A novel computationally, deterministically generated extending passages from Samuel Beckett’s Watt

Megawatt is an algorithmic rewriting of Samuel Beckett’s experimental novel Watt (1953), in which Beckett formed his distinctive style, including systematic mannerisms, schematism, and an inclination for endless enumeration, repetition, and variation which all correspond perfectly with the main character Watt’s predilection for routines and repetitions. It also shows a certain proximity to computer generated writing before computers. Nick Montfort takes this as an invitation and, according to the subtitle, presents A novel computationally, deterministically generated extending passages from Samuel Beckett’s Watt.

For this, Montfort selects the passages that are the least “intelligible” and the most “inscrutable” (Nick Montfort, “Preface”), and writes a Python script that imitates Beckett’s regular, repetitive writing: the selected passages are not merely recreated, but expanded by exhaustively permuting—even more consistently than Beckett’s—their main words in all their possible combinations. Montfort even adds more words to play with, so that over seven long pages in the first chapter, Watt now hears voices not only singing, shouting, saying, and murmuring incomprehensible things in his ear, but also chattering, ranting, whispering, in every conceivable order. Thus, Beckett’s already repetitive passages expand to an excessive, absurd length—which is why Watt becomes Megawatt.

As Hannes Bajohr, who translated Megawatt into German, points out: “[Megawatt’s] output is, first, what Beckett had written […]—but then not only what he could have written, but also what he must have according to his own rules […]. Megawatt is thus a form of algorithmic empathy, which is not a copy but a reconstructive comprehension which can claim that it was done in the spirit of Beckett with more legitimacy than any epigonal text, any parody or pastiche ever could” (Hannes Bajohr, “Algorithmic Empathy”).

Megawatt was written and generated in November 2014 for the second National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo, the equivalent of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)), for which a novel of at least 50,000 words in length is to be produced within one month. The book also includes the 350-line source code of the Python script (which is also available online) so you can recreate it yourself, complete with PDF and title page. It is printed on the Espresso Book Machine and distributed via the Harvard Book Store, which does not, however, accept orders from outside the United States.

When the book was translated into German, Hannes Bajohr decided not to translate the actual novel text, but to rewrite the program code, including the word material to be permuted, in German and use it to regenerate the novel text.