Archive for May, 2012

Geeky Genesis: Alan Lightman’s Mr. g

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

A book that struck my quirky bone: Alan Lightman’s Mr. g [sic] — a story (for some reason I don’t want to call it a novel) about the birth, life, and death of the universe.  I remember enjoying his book Einstein’s Dreams, so I was willing to take the time to read this one on the basis of its premise: a first-person narrative of the creation of the universe and its subsequent history.  The eponymous Mr. g of the title wakes up from a nap one day in the infinite and eternal void and decides to create something, which turns out to be the universe more or less as we know it.

The first few chapters are obviously intended to track Genesis, and Lightman manages to find satisfying ways to map the stages of the familiar Big Bang onto the first biblical week.  I was charmed.

Mr. g is not alone in the void.  He has an (eternal and infinite) Aunt Penelope and an (eternal and infinite) Uncle Deva, who comment on and critique the process of their nephew’s project.  Penelope is constitutionally skeptical and given to gentle, but persistent complaining.  Uncle Deva is more open-minded.  Their (eternal and infinite) marriage is fundamentally affectionate with occasional bickering (enough to be amusing, but not so much as to be irritating).  They are an unlikely authorial device, but they work well, adding a parental touch without the story-muddling complications a mother and father might have introduced.

Things go smoothly until sentient mortal beings arise.  At this point, Lightman and his narrator lose the sure-footed, casual lightness of tone that has so pleasantly informed the previous chapters.  Sentient beings raise issues of good and bad, justice and iniquity, and Lightman thrashes a bit.  He introduces a new character, Belhor, a sophisticated, intellectual demon who states that Mr. g unknowingly created him as a consequence of creating the universe.  Belhor is attended by two bad-boy monsters both named Baphomet.

Aside from boorishly disrupting an operatic performance on some planet or other, the three B’s don’t actually seem to do much.  Belhor asks Mr. g some of the difficult questions about good and evil and about beauty and ugliness, but Belhor’s role doesn’t seem to be well thought out.  The two Baphomets seem to be no more than buffoons, possibly introduced by the author to serve as structural counterpoises to Aunt P. and Uncle D., which they don’t.

The sentient mortal beings in the universe invent religions and eventually Uncle Deva lobbies Mr. g saying that Mr. g ought to give the beings a glimpse of the glorious eternal void, I wasn’t convinced, but Mr. g was.  Mr. g agrees to give the beings a glimpse of heaven (Lightman never calls it that) at the instant of their death.  Oh.  That’s supposed to be something they have earned somehow.

So, from a promising, if somewhat sterile premise, Lightman creates an initially charming story that loses steam when he tries to tackle the Big Problems.  I liked Einstein’s Dreams better.

Paul Harding, Tinkers

Friday, May 4th, 2012

I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit From the Goon Squad so much that I went looking for other Pulitzer Prize winning novels. For starters, I got Paul Harding’s 2010 Prize winner, Tinkers. I enjoyed it, but it is a quirky, disorienting book. A friend said she had “a hard time” with it. I just finished it. I found it enjoyable. I liked the evocation of past times and lives. If I stop to think about it, there are five generations–no, six–mentioned in the book. Other than James Michener (who doesn’t write anywhere as well as Harding), I can’t think of another book that ranges so extensively through time. At times, I found the author’s fascination with the auras surrounding Howard’s grand mal seizures a bit excessive, but I liked the use of language and the little digressions on clockmaking.

Nothing much happens in Tinkers, except that the main character, George Washington Crosby, dies quietly in a semi-conscious, somewhat confused state over the course of eight days and just under two hundred pages. The story relates his thoughts and impressions: memories and imaginings that pass through his mind as he lies in his bed attended by various members of his family who occasionally register on his consciousness.

But, what remarkable memories and imaginings! Five generations of George’s family figure in the story, from his grandfather to his grandchildren. The most prominent of these, the one who most occupies George’s mind, is his father, Howard, the tinker of the title. Howard made his living tinkering and selling prosaic necessities from a donkey-pulled cart (a kind of micro bodega or a nano Wal-Mart) as he traveled the dirt roads of the back woods of New England in the 1920’s.

Harding’s evocations of Howard’s experiences are lyrical­sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, but generally sure-footed­a pleasure to read. Howard suffered from grand mal epileptic seizures, a fact that was hidden from George when he was a child. At the age of twelve (if I remember correctly) the knowledge is thrust upon him when his father has a seizure at home and his mother orders him to put his fingers in Howard’s mouth to prevent him from biting off his tongue. She then grabs a piece of wood for the same purpose and manages to get it into Howard’s mouth. By that time, Howard has bitten one of George’s fingers to the bone.

The author and George, his creation, seem to have a morbid fascination with Howard’s epilepsy, particularly with the mind-altering auras that precede Howard’s seizures. This is the weakest part of the story. I didn’t care.

George eventually becomes a horologist, a dealer in and expert repairer of antique clocks. George is devoted to the clocks he encounters, but he does not allow himself to be distracted from the fact that he makes a living from his intimate and arcane knowledge thereof. One day, George visits his banker (George squirrels away money in eight banks to minimize his exposure to risk). George notices that the pendulum has stopped.

Damn thing just stopped…, Edward said.

George said, These things are tricky bastards. George saw… that the clock had been merely brushed off level by the enormous banker as he had inserted or extracted himself behind his desk, and that the pendulum would therefore run down and stop ten minutes after whenever it was started.

While the banker takes a phone call, and is looking the other way,

George righted the clock on the hook from which it hung…. Edward turned back toward George and held up an index finger…. George nodded… and mouthed, I have to go out to the car.

George brought a stepladder and a tackle box full of tools back into the bank. He set the ladder up in front of the clock, opened its large glass door, mounted the ladder and peered up into the clock. He grunted and swore and dismounted the ladder to change tools three times…. At the end of half an hour he finally said, Aha, I got you, you little son of a – And he climbed down the ladder, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Edward filled out a yellow form,… drew three one hundred dollar bills from one of the tellers’ drawers [and handed them to George].

George ruminates on clocks and timekeeping and on the metaphorical significance of the desire to measure and thus somehow subjugate the passage of time to human purposes. The author accompanies George’s ruminations with quotations from a fictional 1783 pamphlet, “The Reasonable Horologist.” These passages are charming explications of the internal functioning of clockworks or descriptions of historical timepieces of note.

By the end of the book, which ends with George’s final thoughts, we like George and we like his father. It’s nice to have read a book where the characters, for all their foibles, are people we are content to have spent time with.