Lately, I've been reading – or I should say, tripping on – The Beginning of Infinity [New York, Penguin Group, 2011] by Oxford theoretical physicist David Deutsch, also best-selling author of The Fabric of Reality. Professor Deutsch speculates that much of what happens in fiction is close to a reality somewhere in the multiverse. As a writer, I find that comforting, especially when I postulate that Deutsch's projection could just as well apply to the abandoned narratives that litter my garden of forking drafts.
Maybe the happenings in my uncompleted drafts actually occurred in dimensions where momentary universes collapse due to off-kilter physical laws. Not being a mathematician, I can't work out the equations, but this projection might serve me well in offsetting blame for failed drafts. It wasn't me. It was those darn skewed dimensions. Indeed, as I wrote them, everything seemed to be going along just fine until, one day I open the file and, nightmare: what I thought were well-crafted words melt and run off the pages.
Though still debated among cosmology cognoscenti, the multiverse/parallel universes concept goes back a long way, for instance, implied by ancient Hindu/Buddhist cosmology. It became a cultural meme well before the likes of Deutsch, Roger Penrose, and Stephen Hawking began taking the hypothesis seriously. Characters from parallel universes come at us from all sides in literature, films, TV and comic books. Maybe I missed something, but Deutsch's startling aside, however, was the first time I'd heard multiverse theory applied literally to fiction.
Just think. My characters, however imperfect– as well as yours, fellow scribes out there – could well be leading lives as real as they seem in our heads, let's say, on planet Q10.745/12 in universe K7.1332B/M7X purring along, sight unseen, right under our noses in universes parallel to the one in which you're reading this blog.
I wonder if Professor Deutch's hypothesis applies to strange-loopy metafiction as well straight-ahead narratives. I would love it if my metafictional Ophelia Rising were stepping lively on some parallel terra firma where she flees Elsinore with a band of players after her unpleasantness with Prince Hamlet, instead of drowning herself. Later she might cross paths with Shakespeare himself. Miguel de Cervantes, still a roustabout seaman on a Spanish warship, would show up in my Ophelia's alternative late-renaissance world as well.
I didn't have the metaverse in mind when I wrote the Ophelia novel but reading Deutch's proposition reminded me that Cervantes presaged nested universes four hundred years ago. In the second volume of his great comic epic, published in 1615, Cervantes tells us that Don Quixote has been compelled to come out of retirement ten years after writing his now popular memoir to “purge the disgust and nausea of another Don Quixote” going about masquerading as the real don.
Like many writers, I presume, I've always taken particular pleasure in literary self-referencing tongue-in-cheek from Chaucer to Cervantes, Laurence Sterne to Jorge Luis Borges, to Thomas Pynchon, to Kurt Vonnegut, not to mention films, starting with my favorite, metafictional cinematic masterpiece, Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Their metafictional works never let you forget the proscenium of literary conceit that contains their narrative. Yet such stories have always seemed more real to me than those that let me suspend my disbelief seamlessly. The metaverse hypothesis seems to affect me in the same way. It takes me into a cosmic house of mirrors populated by infinite iterations of me, and the characters I'm trying to conjure, no matter how absurd.
Not that I count myself a literary author or scholar. I once tried vainly to wade through William H. Gass' 650-page, postmodern literary tar pit, The Tunnel, after learning that he coined the term metafiction. It took him three decades to write this acknowledged masterpiece. I only lasted three days in it.
I remember an interview in which Salman Rushdie, that master of ironically imagined, speculative worlds, said that he learned from his mentor at Cambridge, where he read history, not to write anything down until his characters began talking to him directly. The idea that my vaguely imagined draft characters might be real enough to be approached on some other universe seems to bring them into sharper focus for me. Whatever works, I guess.
Lately, I've steeled myself to turn off the TV and resist social media and take refuge in my fictional world. The current American election campaign has proven too strong a distraction for this writer. Plus, remembering Deutsch's hypothesis, I've been overcome by the nightmarish feeling that I've been beamed to either in the Fascist-ruled speculative fiction universe of Philip Roth's Plot Against America or that of Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle. In either case, the ultimate nemesis is a bloated bigot with orange hair. Now I'm trying to write my way home.
Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. During the 1980s and 90s, he belonged to two improvisational theater groups in Northern California, while editor of San Francisco magazine. He has written extensively for newspapers, magazines and other publications online and in print. He resides in Chicago with his partner, noted visual artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.