There aren’t many things that will get me happily bounding out of bed and downtown early morning, but breakfast with an author is definitely one of them. When Laurie Grassi from Chatelaine invited me to breakfast with author Alan Lightman, I was intrigued. Alan Lightman is a theoretical physicist, an astro-physicist to be precise, and he’s written, among other works, the novels Einstein’s Dreams and the recently published Mr g. I found the concept behind Mr g interesting: the novel tells the story of creation from the point of view of God (a.k.a. Mr g). The novel begins: “As I remember, I had just woken from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” That opening hooked me; I wanted to meet this author.
It was great meeting Laurie, with whom I’ve chatted on Twitter (follow her at @ChatelaineBooks), and I was very impressed by how she knew everyone’s names. Every time someone entered the room, she’d introduce her to everyone else, sometimes even citing our Twitter handles and blog names. I was also impressed by the breakfast. We had coffee and tea in beautiful mugs, and trays of fruit, chocolate croissants and other breads and pastries. Seriously, an entire table was filled with food.
Chatelaine was also kind enough to provide each of us with a copy of Mr g. I absolutely love the cover! The original cover, above, is already beautiful, but our copies have the bright pink Chatelaine Book Club label on it, which I think makes the book even more eye-catching. (I took this image with my phone and the lighting is off; it’s much sharper in real life.)
Alan Lightman is charming. Not only is he a physicist, professor and novelist, but he also runs an organization that provides housing for women in Cambodia. He looked around the mostly female room (all female, actually, with the exception of Alan himself and book club member Josh) and admitted he was used to being surrounded by females. He then laughed sheepishly and added that it wasn’t how it sounded; he meant just because of his work with Cambodian women.
Alan read an excerpt from Mr g, then we were all invited to ask questions and discuss the book with him. Mr g wakes up from a nap and decides to create the universe. His aunt begs him not to: “You could mess things up,” but Mr g had made up his mind and thereby, without really meaning to, created Time. The aunt and uncle characters provide comic relief, but there’s also something sad in their sudden realization of the passage of time. “It was nicer when everything happened at once,” the aunt complains. “I can’t stand to think about the future.” Eternity isn’t a long time until you’re aware of time’s passage. The chapter ends with the aunt’s sudden development of vanity and need to fix her hair for the first time. I wondered if it was an echo of the Genesis myth, where eating the fruit of knowledge made Adam and Eve self-conscious and led to the fall of man.
Someone asked Alan if he was afraid of offending people by writing such a novel from God’s point of view. He responded that even with the humour and the casual nature of Mr g’s actions, he has always endeavoured to maintain the character’s dignity. We did find out, however, that someone did find the content offensive, and so wrote a catalogue description that gave the impression that Mr g was a supernatural being, but not God, and that the universe in Mr g was not our universe but in some other dimension. Fortunately, the description was corrected in time.
I was fascinated by how much of Alan’s work as a physicist influences his novel writing. He spoke to us about string theory multiverses. I’ll do my best to repeat his explanation here, and if it doesn’t make sense, or if I got anything wrong, that’s definitely all me. Alan explained it really well, and at the breakfast, I actually understood what he was talking about. Basically, physicists have a theory that there are countless dimensions, different universes, all of which are governed by different laws. This frustrates physicists because it means they cannot apply a single formula to explain everything in existence. As well, no other universe except ours can support life. Laurie asked him to clarify if he meant life as we know it, or all forms of life. Alan replied that no form of life at all can exist outside this universe. His point is that all the elements that came together to form this universe did so by accident. The absence of a single formula to explain everything means there is no grand design or grand scheme; we exist because of accident. I think that concept is very much encapsulated in the opening sentence of Mr g: the universe is created by God on a whim after a nap, literally without rhyme or reason.
I just started reading Mr g, and I am fascinated by Alan’s language. Even in the first few chapters, we move from the humorous quip of the opening sentence to some very scientific language describing the universe as “a tiny ellipsoid […] and it was a mathematical and tautological impossibility for anything within to emerge without.” Then I am surprised by phrases that are just beautiful, even poetic: “Practically everything slept in an infinite torpor of potentiality.” I love that phrase: “infinite torpor of potentiality.” Beautiful.
Thank you to Chatelaine Book Club for the opportunity to meet Alan Lightman. I had a great time, and I enjoyed meeting so many fellow book lovers. Chatelaine even gave each of us a swag bag. I had to laugh when Josh proudly showed me that he was able to fit the bag into his backpack: “I’ll carry pink for a girl, but not for myself.” I also found the cover of the Chatelaine issue timely. “Declutter!” I read, as I glanced around my very cluttered home. I also love that Chatelaine chose Mr g for its book club. When I think of book club picks for women’s magazines, and I admit I obviously need to change my preconceived notions on this, a book with a scientific slant about the creation of the universe wouldn’t have come to mind. I found Mr g an unexpected, interesting choice, and I can’t wait to find out what they choose next.