“He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times.”—Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (1942)
“And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house’/And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife.’”—Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)
1.By the release of their 17th album, Everyday Chemistry, in 1984, The Beatles had been wandering for years in a musical wilderness. Their last cohesive venture had been 1972’s Ultraviolet Catastrophe, but the ’70s were mostly unkind to the Beatles—an output composed of two cover albums of musicians like Ben E. King and Elvis Presley, rightly derided by critics as filler. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones released their brilliant final album before Keith Richards’s death; the disco-inflected 1978 Some Girls which marked them as the last greats of the British Invasion. By contrast, The Beatles’s Master Class and Master Class II were recorded separately and spliced together by engineers at Apple Studies; a two-star Rolling Stone review from 1977 arguing that “Lennon and McCartney don’t even appear in the same room with each other. Their new music is a cynical ploy by a band for whom it would have perhaps been better to have divorced sometime around Abby Road or Let it Be.”
Maybe it was the attempt on John Lennon’s life in 1980, or the newfound optimism following the election of Walter Mondale, but by the time the Fab Five properly reunited to record Everyday Chemistry there was a rediscovered vitality. All of that engineering work from the last two albums actually served them well as they reentered the studio; true to its title with its connotations of combination and separation, catalyst and reaction, Everyday Chemistry would borrow from the digital manipulations of Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk, and the synthesizer-heavy experimentation of Talking Heads. The Beatles may have missed punk, but they weren’t going to miss New Wave.
With a nod to the Beatlemania of two decades before, Lennon and Paul McCartney sampled their own past songs, now overlaid with flourishes of electronic music, the album sounding like a guitar-heavy version of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s avant-garde classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A formula that would define this reconstituted version of the band, now committed to digital production, and whose influences are seen from Jay Z’s Lennon-produced The Grey Album, to the tracks George Harrison played with James Mercer in Broken Bells.
By asking Eno to produce their new album, The Beatles signaled that they were once-again interested in producing pop that didn’t just pander. Always pioneers in sound effects, the modulation on Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and Ultraviolet Catastrophe were a decidedly lo-fi affair, but by the era of the Macintosh, the Beatles had discovered the computer. Speaking to Greil Marcus in 1998, Ringo Starr said “You know, we were always more than anything a couple of kids, but John was always into gizmos, and something about that box got his attention, still does.” Billy Preston, officially the band’s pianist since Ultraviolet Catastrophe, was also a zealous convert to digital technology. In Marcus’s Won’t Get Fooled Again: Constructing Classic Rock, Preston told the critic that “They were a bar band, right? Long before I met them, but I was a boogie-woogie guy too, so it was always copacetic. You wouldn’t think we’d necessarily dig all that space stuff, but I think the band got new life with that album.” From the nostalgic haziness of the opening track “Four Guys” to the idiosyncratic closing of “Mr. Gator’s Swamp Jamboree,” Everyday Chemistry was a strange, beautiful, and triumphant reemergence of The Beatles.
2.Such a history may seem unusual to you, because undoubtedly you are a citizen of the same dimension that I am. Unless you’re a brave chrononaut who has somehow twisted the strictures of ontological reality, who has ruptured the space-time continuum and easily slides between parallel universes, your Beatles back-catalog must look exactly the same as mine. And yet Everyday Chemistry exists as a ghostly artifact in our reality, a digital spirit uploaded to the Internet in 2009 by some creative weirdo, who cobbled together an imagined Beatles album from the fragments of their solo careers. A bit of Wings here, some of the Plastic Ono Band there, samplings from All Things Must Pass and Sentimental Journey, edited together into a masterful version of what could have been.
Most of my narrative above is my own riffing, but claims that the album is from a parallel universe are part of the mythmaking that makes listening to the record so eerie. “Now this is where the story becomes slightly more unbelievable,” the pseudonymous “discoverer” James Richards writes. Everyday Chemistry is a seamlessly edited mashup done in the manner of Girl Talk or Danger Mouse, but its ingenious creator made a parallel universe origin of Everyday Chemistry the central conceit. Richards claims that a tape of the album was swiped after he fell into a vortex in the California desert and was gifted Everyday Chemistry by an inter-dimensional Beatles fan.
At Medium, John Kerrison jokes that “inter-dimensional travel probably isn’t the exact truth” behind Everyday Chemistry, even if the album is “actually pretty decent.” Kerrison finds that whoever created the album is not going to reveal their identity anytime soon. Unless of course it actually is from a parallel universe. While I mostly think that that’s probably not the truth, I’ll admit that anytime I listen to Everyday Chemistry I get a little charged frisson, a spooky spark up my spine. It’s true that Everyday Chemistry is kind of good, and it’s also true that part of me wants to believe. Listening to the album is like finding a red rock from Mars framed by white snow in your yard—a disquieting interjection from an alien world into the mundanity of our lives.
Part of what strikes me as so evocative about this meme that mixes science fiction, urban legend, and rock ‘n’ roll hagiography, is that we’re not just reading about a parallel universe, but the evidence of its existence is listenable right now. Tales of parallel universes—with their evocation of “What if our world was different from how it is right now?”—is the natural concern of all fiction. All literature imagines alternate worlds. But the parallel universe story makes such a concern explicit, makes it obvious. Such narratives rely upon the cognitive ability to not accept the current state of things, to conjecture and wonder at the possibility that our lives could be different from how we experience them in the present.
Such stories are surprisingly antique, as in Livy’s History of Rome written a century before the Common Era, in which he conjectured about “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in a war with Alexander?” Even earlier than Livy, and the Greek father of history Herodotus hypothesized about what the implications would have been had there been a Persian victory at Marathon. Such questions are built into how women and men experience our lives. Everyone asks themselves how things would be different had different choices been made—what if you’d moved to Milwaukee instead of Philly, majored in art history rather than finance, asked Rob out for a date instead of Phil?
Alternate history is that narrative writ large. Such stories have been told for a long time. In the 11th century there was Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotentia, which imagined a reality where Romulus and Remus had never been suckled by a she-wolf and the Republic was never founded. In 1490, Joanot Martorell’s romance Tirant lo Blanch, perhaps the greatest work ever written in the Iberian Romance language of Valencian, envisioned a conquering errant knight who recaptures Constantinople from the Ottomans. Medieval Europeans were traumatized as the cross was toppled from the dome of the Hagia Sophia, but in Martorell’s imagination a Brittany-born knight is gracious enough so that “A few days after he was made emperor he had the Moorish sultan and the Grand Turk released from prison.” What followed was a “peace and a truce for one hundred one years,” his former enemies “so content that they said they would come to his aid against the entire world.” Written only 37 years after Mehmed II’s sacking of Orthodoxy’s capital, Tirant lo Blanch presents a Christian poet playing out a desired reality different from the one in which he actually found himself.
In the 19th century, the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne did something similar, albeit for different ideological aims. His overlooked “P.’s Correspondence” from his 1846 Mosses from an Old Manse is credibly the first alternate history story written in English. An epistolary narrative where the titular character, designated by only his first initial, writes about all the still-living Romantic luminaries he encounters in a parallel version of Victorian London. Lord Byron has become a corpulent, gouty, conservative killjoy; Percy Shelley has rejected radical atheism for a staunch commitment to the Church of England; Napoleon Bonaparte skulks the streets of London, embarrassed and vanquished while kept guard by two police officers; and John Keats has lived into a wise seniority where he alone seems to hold to the old Romantic faith that so animated and inspired Hawthorne. P. is a character for whom the “past and present are jumbled together in his mind in a manner often productive of curious results,” a description of alternate history in general. Hawthorne’s is a message about the risks of counter-revolution, but also an encomium for the utopian light exemplified by Keats, for whom there remains so “deep and tender a spirit of humanity.”
Alternate history’s tone is often melancholic, if not dystopian. An exercise in this world might not be great, but think of how much worse it could be. Think of authors like Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle or Robert Harris in Fatherland, both exploring the common trope of imagining a different outcome to the second world war. Such novels present Adolf Hitler running rough-shod over the entire globe, crossing the English Channel and ultimately the Atlantic. Such narratives highlight the ways in which the evils of fascism haven’t been as vanquished as was hoped, but also as a cautionary parable about what was narrowly averted. In his own indomitable amphetamine-and-psychosis-kind-of-way, Dick expresses something fundamental about the interrogative that defines alternative history, not the “What?” but the “What if?” He asks “Can anyone alter fate?…our lives, our world, hanging on it.”
Such novels often trade in the horror of an Axis victory or the catastrophe of Pickett’s Charge breaking through that Confederate high-water line in that quiet, hilly field in Pennsylvania. Some of the most popular alternate history depicts a dark and dystopian reality in which polished Nazi jack-boots stomp across muddy English puddles and Confederate generals hang their ugly flag from the dome of the Capital building; where an American Kristallnacht rages across the Midwest, or emancipation never happens. Gavriel Rosenfeld in his study The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism argues that such stories serves a solemn purpose, that the genre has a “unique ability to provide insights into the dynamics of remembrance.” Rosenfeld argues that alternate history, far from offering impious or prurient fascination with evil, memorializes those regimes’ victims, generating imaginative empathy across the boundaries of history and between the forks of branching universes.
Philip Roth in The Plot Against America and Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union imagine and explore richly textured versions of the 20th century. With eerie prescience, Roth’s 2004 novel reimagines the genre by focusing on the personal experience of the author himself, interpolating his own childhood biography into a larger narrative about the rise of a nativist, racist, sexist, antisemitic American fascism facilitated through the machinations of a foreign authoritarian government. Chabon’s novel is in a parallel universe a few stops over, but examines the traumas of our past century with a similar eye towards the power of the counterfactual, building an incredibly detailed alternate reality in which Sitka, Alaska, is a massive metropolis composed of Jewish refugees from Europe. Such is the confused potentiality that defines our lives, both collective and otherwise; an apt description of our shared predicament could be appropriated from Chabon’s character Meyer Landsman: “He didn’t want to be what he wasn’t, he didn’t know how to be what he was.”
For Rosenfeld, the form “resists easy classification. It transcends traditional cultural categories, being simultaneously a sub-field of history, a sub-genre of science fiction, and a mode of expression that can easily assume literary, cinematic, dramatic or analytical forms.” More than just that, I’d suggest that these narratives says something fundamental about how we tell stories, where contradiction and the counter-factual vie in our understanding, the fog from parallel universes just visible at the corners of our sight, fingerprints from lives never lived smudged across all of those precious things which we hold onto.
While long the purview of geeky enthusiasts, with their multiverses and retconning, alternate history has been embraced by academic historians for whom such conjecture has traditionally been antithetical to the sober plodding of their discipline. In history no experiment can ever be replicated, for it is we who live in said experiment—which is forever ongoing. Temporality and causality remain a tricky metaphysical affair, and it’s hard to say how history would have turned out if particular events had happened differently. Nonetheless, true to its ancient origins in the conjectures of Herodotus and Livy, some scholars engage in “counterfactual history,” a variety of Gedankenexperiment that plays the tape backwards.
Economist Niall Ferguson has advocated for counterfactuals; arguing that they demonstrate that history doesn’t necessarily follow any predetermined course. Writing in his edited collection Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, Fergusson claims that the “past—like real life chess, or indeed any other game—is different; it does not have a predetermined end. There is no author, divine or otherwise; only characters, and (unlike in a game) a great deal too many of them.“
Seriously considering counterfactual history as a means of historiographical analysis arguably goes back to John Squire’s 1931 anthology If it Had Happened Otherwise. That volume included contributions by Hilaire Belloc, who true to his monarchist sympathies imagines a very much non-decapitated Louis XVI returning to the Bourbon throne; his friend G.K. Chesterton enumerating the details of a marriage between Don John of Austria and Mary Queen of Scots; and none-other-than future prime minister Winston Churchill writing a doubly-recursive alternate history entitled “If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg,“ narrated from the perspective of a historian in a parallel universe in which the Confederacy was victorious, who roughly imagines a different version of our history.
Churchill concludes the account with his desired reunification of the English speaking peoples, a massive British, Yankee, and Southern empire stopping the Teutonic menace during the Great War. As with so much of Lost Cause fantasy, especially in the realm of alternate history (including Newt Gingerich’s atrocious Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War—yes that Newt Gingerich), Churchill’s was a pernicious revisionism, obstinate fantasizing that posits the Civil War as being about something other than slavery. Churchill’s imaginary Robert E. Lee simply abolishes slavery upon the conclusion of the war, even while the historical general fought in defense of the continuation and expansion of that wicked institution. Yet ever the Victorian Tory, Churchill can’t help but extol a generalized chivalry, with something of his ideal character being implicit in his description of Lee’s march into Washington, D.C. and Abraham Lincoln’s rapid abandonment of the capital. The president had “preserved the poise and dignity of a nation…He was never greater than in the hour of fatal defeat.“ In counterfactual history, Churchill had been cosplaying dramatic steadfastness while facing invasion before he’d actually have to do it.
Counterfactuals raise the question of where exactly these parallel universes are supposed to be, these uncannily familiar storylines that seem as if they inhabit the space at the edge of our vision for a duration as long as an eye-blink. Like a dream where unfamiliar rooms are discovered in one’s own house, the alternate history has a spooky quality to it, and the mere existence of such conjecture forces us to confront profound metaphysical questions about determinism and free-will, agency and the arc of history. Did you really have a choice on whether or not you would move to Philly or Milwaukee? Was art history ever a possibility? Maybe Phil was always going to be your date.
The frustration of the counterfactual must always be that since history is unrepeatable, not only is it impossible to know how things would be altered, but we can’t even tell if they could be. How can one know what the impact of any one event may be, what the implications are for something happening slightly different at Marathon, or at Lepanto, or at Culloden, or Yorktown? All those butterflies fluttering their wings, and so on. Maybe Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss in Candide is right, maybe this really is the best of all possible worlds, though five minutes on Twitter should make one despair at such optimist bromides. Which is in part why alternate history is so evocative—it’s the alternate, stupid. James Richards found that other world easily, apparently there is a wormhole in the California desert that takes you to some parallel universe where scores of Beatles albums are available. But for all of those who don’t have access to the eternal jukebox, where exactly are these parallel realities supposed to be?
Quantum mechanics, the discipline that explains objects at the level of subatomic particles, has long produced surreal conclusions. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle proves that it’s impossible to have complete knowledge of both the location and the momentum of particles; Louis de Broglie’s wave-particle duality explains subatomic motion with the simultaneous mechanics of both particle and wave; and Erwin Schrödinger’s fabled cat, who is simultaneously dead and alive, was a means of demonstrating the paradoxical nature of quantum supposition, whereby an atom can be both decayed and not at the same time. The so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is comfortable with such paradoxes, trading in probabilities and the faith that observation is often that which makes something so. At the center of the Copenhagen Interpretation is how we are to interpret that which physicists call the “collapse of the wave-function,“ the moment at which an observation is made and something is measured as either a wave or a particle, decayed or not. For advocates of the orthodox Copenhagen Interpretation, the wave-function exists in blissful indeterminacy until measured, being both one thing and the other until we collapse it.
For a Pentagon-employed physicist in 1957 named Hugh Everett, such uncertainty was unacceptable. That a particle could be both decayed and not at the same time was nonsensical, a violation of that fundamental logical axiom of non-contradiction. If Everett thought that the Copenhagen Interpretation was bollocks, then he had no misgivings about parallel universes, for the physicist would argue that rather than something being both one thing and its opposite at the same time, it’s actually correct to surmise that the universe has split into two branching forks. In Schrödinger’s fabled thought-experiment, a very much not sub-atomic cat is imprisoned in some sadist’s box, where the release of a poison gas is connected to whether an individual radioactive atomic nucleus has decayed or not. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, that cat is somehow dead and alive since the nucleus is under the purview of quantum law, and can exist in indeterminacy as both decayed and not until it is observed and the wave-function collapses. Everett had a more parsimonious conclusion—in one universe the cat was purring and licking his paws, and in an unlucky dimension right next door all four fury legs were rigid and straight-up in the air. No weirder than the Copenhagen Interpretation, and maybe less so. Writing of Everett’s solution, the physicist David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality claims that “Our best theories are not only truer than common sense, they make more sense than common sense.“
Maybe mathematically that’s the case, but I still want to know where those other universes are? Whither in wardrobe or wormhole, it feels like Narnia should be a locale more accessible than in just the equations of quantum theorists. For myriad people who congregate in the more eccentric corners of the labyrinth that is the Internet, the answer to where those gardens of forking paths can be found is elementary—we’re all from them originally. Those who believe in something called the “Mandela Effect” believe they’re originally from another dimension, and that you probably are as well. Named after people on Internet message boards who claim to have memories of South African president Nelson Mandela’s funeral in the early ’80s (he died in 2013), whole online communities are dedicated to enumerating subtle differences between our current timeline and wherever they’re originally from. Things like recalling a comedy about a genii starring Sinbad called Shazaam! or the ursine family from the The Berenstain Bears spelling their surname “Berenstein“ (I think that I’m actually from that dimension).
Everett’s calculations concern minuscule differences; the many-worlds interpretation deals in issues of momentum and location of subatomic particles. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a universe where the Berenstain bears have a different last name—in a multiverse of infinite possibility all possibilities are by definition actual things—but that universe’s off-ramp is a few more exits down the highway. This doesn’t stop believers in the Mandela Effect from comparing notes on their perambulations among the corners and byways of our infinite multiverse, recalling memories from places and times as close as your own life and as distant as another universe. Looking out my window I can’t see the Prudential Center anymore, and for a second I wonder if it ever really existed, before realizing that it’s only fog.
Have some sympathy for those of us who remember Kit-Kat bars as being spelled with a dash, or Casablanca having the line “Play it again, Sam.” Something is lost in this universe of ours, here where whatever demiurge has decided to delete that line. Belief in the Mandela Effect illuminates our own alterity, our own discomfort in this universe or any other—a sense of alienness, of offness. The Mandela Effect is when our shoes pinch and our socks are slightly mismatched, when we could swear that we didn’t leave our keys in the freezer. And of course the Mandela Effect is the result of simply misremembering. A deeper truth is that existence can sometimes feel so oft-putting that we might as well be from a parallel universe. Those other dimensions convey the promise of another world, of another reality. That just because things are done this way where we live now, doesn’t mean that they’re done this way everywhere. Or that they must always be done this way here, either.
What’s moving about Everyday Chemistry is that those expertly mixed songs are missives from a different reality, recordings from a separate, better universe. The album is a tangible reminder that things are different in other places, like the fictional novel at the center of K. Chess’s brilliant new novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, which imagines thousands of refugees from a parallel universe find a home in our own. In that novel, the main character clutches onto a science fiction classic called The Pyronauts, a work of literature non-existent in our reality. The Pyronauts, like Everyday Chemistry, betrays a fascinating truth about parallel universes. We may look for physical, tangible, touchable proof of the existence of such places, but literature is all the proof we need. Art is verification that another world isn’t just possible, but already exists. All literature is from a parallel universe and all fiction is alternate history.
Whether or not the Beatles recorded Everyday Chemistry, the album itself exists; if The Pyronauts is written not in our universe, then one only need transcribe it so as to read it. In the introduction to my collection The Anthology of Babel, I refer to “imagined literature;” an approach towards “probing the metaphysics of this strange thing that we call fiction, this use of invented language which is comprehensible and yet where reality does not literally support the representation.” Every fiction is an epistle from a different reality, even Hugh Everett would tell you that somewhere a real Jay Gatsby pined for Daisy Buchanan, that a few universes over Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy were actually married, and somewhere Mrs. Dalloway is always buying the flowers herself. The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Dalloway are all, in their own way, alternate histories as well.
Alternate history functions to do what the best of literature more generally does—provide a wormhole to a different reality. That fiction engenders a deep empathy for other people is true, and important, but it’s not simply a vehicle to enter different minds—but different worlds as well. Fiction allows us to be chrononauts, to feel empathy for parallel universes, for different realities. Such a thing as fiction is simply another artifact from another dimension; literature is but a fragment from a universe that is not our own. We are haunted by our other lives, ghosts of misfortune averted, spirits of opportunities rejected, so that fiction is not simply the experience of another, but a deep human connection with those differing versions on the paths of our forked parallel lives.
Image credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema.
In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.
I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.
Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.
This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.
I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.
This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.
However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.
In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.
These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.
Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”
Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.
Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.
What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.
Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.
This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.
For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.
It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.
In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.
We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”
Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.
I met Lisa Gornick last spring, at a gathering of women writers in the living room of a gracious old Brooklyn Heights townhouse overlooking a rain-soaked back garden. I didn’t know it at the time—I hadn’t read her latest work yet—but it was the perfect setting to encounter Gornick as she prepared to publish her fourth work of fiction, The Peacock Feast. Historic, vibrantly appointed New York City homes are at the very heart of this panoramic saga, which centers on a family descended from a pair of servants employed by Louis C. Tiffany. This century-spanning tale by the acclaimed author of Louisa Meets Bear and Tinderbox has now landed (Meg Wolitzer called it “both grand and intimate”). I was happy for the chance to quiz Gornick on the secrets of the book’s intricate structure, and to compare notes on writerly hopes, ambitions, and angst in the strange cultural landscape of 2019.
1. On Time
Debra Jo Immergut: The Peacock Feast is a novel obsessed with time—its mysteries, its ravages, the costs and benefits that accrue with the passage of years. This is certainly an obsession we share. But I’m awed that the narrative covers more than a century. Were you intimidated by the prospect of crafting a story that would unfold over so many years? Quite amazingly, you kept the novel at a very manageable length—were you ever afraid it would become an 800-pager?
Lisa Gornick: Wide-ranging and labyrinthine as the plot and narrative are in The Peacock Feast, its most elemental structure is simple: a line segment bounded by, on one end, the baroque peacock feast Louis C. Tiffany threw in 1914 at his Long Island estate and, at the other end, the meeting, nearly a century later, of two women, both of whose lives were shaped by Tiffany. Before I could decide how I would tell a story that stretches over four generations of a family as they traverse multiple social classes, I had to flesh out its contours as it unfolded against a century of American history — which involved a prodigious amount of research.
In The Captives, you, too, are telling a story that stretches over decades. Your timeline begins in 1981, when Miranda, your female protagonist, is 13 and ends with the postscript in 2016 from the point of view of Frank, your male — I don’t think I can call him protagonist, though you present him too compassionately to deem him an antagonist — central character. When in your process did you commit to the structure you employ?
DJI: True, The Captives covers more than 30 years — but I hardly think of it this way because the present action of the story unfolds in less than two years. I find a compressed timeline simply helps me focus on moving action forward. I layer in flashbacks that explore my characters’ histories and motivations. So, the idea of a lot of tumult in a short time dictated the structure of The Captives and even more the shape of my next novel, which takes place over the course of a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days I tackle a novel that takes place in a single day or even an hour.
LG: One of my loves in literature is what I call the “tight-frame” novel: books like Mrs. Dalloway and Embers and Crossing to Safety in which the present action is constricted to a short stretch of time, but the narrative includes accounts of entire lives. While The Peacock Feast doesn’t fit this moniker, its backbone is the weeklong encounter between Prudence, a 101-year-old woman who was born on the Tiffany estate, where her parents worked as gardener and maid, and her 43-year-old hospice nurse great niece, Grace, who she’s never known existed. Whereas in Mrs. Dalloway, the past — what we learn about Clarissa’s relationships with Sally and Peter and her marriage — illuminates Clarissa’s experiences the day of the party, in The Peacock Feast, the reverse is more operative: the conversations between Prudence and Grace cast light backwards on the hidden history of how they become who they are.
DJI: How do you keep track of multiple time lines? I was struck by the book’s internal rhythm — the narrative bubbles along with a sort of musical point and counterpoint. Did that come naturally, or did you have a plan about when to shift from one timeline to the next?
LG: With three storylines — Prudence’s, Grace’s, and theirs together — that ultimately braid together, not to mention various historical characters each with their own chronologies, I never could have kept the dates straight without timelines. As for when to shift between storylines: each storyline unfolds chronologically, though to bedevil matters, portions of Prudence’s and Grace’s stories are told to each other, which then stimulate memories. Musical composition contains so many lessons for writers, and I did think about the storylines as musical themes: aiming to let each develop but returning soon enough to the other threads that their momentum would not be lost. Superimposed on this rhythm between storylines was a more granular rhythm between sentences and sections — long and short; associative as in thought, propulsive as in emotion.
You mentioned the risk of an 800-page behemoth, and though I never approached that length, I ultimately cut many, many subplots and characters because, as I could only see later, they were undermining the centrality of the evolving relationship between Prudence and Grace.
2. The Uses of Intuition
LG: Both of our books have a mystery at their core — and The Captives was just nominated for the Edgar Best First Novel award. In my novel, the reader and the main characters are in the same shoes: they don’t know what happened. With The Captives, however, Miranda knows very well why she landed in prison. I’m curious whether your decision to narrate Frank’s chapters in first person and Miranda’s in close third-person was a way of handling the unfolding of the mystery, or if it happened intuitively.
DJI: It was an intuitive decision, and also a purely selfish one. For me, writing only happens as part of a pitched internal battle. I’m compelled to write, but part of me absolutely rebels against it, because it is such hard and sometimes painful work. I finally figured out that I do best when I give myself some sort of enlivening challenge. Switching back and forth between Frank’s first-person narration and Miranda’s third-person allowed me to play with voice and style. Then, over the long stop-and-go history of this project, I began to realize the narrative advantages of Miranda’s more distanced point-of-view—it left her space to keep secrets.
Speaking of style, Tiffany provides the aesthetic underpinning of this narrative—you gorgeously describe the sumptuousness of his homes, and that detailed jewel-toned imagery seem to bleed into all the other descriptive passages in the novel. Surprisingly, though Tiffany is a central influence on the action and looms large in the characters’ psyches, he makes only a brief, silent appearance in one scene. Did you intend for him to have this ghostly presence? What are the roots of your fascination with him—and do you have a special love for his work and its aesthetic?
LG: I didn’t realize that Tiffany was so off-stage until after I finished the novel, but, in retrospect, it makes sense because the novel is not about him: it’s about the impact on others of the sadism that’s an inevitable part of perfectionism and the legacy of feeling dehumanized that lingers over a century. I’d never particularly liked what I knew of Tiffany’s work—largely his lamps and stained-glass windows, which struck me as treacly and have acquired a patina of kitsch over the years. My view of Tiffany as an artist, however, was turned on its head when I saw an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now more than a decade ago, about Laurelton Hall, his Long Island estate, for which he served as architect, interior designer, and landscaper: an extraordinarily beautiful and lavish historical mash-up with a loggia that borrowed from the Red Fort at Agra and a courtyard that evoked the Topkapi Palace.
3. Writing While Hyphenated
DJI: We both have spent years balancing fiction writing with many other pursuits. Can you talk about your journey as a “hyphenate” novelist?
LKG: I’ve been writing since I was a child, but it never occurred to me that I could solely pursue writing. Rather, my family culture and circumstances made it imperative that I acquire both an advanced degree and have a secure means of supporting myself. Working as an analyst and writing fiction draw from the same wellspring: an appreciation of narrative and an understanding of how emotions and language are entwined. As I’ve written about elsewhere, for a long time, there was a happy marriage between my two professions. There were many factors that lead to the ultimate divorce, including the birth of my second child, which made having two demanding jobs in addition to being a hands-on parent impossible, the increased complexity of my fiction writing, which could no longer be relegated to “borrowed time” (which at one point was four to seven a.m.), and the explosion of the internet, which undid the comfortable separation I’d been able to maintain between my professions. Nonetheless, stopping practicing as an analyst hasn’t stopped my being an analyst: It’s still the primary lens through which I look at the world, and through which I understand my characters and the writing process.
How about you? Can you tell about your “hyphenate” journey as a fiction writer?
DJI: First, I must say that your deep knowledge of human psyche informs every page of this story. Plenty of novelists are “self-styled analysts” but it is fascinating to read a work by someone with real bona fides in this area. It shows.
I worked as a magazine editor, trying—and often failing miserably—to balance a fulltime job with parenting, household duties, and writing. I sometimes call my story “a triumph of intermittent persistence.” I walked away from my writing desk for years at a time, but I always found my way back. There’s a machismo in the literary world about discipline, the ironclad full-time writing routines, and so on. That kind of talk used to fill me with real shame—at a deep level, I truly believed in myself as a writer, but I felt I wasn’t acting like a writer was supposed to act. So, I’ve been trying to add a small voice to the conversation—one that says that you actually can walk away from this work at times, you can write only on weekends, or one night a week (I wrote much of my second novel’s earliest iteration in a one-night-a-week group at a neighbor’s house). The work will be there, waiting for you, when life allows you to return.
My second novel explores this topic—how a working mother’s thwarted creative ambitions drive her to extreme measures. In that context, I’ve been rereading A Room of One’s Own. I mean, how ahead of her time was Virginia Woolf? It’s uncanny to read the book in the current era, as women try to use their collective power to redress some old wrongs and resist new ones. As I returned to the fiction scene after many years away, I’ve been pleased to discover a solid sense of community among women writers. We met, in fact, at a supportive gathering of authors of the female persuasion. Writers have a reputation of being very sharp-elbowed, but that has not been my experience lately. What do you think? Are women authors just more aware of our common challenges?
LG: Now, I’m feeling guilty that my mentioning how I carved out writing time during the early years of being a mother contributed to that machismo view you’re trying to counteract. There is no correct way to be a writer: We each have to find our own way that works for our personality and within our circumstances. Many writers proceed in the intermittent pattern you describe, either because it’s their creative style to work in blasts (think Faulkner’s legendary six weeks for writing As I Lay Dying) or because it’s how they’re able to manage other demands. I wrote my first novel when my older son was a toddler and I was in full-time practice and analytic training. Every morning, he would wake early and come into the little study I’d fashioned in a portion of our dining room and go back to sleep on the loveseat I’d put next to my desk. It would never have worked if he hadn’t been the kind of sound sleeper he was or if I hadn’t been the age I was then, able to burn the candle at both ends. It was a sweet and special time, and I’m sure some of that emotional field must have seeped into that novel. Fundamentally, though, it didn’t feel like a choice to me: It was what I needed to keep my sanity.
For most women writers, it’s been a tough road both to create our work and to get it into print. My experience of the community of women writers is in line with yours: characterized by warm helpful hands, not sharp elbows. You are a perfect example: We’d met only once when I emailed you with a publishing question, and yet you sensed the urgency I felt for an answer and pulled off the highway to call me to respond!
As a woman writer, the largest challenge for me has been balancing mothering and creative work. Neither looks kindly on compromises. I’m certain there are male writers—perhaps Knausgård with his epic struggle? — who experience this challenge at an equivalent pitch, but I’ve never met one. For me, and for many of my women writer friends, there is a profound contradiction between two truths: On the one hand, mothering and writing can both bring us into contact with deep wells of feeling and an understanding of human nature and can therefore fuel each other. On the other hand, to write requires something even more radical than Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own: It requires a mind of our own — and that, to be brutally honest, often requires cutting ourselves off from children and household, for three hours a day, or one evening a week, or for more welcoming stretches of time.
DJI: We both have a longer view of publishing and how it has changed. Does the current sense of urgency about the fate of fiction, publishing — and the world in general — inform your work and your ambitions for it?
LG: I’m aware that many writers have felt so distressed about our current political situation, they’ve either been unable to write or have decided to devote themselves to activism — a decision I respect, though it’s not been my own. Perhaps it’s sophomoric or naively idealistic, but I believe in fiction as a means of nourishing the best in humanity. Reading a novel requires solitude, concentration, unplugging from the daily onslaught. It’s a kind of meditation and a way of resetting the distracted, jangling mind so as to allow for reflection. And, as has been amply said and now scientifically studied, reading fiction develops empathy. It doesn’t surprise me that our last president, in my view, one of the most compassionate public figures of modern times, is both a passionate reader and gifted writer, nor that our current president, in my view, the most callous and base of politicians, reads nothing — most certainly not books — and writes only tweets.
As for the state of publishing, I don’t think it’s ever been static or that the current condition is entirely dispiriting. I’m cheered by how vibrant so many independent presses are, and how the work of their writers is being so recognized: two of the five nominees for this year’s National Book Critics Circle fiction award are from small presses! What’s most important, it seems to me, is to understand both how very heterogeneous publishing is with different sectors having entirely different aims, and to interrogate ourselves about our ambitions. If you’re writing poetry or literary fiction, it’s unlikely that you’re going to sell a five-digit number of books. If you’re writing celebrity tell-alls, it’s unlikely that your work will receive a review in The New Yorker. In the end, I’d say there’s wisdom in the old canard: embark on being a writer only if you’re unable to not be a writer. If you are one of those persons for whom transforming experience into words is required to feel fully alive, putting pen to paper will help you achieve that. Nothing else is guaranteed.