Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The books are talking to each other again

Utopian society! Cult?! Cognitive science! Visions?!

When Annette Gilson contacted me about sending me a copy of her novel, New Light, I jumped at the chance to read it. It's a pretty breezy, quick read I consumed in spare moments over about 3 days last week.

Gilson's website gives this synopsis:
Beth Martin wakes up one day feeling that she has wasted her life. She goes to Saint Louis to visit her college roommate and take some time to get her bearings. But at a party she experiences what she can only call a vision, which she finds isconcerting, but also strangely compelling. Also compelling is her seeming chance meeting with a neuroscientist who is researching vision phenomena. Beth accompanies him to New Light, a visionary commune in the Missouri Mountains where she meets its charismatic leader and is befriended by some of its members. Their conception of American life challenges the mainstream in a number of ways, most notably in their openness to sexual and emotional experimentation. Beth is intrigued by the sense of possibility she finds at New Light, but is also disturbed by the enormous power its leader wields over the members' lives. In the end she must address questions of faith and responsibility, loyalty and desire, jealousy and tolerance.

New Light was reviewed favourably by Alan Cheuse, though I take issue with his calling it a romance.

I don't really know where to start in talking about this book — I seem unable to maintain, let alone articulate, any coherent thought lately. But the book certainly had me thinking about a great deal of very interesting ideas — a good thing.

I wasn't enthralled by the tone of the first chapter (I'm not a fan of first-person narrative; I think it's really hard to pull off well), but the ideas were compelling enough; it did the job of making me want to read on. One review discusses the writing style (among all else). The rhythm does in fact suit the narrator rather well as we come to know her.

The dialogue I found to be natural and completely believable, reminding me of parties I went to in my university days; the interesting parties, anyway. So I find myself remembering: people I had brief but intense connections with, conversations about the nature of perception.

The book tells the story of one week in Beth's life. A lot can happen in a week. And I remember: one group of people I fell in with, or another, for a few days, or a summer; I remember the feeling that all eternity, and the meaning of everything, if coded, was contained in a handful of moments — intimate friendships with strangers. The briefest of exchanges were immensely meaningful.

While not exactly a trip down memory lane (I've never lived on a commune; I've never had visions), the novel awakened lingering questions: how have I processed my reality? what happened to the others? what happened to all our big ideas? do they remember things the way I do? how can such little moments have such profound effects? what the fuck happened?

I'm not trying to be cryptic, but I don't want to tell all my little stories either. But I'm trying to explain those moments — I think we all have them, don't we? It doesn't happen often anymore (is biological age, or lifestyle, a factor?). How to explain those moments: when there's a connection, intellectual, spiritual, or, yes, sexual; with a stranger, an old friend in a new light, the universe; that defies sense or definition. Is it a kind of altered state? I don't mean odd events. I mean those otherwise very ordinary days: Those 3 "ordinary" days of shopping, ice cream, and gin & tonics with my girlfriends, days rife with spontaneity and coincidence, but somehow they were different than all the other times, somehow for that one span of time everything was in tune, in sync, magical, and I was in the moment and imbued with a sense of omnipotence. A confluence of circumstance over a chunk (small, dense) of time that taps an essence.

And while a week on a commune is bit of an extreme example of a social situation, I think Gilson has tapped into a common "problem" of experience.


New Light is having conversations with other books on my shelves. With Beyond Black, about the idea of a stage persona taken on by a "mystic." With Labyrinth, about the nature of visions — genetic? biochemical? mystical? With War and Peace (which, no, I haven't started reading, but I've been reading a bit about it), about the nature of history.

New Light's neuroscientist posits that spiritual movements throughout history, and the effects on social and political radicals, are a manifestation of chaotic patterning. "It's the chaotic effect. It doesn't matter if spiritualism itself is a sham, just like it doesn't matter that you solve for the chaos pattern in imaginary space. Both map out patterns in the real world." Meanwhile, Tolstoy:
And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

The loudest conversation in the room, nearly drowning out all the others, is with A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman. They're still talking. I thought I was quite done with Byatt, but it seems I'm only now beginning to hear some of what that book had to say. Spiritual communities figure in both, as does investigation into the cognitive processes in play. A heroine grappling with identity issues and romantic difficulties. The imagery of bird-women. Byatt cuts across a much broader swath of life, but remains coldly, academically detached; Gilson's world is smaller but warmer. My, they have a lot to say to each other.

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