In our first chat about Alan Lightman’s imaginative Mr g, Alex, Lora and I talk about this retelling of the story of creation — the clever characterizations, how Mr g’s actions have unexpected consequences for himself and others, and how science fits into the storyline.
Laurie: So, we enter the world of creation with Alan Lightman’s thought-provoking Mr g. What did you think of it? Was it the first Lightman book you’ve read?
Alex: Certainly was!
Lora: It is. A bit overwhelming at first!
Alex: It took a while to get used to the absence of characters. But I soon got into the groove. It’s so imaginative — scientifically imaginative.
Laurie: I was thinking that was why he added Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva — to flesh out the cast, so to speak.
Alex: That idea goes with the concept of living in nothingness. If there is no one to witness things or share things with, there’s a limit to how much enjoyment or meaning can come from it.
Laurie: But, yes, I found it as imaginative as The Night Circus in its own way and entertaining, but so interesting in terms of the concepts raised and the presentation of them.
Lora: It really makes you think about your own existence and how the world we live in came to be.
Alex: Exactly. It’s like a retelling of the story of creation from the other side.
Laurie: Even the phrasing is similar: “And it was good,” but with a twist….
Lora: Which is a really fascinating way to write, I think. It’s refreshing. Kind of like Mr g himself!
Alex: True. Complete imaginative freedom, then choosing where to throw down real-life facts like the bonding properties of carbon. I haven’t thought about that since school, and this was a more interesting angle to see chemistry from for sure.
Lora: I think so, too. Science was not one of my strongest subjects (in fact, my Grade 10 science teacher told me I’d be flipping burgers for a career!), but Lightman has made it accessible.
Alex: What?! That’s so rude.
Laurie: Well, he/she was wrong! I found the way Lightman worked that all in fascinating: the idea that it all happened without any help from Mr g, so to speak. But to start at the beginning (haha!), I found it interesting that Lightman was presenting the idea that things right from the start weren’t very thought out.
Alex: It’s still complex stuff, but it’s tackled from the “Here’s why this is important: We are made of this stuff.”
Laurie: But tied up with the idea of a being behind it. A conscious process at least to start, then it runs amuck.
Alex: Like taking the praise once it had all worked out? But that is how it happened, no? Evolution, I mean.
Laurie: Absolutely! But it all began with the idea of, well, hey, I’m bored, I’ll do something, but no thought as to what the implications would be and then it gets really out of control — all Mr g can do is stop things, not shape them very much. For example, Belhor’s existence…
Alex: That’s what I love about it — it’s audacious to think about what that thought process was behind this divine force that created the universe and then suggest it was boredom.
Lora: I think it was brilliant for Lightman to include the existence of Belhor. It was a necessary balance. Someone other than Aunt P and Uncle D have to make Mr g question what’s happening.
Alex: It’s funny! I thought he represented the devil but maybe I was being to religious about things.
Lora: I think he does, too, actually. Good versus evil.
Laurie: It’s funny, but unexpected. And that’s the interesting thing. He is the devil. And he’s getting bigger as the universe develops, increasing in physical stature. And there’s also Large Bahomet, then Little Bahomet, too. And notice how they are evil to each other, down the line? Again, an increase in evil as the universe develops. Although the “good” develops as well.
Lora: Those two little beasts provide comic relief, too, I think. Even though they’re not really meant to be funny.
Alex: At the beginning there’s the slovenliness of them all and the knotty hair, then the auntie is always brushing her hair — there certainly are some humanizing qualities — versus Uncle grooming her by the end of the section. It’s kind of like animals.
Laurie: Most definitely. Aunt Penelope was interesting, if whiny. She was Mr. g’s conscience in many ways. And Deva was his soul.
Lora: Ohh, I like that, Laurie!
Laurie: Do you think Penelope was getting more vain, Alex?
Alex: More vain perhaps — if you wanted to interpret it as an extension of the evil — but certainly more insecure and aware of herself; Deva, too. I loved Deva.
Laurie: Again, the increase of evil: more vanity and greed with the desire for the sparkly dress and the mountain, whereas before they were satisfied with nothing — literally. Yet at the same time aware and cautionary, with Penelope a questioning voice.
Alex: True. They’re resistant to change, asking Mr g, “Why do you want to change anything? What’s wrong with nothing?”
Lora: It’s interesting to see how things develop in the void as the universe grows. The balance of Penelope’s resistance with Mr g’s enthusiasm. I love how relatable Mr g is, too. How he questions his actions and what he should do.
Laurie: Yes, and despite her resistance, Penelope does love her stars!
Alex: Amazing how a shiny distraction can change a girl’s mind!
Laurie: They were seduced in many ways. It was so funny how right off the bat she wanted a chair and then she and Deva would fight over it. I was thinking: just get Mr g to make another one!!
Alex: It seemed so precious because it was rare.
Lora: That’s what I really like about this novel. As more material is created, more emotions develop: greed, desire and dissatisfaction.
Laurie: Very true! And Mr g isn’t questioning things enough, until Belhor does. Which is interesting and odd, given who Mr g is.
Alex: It’s very much an adult fable, isn’t it? And Mr g himself is attracted to Belhor, telling him he’s smart and enjoys talking to him.
Laurie: He’s the Devil!!! And smart! And he’s got stupid flipping fools!
Alex: Ha! An entourage! It is a more realistic portrait than the one with horns and a trident.
Lora: Life is like that for all of us, isn’t it? We think what we’ve created is fine and dandy until someone comes along to make us question it all.
Laurie: True, but he is Mr. g. I kinda expect more!
Lora: I would, too, but that’s what makes this story relatable, I think.
Alex: Mr g is just starting out. This is like the prequel to the Bible. This is Back to the…
Laurie: Yes, He’s a babe in the universe-making woods. And obviously it makes for dramatic tension. But I do think it’s too late to start thinking now. The devil’s ahead of him. (And think about it: the devil is, consciously or no, his creation, part of him, in essence.)
Alex: Well, it’s going to become more about Good vs. Evil, I think (if what my parents have led me to believe is true…), and Good will ideally win.
Laurie: But you know there are going to be sentient beings at some point, which means disaster awaits, I fear. A non-interventionist Mr g means trouble.
Alex: Maybe he will learn from his interactions. (I can’t believe we’re essentially fearing for God!)
Laurie: But will he interfere? How can he? What will he do?
Alex: I have never thought about him in this way! There has to be a battle!!!
Laurie: Against Belhor?
Alex: Yes. A fight club of the Gods (OK, the devil isn’t a god…).
Lora: Aunt P, Uncle D and Mr g versus Belhor and the beasts!
Laurie: I think if it was me I would have just stopped the experiment. I couldn’t have handled proceeding and having all that responsibility.
Lora: Belhor is right: It’s almost unthinkable for Mr g to be able to control all of the decisions that will be made — billions upon billions.
Laurie: And to foresee them. But you can tell that’s exactly what Belhor wants: free will, because then the intelligent beings to come will suffer.
Alex: Yeah, he wants things to think and be on their own, to limit Mr g’s control. He knows he can lead them astray.
Laurie: He doesn’t even have to — they’ll do fine on their own.
Alex: They will lead themselves astray! Ha!
Laurie: Exactly, and Belhor can sit back and enjoy. And Mr g will have his hands tied, so to speak.
Lora: Sounds about right.
Alex: I am certainly intrigued to see how it will play out.
Laurie: Mr g has to make up his mind: he set things in action, so now he has to leave them alone or he’s not playing by his own rules. But he had no idea what he was getting into, even though he’s Mr g. Amazing premise! Well done, Lightman!
Lora: I agree!
Alex: I like the way he is taking something real and re-imagining it.
Lora: He must be a fascinating person. I’d like to see what goes on inside his mind while he’s writing.
Laurie: He’s an atheist. Who would have guessed?
Lora: You know what, though, that makes sense. That’s why he’s so comfortable re-imagining how it all happened.
Laurie: Yes, it does make sense, really. But he says in a piece he did for Salon on does God exist: “Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.” I think he’s full of faith for creativity and beauty and thought — and obviously science. And that’s what he’s given us in this book!
Alex: That makes me fall in love with him a bit. When is he coming for breakfast? Seriously, it’s a beautiful sentiment and kind of sums up how I feel.
Laurie: In just a few days! Well, prep yourself for the second and final part of our chat. Big things will happen. And there will be big things to talk about!
Alex: I don’t doubt it! See you there!
Lora: Until next time!