Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Metafiction, the Metaverse, and Me - Umberto Tosi

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, a draft can seem copacetic one day, and melt off the page when I reopen it on screen the next morning.
     Though still debated among cosmology cognoscenti, the multiverse/parallel universes idea goes back a long way. It is a core concept of 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.
     My inamorata, Chicago narrative artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, didn't find Deutsch's proposition all that startling. "I imagine that the people in my paintings would like to kill me," she has quipped, not-quite-tongue-in-cheek. It's a good thing Eleanor has an assertive grip on daily reality to complement her vivid imagination, what with the scores of wildly surreal characters that have appeared in her paintings over the past fifty years. Every time I look at one of her paintings, I can see they have a life of their own. I wouldn't doubt they might want to cross over from whatever para-universe they inhabit and kill off potential competition by strangling their mother artist. 
Spranger's Minerva
Triumphs Over Ignorance
     So, I hope, do my own characters, however imperfect. If I'm doing things right, they could well be leading lives as real as they seem in our heads, let's say, on planet Q10.745/12 in the universe: K7.1332B/M[888]7X purring along, sight unseen, right under our noses as you read 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 in some parallel terra firma wherein, as in my novel, a band of players seemingly as mad as she, fish her from that raging brook, then whisk away from Elsinore and all that unpleasantness with the Melancholy Dane. In this world - and for that matter in our own - it's easy to imagine this troupe crossing paths with a young traveling actor named William Shakespeare during the Bard's "missing years" decades before he wrote Hamlet. Miquel de Cervantes shows up briefly as well. 
     Like our own, this parallel universe would include our small world, much smaller in the 1570s when sailing ships were prime commercial conveyances and formidable instruments of war. Like the Bard, Cervantes was a young man on the move then. He sailed with the Spanish Navy and fought the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. This was decades before he penned the divinely absurd, prescient books one and two of Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) that fostered a love of literature in the callow, spottily schooled youth that I was on the not-so-glamorous streets of Los Angeles in the 1950s. 
Ophelia's Garden, a gouache
by Eleanor Speiss-Ferris
whose image graces
my book cover
     Shakespeare did a walk-on in my senior year at Hollywood High School when I enrolled in a drama class, hoping for an easy grade, if not more culture. I performed a scene from Hamlet as my final piece. Thank the gods I was not in the universe in which my performance could be posted on YouTube or Snapchat in 1955. Meme's aside, I did start to get Shakespeare vaguely, and eventually, come to appreciate how richly complex, yet intriguingly incomplete he fashioned Ophelia so that she came to inspire so many literary, dramatic, visual and musical works over the past four hundred years. But I was writing a novel, not a play. Ergo, I found myself on the picaresque path of Cervantes, inspired the famous metafictional tricks he used to bring the Man of La Mancha to life, tricks that have inspired writers from Laurence Sterne to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, to Thomas Pynchonto Kurt Vonnegut, to Paul Auster's meta-detective New York Trilogy.
     With a head full of such metafiction and magic realism, I opted - in my own humble way - to construct Ophelia Rising in the style of a historical biography - a fictional work posing as nonfiction. Our fictitious author explores Ophelia's secret post-Elsinore life as real. Our imagined historian notes his scholarly sources fastidiously - e.g., sixteenth-century church and city records, co-contemporary personal accounts, letters, journals and fragments of an Ophelia "diary" discovered recently in the Vatican archives. 
Isabella Andreini,
Veronese's
Portrait of a Woman
With a Dog
 A third sixteenth-century literary figure, Isabella Andreini, influenced Ophelia Rising as powerfully as the first two, if not more. The real Isabella Andreini was a poet, playwright, and actress who was as celebrated in her time as her contemporaries, Shakespeare and Cervantes. Regrettably, she is practically forgotten except among historians now. I named the prima donna, playwright and codirector of Ophelia's fictional players after Isabella and based the troupe on "I Gelosi" a much-lauded, Venetian commedia dell'arte company Andreini led on tours through much of sixteenth-century Europe.
     Call me crazy, but over the year that I researched and wrote the novel, I came to believe that my protagonist actually had existed in our own world, parallel universes aside, as it were. I began unconsciously searching for traces of her in sixteenth-century writings. I scanned for her face among the great Mannerist portraits of the period painted in cities where Ophelia's troupe appeared. Traveling with her troupe - playing palaces, theaters, and public squares - it's natural that my Ophelia would become involved with the creative people of her time. Such players often posed for famous painters as a matter of course, as did Andreini for Veronese in the image shown here. 
      I let the fantasy drift into my consciousness like fog through the Golden Gate Bridge. One day, I came across the image of Bartholomaus Spranger's "Minerva Triumphs Over Ignorance." and recognized her. Yes. She's stylized in the mannerist fashion, and all done up in armor and revealing silks, but it's my Ophelia - older now, and wiser than in her Elsinore days, hiding out in Rudolf the Second's magical Prague. Yes. It has to be, I thought. I found no reference to whoactually modeled for Spranger's giant canvas. Maybe a name will show up somewhere in the future, in our world or a parallel one. But then, Ophelia would not have revealed her real name at that point in the novel, being on the lam and having assumed many identities.
Miguel de Cervantes
by Juan de Jauregui
     If Professor Deutsch's notion is true for metafiction as well as straight narratives, then, in at least one parallel universe, Don Quixote's tales really did come from the archives of La Mancha and  Alonzo Quixano's journals, and not the quill of Cervantes, who may not even exist. It could be the same world where a witch turned a second-century Roman named Lucius into a Golden Ass who was subsequently changed back by the grace of the Goddess Isis after various harrowing adventures, Apuleius' two-thousand-year-old novel always seemed very real to me, having made an ass of myself on numerous occasions, much in need of a wise woman's counsel.  These metafiction masterpieces  never let us forget the proscenium arch of literary conceit that frames their narrative. Yet such stories have always seemed more real to me than those that allow me to suspend my disbelief with ease. 
     One metaverse hypothesis that suggests we are conscious of one particular universe at a time - the one in which each of us survives at that moment. We're oblivious to worlds from which we have branched off - worlds in which we died and don't exist anymore. It's akin to Derek Parfit's 1984 tele-transporter thought experiment, in which the British philosopher questioned whether one would actually survive being "beamed" from Earth to Mars. Would such a "transporter"simply disintegrate You No. 1 into quarks and create an exact duplicate - You No. 2 -  on Mars, with your memories, believing itself to be you. What if it only copied and replicated you on Mars, making two versions of you. Which would be the real you? Both?. You know this story - grist for scores of scifi novels, movies, and video games (the scifi horror game Soma, for example.)
     The other night I dreamed of a universe in which I sit at my keyboard writing the same page over and over into eternity, while a pair of terriers sit on my lap, drink my coffee and lick my nose. (See below.) From a multiverse perspective, that's not so bad. No one has been able to map any empirically demonstrable paths connecting parallel worlds - despite the ease of commuting between them in our scfi/fantasy tropes. But I'm choosing to believe that creative artists - much like a select few theoretical physicists, shamans, and philosophers - travel to them regularly, and return to share their visions with us as best they can, provided they survive the trips. The worlds they describe can be as real and transcendent as Oz, or as darkly instructive as Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. If the writer succeeds, we come to know them as our own. The idea keeps me writing, at any event.
     I remember reading a certain interview with Salman Rushdie how he came to be a writer after reading history at Cambridge. In it, the prodigious creator of ironic speculative worlds recalled one of his professors telling him not to start with any actual writing until the long-dead people he was researching began talking to him. Good advice, said Rushdie, and I agree. The notion that vaguely imagined draft characters - be they drawn from real or fictional people - should suddenly grab my lapels is no more unbelievable than parallel universes.
     "Whatever works in whatever universe you find yourself," I say! The question arises: How do you know whether you're in one universe or another. Is the universe you perceive at this moment populated by somebody's fictional characters, or just "nonfiction" folks? I have a hunch that we shift universes all the time without realizing it. Common world-shift symptoms include deja vu or jamais vu or having trouble finding car keys, then discovering them in a most improbable place. The universe I'm experiencing right now, for example, is the one in which Bill Cosby turned out to be a creep, and another creepy sociopath, Donald Trump has become a major US party candidate for President.  
     These past weeks, 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. I'm doing my best to dispell a nightmarish feeling that I've been beamed either into Philip Roth's Plot Against America or Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle. In either case, the nemesis turns out to be a bloated bigot with orange hair. 
     I'm trying to write my way home, where my car keys are on the dresser where I always put them and America has at long last elected a woman president. I won't even ask that it also be a universe where the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in since 1907, breaking the" Curse of the Billy Goat." That's another story, and it would be asking too much of the gods.

--------------------------------

UT in the world where
he writes with the dogs.
Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis 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 played with several improvisational theater groups in Northern California, while editor of San Francisco magazine. He has written extensively for newspapers and periodicals nationally. 

6 comments:

Marsha Coupé said...

Agree with you entirely, Umberto. All creatives appreciate that "reality" is entirely subjective. Fascinating essay whatever universe one is in.

Kathleen Jones said...

Fascinating Umberto!

Fran B said...

I have learned a new word: copacetic. I thought it would mean maybe something like a cross between ascetic and cognisant. Turns out it's American slang for 'cool, OK, as it should be.'
So tomorrow, I won't be saying my usual 'that's OK'; I'll be saying 'copacetic, man!' (can also be spelt copasetic and copasetic, apparently).

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you, Marsha, Kathleen and Fran B, you're each and all "copacetic"!

Rosalie Warren said...

Thank you, Umberto, for a very thought-provoking post - and for bringing together two of my chief interests - the philosophy of science and the writing of fiction. I find David Deutsch's theory of the multiverse disquieting - it has so many consequences I would rather not think about. I can't help hoping it's not true. But I often, when writing, have a sense of uncovering a story that already exists somewhere, and it's fascinating to speculate that maybe my characters are not entirely of my own creation.

Umberto Tosi said...

I agree entirely. Thank you, Rosalie!