Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
In his new book, Griftopia, Matt Taibbi tries to portray America as a thieve’s paradise, where foreign and domestic moneyed interests fleece the rest of us in the open and we are powerless to resist. Taibbi covers politics and, more recently, the financial crisis for Rolling Stone, and Griftopia is primarily a compilation of his recent feature stories. It’s an entertaining but ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying read, long on adjectives and invective but sorely lacking depth of analysis or reporting. Ultimately, Taibbi undermines himself: his assertions of fact, even regarding core points, often are colored past reality and occasionally are simply, provably wrong, discrediting the wild-eyed conclusions he reaches based on them.
Prior to the financial crisis, some of Taibbi’s best-known work, collected in previous books, involved politics and campaigns. This work, in tone as much as subject matter, implicitly invokes that of Hunter S. Thompson, who famously covered politics for Rolling Stone during the Nixon years, although Taibbi’s book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Donkey, pales in comparison to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, probably the high point of Thompson’s career. Thompson’s stories often were filled with foul-mouthed, fractured and impossibly weird or vile allegations regarding its subjects, expanding or exploding reality to reflect some otherwise-inaccessible greater Truth. There doesn’t seem to be any greater Truth beyond the paranoia of Taibbi’s furious language, but in these Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert days, what does it matter? Fear sells.
The emotional core of the book lies in a rant that closes a chapter describing the creation and progression of the mortgage crisis:
At the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, … the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.
We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country — and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.
But we didn’t do that, and we didn’t spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good any more at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.
What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer.
Well, if he’s right, then America is truly Fucked. Time to hit the road, bub. Luckily for us, however, Taibbi is dead wrong about the $13 trillion figure, and, as a result, America may not be hopeless after all.
Sure, it’s been reported that the total potential cost of the bailouts is $12.8 trillion, true, but the crucial word there is “potential.” $12.8 trillion is the potential total cost if every dollar the government pledged or loaned were actually paid out and never paid back.
But that’s not what’s happening. Much of the money loaned already has been repaid, and on some of the constituent “bailouts,” the government actually may make a profit. And, likewise, much of the money used to guarantee assets will never be tapped. This is a good thing for America. And it’s also a distinction that a professional reporter who has been knee-deep in the financial crisis should have recognized before proclaiming the moral bankruptcy of the country. It would be a devastating passage if it weren’t fundamentally untrue.
Look, I agree with Taibbi, at least in spirit, on some issues he raises, but if you’re going to be caustic and depressing and a brutal buzzkill I think you have a responsibility to make sure your facts are correct, especially a fact that forms the crux of both the chapter it ends and of the central depressing accusations of the entire book. And because the subjects Taibbi covers – securitized mortgage instruments, the commodity markets, etc., — are hyper-complex, I had trouble putting any faith in Taibbi’s understanding and descriptions of the details once I noticed that he whiffed on a few of those that I already understood.
Taibbi carries his populist flag throughout the book, and in the final chapter acknowledges proudly that class warfare is one of his goals while asserting that those who panned his Goldman Sachs article were with Them in this great battle, and not Us, claiming that the criticisms of his piece amounted to nothing more than a defense of “class privilege.” Like so much else in Griftopia, this is fun and entertaining, sure, but lazy. Had Taibbi’s article been about “class privilege” and seriously wrestled with the structure and institutions of the American economy that led to the problems he identified, it explicitly or implicitly would have suggested solutions. Instead, Taibbi aims for the fattened ducks operating the levers of power rather than the levers themselves: he seems quite proud, for example, of publicly calling Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein a “motherfucker.”
Griftopia portrays America as a ghetto being looted by evil drug lords, but a simpler explanation of the financial crisis, to me at least, seems to be the economics of laziness and arrogance. Laziness in entering a trade that is working (here, seemingly safe mortgage bonds) not because it makes sense but because it is easy and arrogance in assuming that you will know precisely when to get out. And the evidence from the last bubble (and the tech bubble before that) seems to be that as good as these Wall Street folks may have been at riding a massive wave to shore, few knew how to pull off before the wave broke.
On Griftopia’s back cover, Taibbi’s publishers praise him via pull quote as supplanting Michael Lewis as the “King Writer of Wall Street.” Not so fast. Lewis’s most recent book, The Big Short, walks the reader through the last few years of economic crisis with a level head and enough detail to allow a reader to understand how decisions that almost brought down the world could have seemed so common sense at the time to those who made them. Lewis’s book handles the complexity of the financial world with both grace and precision. Taibbi’s approach is closer to a drunken swagger: seemingly smooth, but not necessarily precise.
To be fair, Griftopia and The Big Short serve different audiences. Taibbi’s book will be of greatest utility to those who know exactly what they think but aren’t quite sure why. Lewis’s book well serves everyone else.
Bonus Link: Stockholm Syndrome: Two Books on High Finance
Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.
Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.
Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.
The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.
Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.
The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.
In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”
Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”
But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.
Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.
Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.
From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.
But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.
All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.
At the end of The Snow of the Admiral, the first novella to feature Maqroll the Gaviero, or “Lookout,” the hero finds himself presiding over the remote café of Flor Estévez, “the woman who understood him best and shared the exaggerated scope of his dreams.” Situated high on a plateau, the roadside stop has a dramatic bathroom—patrons, mainly passing truckers, must walk out onto a jerry-built deck and urinate into the ravine below, which is so deep that they can’t hear their pee hitting ground. It is only fitting that an “uncommon urinal” so perched should have such elevated bathroom graffiti, a sample of which succinctly lays out the ethos behind the Gaviero’s adventures: “I am the disordered creator of the most obscure routes, the most secret moorings. Their uselessness, their undiscovered location are what feed my days.” Unlike other epic heroes, Maqroll is armed only with a small collection of treasured books and a confidence that a hidden world of signs will reveal itself to him in due time.
Maqroll’s creator, the Colombian Álvaro Mutis, died last year at the age of 90 in Mexico City after a long career as a television executive, poet and, later, writer of the acclaimed Maqroll novellas, best known to American readers as collected in the NYRB Clasics edition The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I can think of no better way to honor both the man and his singular hero possessed of an “incurable wanderlust” and a “vocation for defeat” than by quoting the latter’s bathroom graffiti, bits of wisdom written by the Gaviero in his seclusion. Some of these are gnomic: “Two metals exist that prolong life and sometimes grant happiness. Not gold or silver or anything else you can imagine. I only knew they exist.” Some convey practical advice: “Follow the ships. Follow the routes plowed by worn, melancholy vessels…Deny all shores.” And as befitting the long tradition of outhouse scribblings, women do come up, though in keeping with the fundamental gentillesse du coeur that defines Maqroll and his band of conspirators (no matter how shady their dealings), the tone is reverential:
Women never lie. Truth always points from the most secret folds of their bodies. Our lot is to interpret it with an implacable paucity. Many men never can and die in the inescapable blindness of their senses.
Needless to say, there are no phone numbers provided.
The Snow of the Admiral was spun out from a short prose poem. (Maqroll was conceived in poetry, a recurring character in Mutis’ poems before featuring in his prose works.) The novella describes Maqroll’s eerie journey up a fictional South American river and into “the half-light of the immeasurable jungle’s vegetation.” His scheme is to buy timber at a remote sawmill, whose location and very existence are in doubt, then sail it downriver to sell it a higher price.
Maqroll realizes at journey’s beginning that it is bound to end poorly, and thus the drama lies less in the specific plot turns of the disastrous adventure than in the otherworldliness of the tableaus: a nightmarish orgy involving an Indian family and a Slavic “blond giant”; the life-threatening fever contracted from the encounter; the harrowing upstream navigation of the rapids in the barely functioning boat, preceded by a “barbaric” litany recited by its alcoholic captain; the sawmill in the middle of nowhere, no less illusory for being real, a “floating Gothing marvel of aluminum and glass lit by that morguish light and lulled by the gentle hum of its electrical plant”; and Maqroll’s return to the isolated café, where he pauses for several years, spiritually exhausted and nursing a suppurating wound on his leg, a stoic Philoctetes in exile.
Over the next six books, a group of elect gathers around Maqroll, confreres whom John Updike astutely referred to as a kind of Arthurian roundtable: the Lebanese Abdul Bashur, partner in many adventures, the glamorous Ilona, the narrator, a zealous collector of all things Maqroll, and Alejandro Obregón, the expansive artist who seeks to paint the wind that Gaviero the Lookout has “so often watched as it comes toward the sails and then changes direction and never arrives.”
There are schemes aplenty: counterfeit rugs, arms running, gold mining, a timber operation run from the middle of a rain forest, a Panama City brothel staffed by fake airline stewardesses, signal flags to facilitate pirate communications and a Quixotic quest to buy the perfect tramp steamer of one’s dreams. Moreover, casual references to past adventures and doomed schemes, some eventually recounted, some destined to remain untold, are dropped like loose debris from a speeding flatbed truck.
Yet throughout the series, there is an ever-present tension between the limitless fund of stories accreting around Maqroll and his realization that all of his projects “empty into the same mudhole of ennui and bad luck.” Indeed, the serial production of the novellas works in some way to support Maqroll’s fatalistic contention that it’s all one story, that all men act the same, from the grand machinations of petty criminals to the petty machinations of the grand historical figures whom he reads about. (Maqroll’s journal in The Snow of the Admiral is discovered tucked away in a copy of Paul Raymond’s investigation into the assassination of Louis Duc d’Orléans in 1407.)
The recurring character needs to be both sharply delineated and a bit of a blank. The weary but charismatic Maqroll develops a cult of personality even as he refuses to impose his will on the adventures in which he becomes embroiled with “suspicious ease”:
The presence of danger, unspecified but obvious, plunged him into an all too familiar state of mind: ennui, a weary tedium that invited him to admit defeat, to halt the passage of his days, for they were all marked by a kind of venture in which someone else always profited, took the initiative, forced him into the role of the innocent dupe who served other people’s purposes without realizing it.
That word innocent stands out in regard to a man, however duped, is nonetheless so experienced, so thoughtful about life and so well read in history. But as his painter friend clarifies in a different adventure, Maqroll is an innocent in the Russian sense of the word, “which means vigilant servants of truth. And that’s the most dubious state there is for people.”
This “dubious state” perhaps explains Maqroll’s love affair with the past. Maqroll is a historical character, not in the sense of having actually lived but in his near Quixotic belief that he belongs to another, nobler age: “Maqroll’s ability to enter fully into another time, a world so foreign to the present, had often saved him from succumbing to the tribulations brought on by his nomadic calling.” Arrested after a brawl in Canada and asked what he does for a living, he tells that police only that he is “a Chouan lost in the twentieth century.” (A Chouan is a member of the 18th century, pro-royalist reaction to the French Revolution.) He gets a day in the cooler for his impertinence, though his curious admission is in some ways more revealing than the information on his forged Cypriot passport.
Maqroll’s sense of historical displacement, of “living in a time completely alien to [his] interests and tastes,” takes another form in Mutis’ nostalgia for tramp steamers, particularly those pieces of “nomadic sea trash” whose obsolescence only heighten their mythic allure. In The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, the narrator encounters such a ship in Helsinki, the first of several encounters all over the world with the dilapidated yet dignified vessel. He immediately feels a
…warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world’s seas.
As with Maqroll’s adventures, the tramp steamer’s demise is evident from the start; it is so covered in grime that its name, Halycon, must be inferred from the few visible letters. That end, when it does come during a storm, is memorable and violent, “like watching a prehistoric beast being torn to pieces by a voracious, inescapable enemy.”
Mutis could never bring himself to finish his hero off so definitively. Death, the one experience exotic enough to rescue Maqroll form his “mudhole of ennui,” is the Gaviero’s constant, tantalizing companion. In The Snow of the Admiral, Maqroll muses: “Perhaps my own death is beginning now. I don’t dare think about this too much.” And over the next six adventures, he is half in love with easeful death; his “nomadic mania” is an extended trial, less a series of discrete tests than a lifelong readying for the right death:
Each of us is cultivating, selecting, watering, pruning, shaping our own death. When it comes, it takes many forms, but its origin, the moral and even aesthetic circumstances that ought to shape it, is what really matters and makes it not tolerable, which is very rare, but at least harmonious with certain secret, profound conditions, certain requirements that have been forged by our being during the time of its existence and outlined by transcendent, ineluctable powers.
Maqroll’s is an “irredeemable odyssey” precisely because it will be redeemed in a different sense — not via a homecoming or a spectacular success, but through a lifelong, moral, and aesthetic commitment to “reckless wandering.” Now does the meaning of Maqroll’s “vocation for defeat” become clear; his is a vocation in the earliest sense, a spiritual calling, the resistance to becoming a protagonist in the “old, tired story of the men who try to beat life.” In a way, Maqroll lives to die.
And “die” he does throughout the novellas, multiple times, in multiple ways, his supposed end recounted by multiple sources of varying trustworthiness (including an account by Garcia Marquez, a good friend of Mutis’s). But a definitive notice proves elusive and he keeps coming back:
Artists and adventurers tend to plan their end so it can never be clearly deciphered by others. It is a privilege that has been theirs since the days of Orpheus the thaumaturge and the ingenious Ulysses…
It is no wonder then that on the scraps of paper collected by his chronicler on which Maqroll writes his adventures, his handwriting resembles Dracula’s Transylvanian scrawl. Like the famed vampire, Gaviero is immortal, and everyone around him knows it: “‘It doesn’t matter that you’ll die one day like the rest of us. That doesn’t change anything. You’re immortal for as long as you live.’”
Midway through his new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Brian Greene pauses to consider what he calls “the soul of science.” That phrase (also a chapter subheading) is the clearest signal yet that this is no ordinary work of popular physics. It is, of course, an extraordinary example of that genre, thanks to the detailed analogies, careful contextualizing, and friendly, encouraging voice that Greene is known for. But The Hidden Reality, we begin to realize, is also a manifesto for a particular conception of science—one in which the possibility of other universes is worth investigating to the fullest, even if we can never experimentally detect, let alone visit, those realms. Not everyone agrees, to put it mildly.
Up to this point in the book, Greene’s been showing us why the existence of multiple universes is anything but wild speculation. Over decades, researchers in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and superstrings have repeatedly found their calculations pointing toward a perhaps infinite number of universes. The “multiverse” comes in a variety of configurations, depending on how one arrives at it. Assuming our own universe is infinite, for example, gives us the “Quilted Multiverse,” as conditions in an infinite space-time expanse will inevitably repeat themselves. The “Inflationary Multiverse” posits an eternally expanding universe, which in turn produces an infinite network of “bubble” universes. The “Brane Multiverse,” derived from string theory, suggests our universe exists on a three-dimensional “membrane,” one of many occupying a higher-dimensional expanse. The “Landscape Multiverse” combines string theory and inflation to give us bubble universes in many dimensions. There are other versions, each more jaw-dropping than the last. The “Holographic Multiverse,” in which worlds are, essentially, projections of fundamental laws existing elsewhere, is probably the most unsettling. The Matrix (though, one hopes, in a less gruesome form) might just be real.
“Might,” however, is the operative word. As of now, there’s no experimental confirmation for any of these propositions. In fact, direct confirmation of some aspects may never be possible. Yet the mathematics tells us (or tells Greene, who tells us) that this mind-blowing notion is likely to be true. All of which leads to a fundamental question: “Is this science?” Attempts to come to an answer have turned the multiverse into “a battleground for the very soul of science.”
Is it scientifically justifiable to speak of a multiverse, an approach that invokes realms inaccessible not just in practice but, in many cases, even in principle? Is the notion of a multiverse testable or falsifiable? Can invoking a multiverse provide explanatory power of which we’d otherwise be deprived?
If the answer to these questions is no, as detractors insist is the case, then multiverse proponents are assuming an unusual stance. Nontestable, nonfalsifiable proposals, invoking hidden realms beyond our capacity to access – these seem a far cry from what most of us would call science. And therein lies the spark that makes passions flare.
Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, is well versed in defending the scientific pursuit of the inaccessible. He is an influential contributor to string theory, a vastly ambitious attempt to find a unified explanation of the cosmos; The Hidden Reality includes a helpful overview of the theory’s progress according to various measures. Mathematically, it has succeeded in bringing together the previously inimical theories of relativity (which governs the very large, e.g. stars and galaxies) and quantum mechanics (whose purview is the very small, e.g. quarks and gluons). But in its 30-some years of existence—including the 12 years since Greene’s bestselling first book on the subject, The Elegant Universe—string theory has yet to yield a prediction that can be tested experimentally. This may well change with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which has had some famous problems of its own, but some predictions will still lie beyond its capacity. That’s why many scientists have come out vociferously against string theory, and the multiverse(s) to which it gives rise—going so far as to compare the theory to a religion.
Greene spends the rest of the central chapter answering specific objections to the multiverse as legitimate science. However, his overall point, here and throughout the book, is that you never know where the pursuit of any mystery is going to take you. “[Q]uestions aren’t floating in some preexisting realm in which the role of science is to pick them off one by one. Instead, today’s questions are very often shaped by yesterday’s insights. Breakthroughs generally answer some questions but then give rise to a host of others that previously could not even have been imagined.” In other words, questions—all kinds of questions—are good. Questions that beget more questions, especially about the nature of science itself, are even better. If this isn’t science, Greene seems to say, I don’t want to be a scientist.
Still, it’s audacious to invoke a “soul” to make this particular case. In doing so, Greene is obviously tweaking those who call his approach religious. He’s confident enough in his own view of science’s mandate—to follow mysteries wherever they may lead—that he can borrow an especially nebulous religious term to characterize it. As a scientist he rejects the substitution of faith for rigorous method, the hallmark of religion in general; but his use of “soul” is not merely ironic. Rather, he’s reminding us that science is first and last a human endeavor. And the most human endeavors of all are those in which our reach exceeds our grasp.
Let me now say that by this definition, I am being very human in undertaking this review. Though I’m enthralled by the many possible multiverses Greene describes, as I believe you will be, I have nowhere near the training to evaluate their scientific merits. I’m a writer, reader, and erstwhile scholar of literature—what is sometimes called a humanist. But this does qualify me, I think, to state that the humanity of The Hidden Reality is its most compelling aspect.
In his 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene describes a game he and his father played when he was little:
One of us would look around, secretly fix on something that was happening—a bus rushing by, a pigeon landing on a windowsill, a man accidentally dropping a coin—and describe how it would look from an unusual perspective such as the wheel of the bus, the pigeon in flight, or the quarter falling earthward. The challenge was to take an unfamiliar description like “I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky,” and figure out that it was the view of an ant walking on a hot dog that a street vendor was garnishing with sauerkraut.
What a great game this is to play with a kid—or an adult, for that matter. It obviously affected Greene profoundly, encouraging him to consider the everyday world from radically different perspectives. It also, I suspect, helped make him a writer. The challenge he undertakes in all his books is to explain something very familiar to him—string theory, the probable existence of other universes—to someone completely unfamiliar with those concepts. It even seems to me (all right, this is a leap) that the voice in these books is some version of the father’s voice in this game. It’s enthusiastic, often playful, encouraging, and never condescending. It’s the way Greene was introduced to scientific thinking, and he wants us, whatever our age or background, to have that same experience.
Greene never forgets that as writer and reader, we are in this thing together. In The Hidden Reality, he makes frequent asides like this one (regarding string theory’s many-dimensional “braneworld”): “You may find it difficult to picture this. I certainly do.” Or: “I’ll now explain [the] final step, but in case you’re reaching saturation and just want the punch line, here’s a three-sentence summary.” This is not just a scientist explaining complicated ideas to a lay person, but a human being talking to another, through the rather marvelous medium of the printed word. It’s true that humans are limited; we get tired and confused, and our minds are hopelessly mired in three dimensions. Yet by considering these theoretical accounts of parallel universes, we prove to ourselves that, like our universe, we’re not as limited as we might think.
It may turn out that the multiverse is the true story of reality. But if it’s proven wrong, or its realms are permanently inaccessible, it may be a species of fiction. Still, let’s not call it “mere” fiction. As humanists know, great fiction builds new worlds that help us ask new questions. It shakes us up, making us rethink the world we build for ourselves every day—which is to say, our assumptions. It makes us pause, not because we’ve reached saturation, but in wonder.