I ran to the actual door and opened it. He wasn’t there. Of course he wasn’t.

* * *

As computing moves off of devices and into our bodies, the living map will as well. That’s what they’re saying. In the clumsiest version we will wear goggles onto which the map is projected. In all likelihood, the map will be on contact lenses, or will forgo our eyes altogether. We will literally live in the map. It will be as visually rich as the world itself: the trees will not merely look like trees, they will feel like trees. They will, as far as our minds are concerned, be trees. Actual trees will be the imitations.

We will continuously upload our experiences, contributing to the perpetual creation of the map. No more vehicles: we will be the vehicles.

Information will be layered onto the map as is desired. We could, when looking at a building, call up historical images of it; we could watch the bricks being laid. If we crave spring, the flowers will bloom in time lapse. When other people approach, we will see their names and vital info. Perhaps we will see short films of our most important interactions with them. Perhaps we will see their photo albums, hear short clips of their voices at different ages, smell their shampoo. Perhaps we will have access to their thoughts. Perhaps we will have access to our own.

* * *

On the fourth of the next month, I stood at my door, waiting for the vehicle, and waiting for him. I was holding a sign of my own: YOU DON’T KNOW ME. The vehicle passed and I looked into the lens with the confidence of innocence. He never came. What would I have done if he had? I wasn’t afraid of him. Why not? I was afraid of my lack of fear, which suggested a lack of care. Or I was afraid that I did care, that I wanted something bad to happen.

I missed my wife. I missed myself.

I did an image search for the girl. There she was, posing on one knee with her high school lacrosse team. There she was, at a bar in Prague, blowing a kiss to the camera—to me, three years and half a globe away. There she was, holding on to a buoy. Almost all of the photos were the same photo, the one the newspapers had used. I pulled up her obituary, which I hadn’t brought myself to read until then. It said nothing I didn’t know. It said nothing at all. The penultimate paragraph mentioned her surviving family. I did an image search for her father. There he was.

I entered the map. I looked for him along Nassau Street, and at the construction site where I’d first seen him. I checked the English department, and the coffee shop where I so often did my reading. What would I have said to him? I had nothing to apologize for. And yet I was sorry.

It was getting late. It was always the middle of the day. I approached my house, but instead of seeing myself holding the sign, as I should have, I saw my crumpled body on the ground in front of the door.

I went up to myself. It was me, but wasn’t me. It was my body, but not me. I tilted the world. There were no signs of any kind of struggle: no blood, no bruises. (Perhaps the photo had been taken in between the beating and the appearance of bruises?) There was no way to check for a pulse in the map, but I felt sure that I was dead. But I couldn’t have been dead, because I was looking at myself. There is no way to be alive and dead.

I lifted myself up and put myself back down. I was still there. I pulled all the way back to space, to the Earth as a marble filling my screen in my empty house. I dove in, it all rushed to me: North America, America, the East Coast, New Jersey, Princeton Borough, Princeton Township, my address, my body.

I went to Firestone Library to use one of the public computers. I hadn’t been to the library since the investigation, and hadn’t even thought to wonder if my identity card was still activated. I tried to open the door, but I couldn’t extend my arm. I realized I was still in the map.

I got up from my computer and went outside. Of course my body wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. When I got to Firestone, I extended my arm—I needed to see my hand reaching in front of me—and opened the door. Once inside, I swiped my ID, but a red light and beep emitted from the turnstile.

“Can I help you?” the security guard asked.

“I’m a professor,” I said, showing him my ID.

“Lemme try that,” he said, taking my card from me and swiping it again. Again the beep and red light.

He began to type my campus ID into his computer, but I said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. Thanks anyway.” I took the ID from him and left the building.

I ran home. Everyone around me was moving. The leaves flickered as they should have. It was all almost perfect, and yet none of it was right. Everything was fractionally off. It was an insult, or a blessing, or maybe it was precisely right and I was fractionally off?

I went back into the map and examined my body. What had happened to me? I felt many things, and didn’t know what I felt. I felt personally sad for a stranger, and sad for myself in a distanced way, as if through the eyes of a stranger. My brain would not allow me to be both the person looking and being looked at. I wanted to reach out.

I thought: I should take the pills in the medicine cabinet. I should drink a bottle of vodka, and go outside, just as I had in the map. I should lay myself down in the grass, face to the side, and wait. Let them find me. It will make everyone happy.

I thought: I should fake my suicide, just as I had in the map. I should leave open a bottle of pills in the house, beside my laptop opened to the image of myself dead in the yard. I should pour a bottle of vodka down the drain, and leave my wife a voicemail. And then I should go out into the world—to Venice, to Eastern Europe, to my father’s childhood home. And when the vehicle approaches, I should run for my life.

I thought: I should fall asleep, as I had in the map. I should think about my life later. When I was a boy, my father used to say the only way to get rid of a pestering fly is to close your eyes and count to ten. But when you close your eyes, you also disappear.

* * *