January 2012

Raphaela Weissman

fiction

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation by Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman's background is in both literature and science; he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment at MIT in science and in the humanities. His fiction often reflects this dual nature -- the novel Einstein's Dreams posited a catalog of hypothetical worlds, each operating under different restrictions of time and space; it was an imagination laboratory, like Queneau's Exercises in Style for the MIT set.

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, Lightman's newest, is a similar thought experiment, with the added layer of theology. The title character is God, and the novel follows the process of creating the universe, or rather multiple universes. This premise must have been a daunting entry point, so Lightman keeps the setup simple: God, the first-person narrator, lives in the Void with His Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva (which, Lightman later explains, is the Sanskrit word for "deity").

Lightman's God is all-powerful, but not necessarily infallible. He's saddled with two authority figures who, while understanding of His ultimate authority, are not opposed to kibbitzing. "Now, I want you to listen to me," his Aunt says at one point. "This is no criticism. Your uncle and I have always been impressed with you. But we are your elders, and we do notice what goes on around here... You shouldn't do things with such haste. You rush into things. Slow down. Take your time with this project." "This project," of course, is the creation of everything in existence. Besides comic relief -- Archie and Edith bickering in the background as God ponders the nature of space and time -- the few characters in the book provide one of its clearer themes, the intrinsic nature of humanity. There's a Greek myth quality to God and Aunt and Uncle, peering down on the mortal world from above, and a universal appeal to watching them enact the same flawed behaviors.

Lightman's prose thrives in the world he's created, a bizarre and beautiful place where Aunt Penelope finishes her sentence by "snipp[ing] off a piece of nothingness and [sticking] it in her hair," or an entire universe can emit a "small, moaning sound." There are shades of the imaginative spirit of Einstein's Dreams here, too: "On planets near ultraviolet stars," God explains, "creatures grew thick metallic shields covering their bodies. Animals on planets with low gravity tended to be floppy and large, on planets with high gravity small and compact."

Lightman doesn't over-explain anything; a metaphor, perhaps, for the nature of the subject matter he's handling. The chapters, vignettes that range from pure description of swirling matter in space to concrete narratives about specific individuals' predicaments, are allegories within a greater allegory. We search for symbolism and hidden meanings, and more often than not Lightman answers us with a shrug or a knowing smile and nothing more. Like our narrator, we are piecing this whole business together as we go along.

Once all the universe-creating is taken care of, Lightman waxes theological, laying out a number of different philosophies through discussions the characters have with each other. Belhor, a demonic figure who believes in the inherent necessity of evil, tells God, "At the least, you must allow matters to take their course. You have already set everything in motion." Uncle Deva offers his view on the necessity of religions: "Since they know they can't have [immortality], they want something to be immortal. They come and go so quickly. They want something to last." God, of course, has his own take: "They feel a mystery about it all. I think a little bit of mystery is good. Mystery makes them wonder. It inspires them."

It's worth noting, of course, Lightman's willingness to delve into matters spiritual as a man of science. As with most of the messages in the book, it's hard to tell where Mr g stands vis-à-vis religion and belief and how it all fits together. He seems to be telling us something by ending the book with the quote, "What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." In a narrative where we're constantly bombarded by beautiful impossibilities and searching for meaning where often there isn't any to be found, the added layer of trying to pin down a religious ethos is distracting, and seems beside the point.

Mr g is, for the most part, a magnificent exploration of a brilliant premise; unfortunately, once it veers into Biblical scholar territory, it's strayed a bit too far. What we crave, what carries us along, are the endless possibilities for universes and universes within universes, gorgeous descriptions of space and time and their inhabitants. In other words, the original promise of the novel: a couple eons in the life of God. As Einstein himself said, "I want to know God's thoughts... the rest are details."

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation by Alan Lightman
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307379993
224 pages