And Then There Was Light, Man

As an undergraduate student, in order to acquire financial aid, I agreed to take a special first-year seminar called The Creative Process. In the class, we discussed such questions as “What is art?” and, in more concrete form, “Why do we refer to the urinal in the bathroom as simply a place for waste when we call the urinal on the gallery wall a masterpiece?” Halfway through the semester, the professor, a 50-year-old woman with dyed-black, bobbed hair and a necklace that featured a grapefruit-size bust of Jack Skellington, instructed us to consume—to consume—the book Einstein’s Dreams, which, despite its name, was fiction. I did not have high expectations. I could already imagine that the experience was going to be something of a “groovy” ticket to the mother ship.

In many ways, I was right. What I hadn’t expected, though, was author Alan Lightman’s uncanny ability to turn psychedelic scientific concepts and abstract philosophy into concrete images and scenes. Which is precisely what Einstein’s Dreams does: It commutes the more fantastic possibilities of Einstein’s theory of relativity into a series of worlds where, for example, “time is a circle, bending back on itself,” “time has three dimensions, like space,” “time moves barely at all,” “time stands still,” and, finally, “there is no time.” Each fictional world is set up as its own chapter, independent of the other chapters, held together only by a series of interludes in which the fictionalized Einstein walks through Bern, Switzerland, speaking with his friend, Besso, who serves mostly as a sounding board. This vignette-based structure, more akin to a collection of short stories than a novel, works because Einstein’s Dreams does not aspire to a continuous narrative. The book’s raison d'être is to paint individual, poetic, philosophical parables. At that, it succeeds brilliantly.

Enter Lightman’s latest novel, Mr g, which tells the story of Creation from God’s perspective. Like the critically acclaimed Einstein’s Dreams, Mr g begins as a meditation on time, breaks into a series of short chapters that attempt to turn science into scene, and ultimately shoots for the philosophical stars. Unlike Einstein’s Dreams, Mr g fails.

While Mr g mimics the vignette-based structure of the earlier novel, it strives for a more continuous narrative, and this creates a problem in that the chapters—with headings such as “Space” and “Planets” and “The Origins of Life”—read more like well-written snippets of illustration in a high-school textbook rather than pieces of a cogent plot. Where the science was seamlessly melded with the fictive worlds in Einstein’s Dreams, as well as in some of Lightman’s short essays like “Smile,” here it stands out as, well, science. Upon returning to his newly created universe, Mr g reflects:

Triplets of quarks had combined to form neutrons and protons. These flew about at a ferocious speed, surrounded always by an ultraviolet haze of soft gluons and occasionally emitting gamma rays as they ricocheted off other frenetic nuggets of matter. Particles spun about their internal axes. Particles swerved in magnetic fields. Particles careened and accelerated and annihilated into pure energy.

Later in the novel, Mr g encounters Belhor, a Satan-like character who fills the same role in this book that Besso fills in Einstein’s Dreams. While discussing the possible intellectual capacities of “intelligent creatures,” Belhor tells Mr g:

There are an extremely large number of possible arrangements even for a small brain. Consider a typical atom, like carbon. Say, for example, that it has 20 possible configurations. There might be 1014 atoms in a single one of your new cells, so that there are more than 2010 14 different possible configurations of a single cell. In one rather modest brain, with 1012 cells, there would then be 2010 26 possible configurations.

In a nonfiction text on the cosmos or biology, these passages would be commendable for their poetic power, but in a novel they serve only to pull readers from their fictive dream, to remind them that they are reading the contrivance of an MIT physicist, not the word of God—even a man-made one.

In an endnote regarding the novel’s use of numbers, Lightman admits, “There is no reason why Mr g would use base 10 to discuss numbers, but this base has been used here because it is the number system that will be familiar.” This and other endnotes, such as “The ‘tick of a hydrogen clock’ is the reciprocal of the frequency of the Lyman alpha emission from the hydrogen atom, equal to about 4x10-16 seconds,” highlight the degree to which the science overtakes the fictional narrative.

The French writer Albert Camus, whose short story “Pride” is also told from God’s perspective, states in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus that “great novelists are philosopher-novelists […] writing in images rather than reasoned arguments.” In Lightman’s previous essays and novels, this is precisely what works so well. Lightman combines the science and philosophy with the images and leaves it at that. He does not try to elucidate. But Mr g does, and what we get from the explanation is an overwhelming science lecture and an underwhelming dose of philosophy-lite: “How could an individual mortal life have any meaning? And even if the individual, the tiny ant, thinks its life has a meaning, it is only an illusion.”

These types of platitudes appear throughout the novel and when added up, present a fascinating paradox. In this tale told from God’s perspective, it often seems as if God Himself is debating the necessity of his existence. At times subtle, this argument becomes strikingly clear midway through the novel when, speaking of the first signs of life, Mr g says, “All this had happened in my absence! Mindlessly following the rules of chance and necessity, the warm seas of the planet were churning out highly organized and efficient multicellular organisms. I felt a slight embarrassment that so much could proceed without any direction by me.”

Like a cartoon fox, this passage, and many similar ones, cleverly allows Lightman, the scientist, to don the garb of God, the Almighty, to tell us that, in fact, there is no God. Because Mr g is the one arguing this point, the blow is softened, and the spiritually inclined reader can come away still believing in a deistic or immanent God, though not an interventionist one. Thus, in the four-tiered possibility of belief—atheist, deist, immanentist, and interventionist—Lightman has only alienated a quarter of his readers, and if his foxy setup works its sly purpose, maybe not even that quarter.

But he hasn’t fooled everyone. Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett recently took Lightman to task in a Salon article for his, and certain other nonbelievers’, unwillingness to nail religion to the wall:

Lightman wants us [atheists] to keep our criticisms hyper-polite. … This sort of fuzziness has its uses. The Vaseline on the camera lens that blurs out the wrinkles on the face of the aging movie star is not just a sop to her vanity; it is both considerate and self-serving. Let’s not dwell on what her face has become; let’s allow her to re-create the beauty that stunned us in the past. Everybody wins. Lightman defends much the same policy with regard to religion: Let’s keep our objections in soft focus and avoid drawing attention to even quite ugly flaws.

Reading Mr g, one is left with the sense that Lightman is unwilling to commit to his convictions. He has disguised his science project as a novel and cloaked his atheism in royal robes. Ultimately, it’s perhaps telling that Mr g utilizes a lowercase letter for its title deity, as the book reads with less uppercase authority and more gee-whiz banality.

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