Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is many things: a great heist movie, a metaphysical thriller, a metaphor for life and creativity. As writers and artists, we exist in three worlds: the “real world”, the world of our consciousness, and the world of our creations. All those worlds are narrated to a certain extent. Narratives are overlaid by others or by us, and events are given meanings and connections.

We collectively impose stories upon the external world, whether in broadsheet newspapers, on TMZ, CNN or The Daily Show. We have to create reasons, causes and effects, to make sense of our surroundings. It starts when we’re infants and everything is a mystery. We have to tell ourselves stories about why this leads to that, so that we can simply survive. This process just gets more sophisticated as we get older.

Likewise with our consciousnesses. One theory states that our brains have an ‘interpreter function’ that adds motivations to our thoughts, which is how we attempt to understand our feelings, impulses and desires. When we wake from a dream, those seemingly random images and feelings usually have a narrative, which some dream scientists and philosophers believe is only added in the moment of waking. Think about it. You wake up to a loud noise: in your dream, a complex series of events led up to something that made that noise, and yet only a second went by between the noise and your waking up. Our brains are incredibly agile: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character states in a key scene within Inception, we create and experience simultaneously in dreams. It’s the same when we’re awake. We want something; we want someone. Until you question it, the feeling drives you and your actions. When you do question it, you search for the why. Why do I want this person? You search for clues, for a chain of causes leading to this effect. You add your motivation to explain why you did what you did. The interpreter theory says that this motivation is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. We could have told ourselves a different story, gone  a different way. We experience ourselves and create ourselves, and we don’t always notice the seams, the joins. When we are in therapy, discovering why we took the paths we did, are the connections we make real, or simply useful fictions?

The third level, for creative types, is the creative world. We go deep into the creative trance state, the dream-world, where we are simultaneously architects and forgers, extractors and thieves. We create worlds, people, psychologies and emotions: we get lost in them. The external world, our internal world, and the world of our creations bleed into each other; the levels mingle, realities collide. It’s no wonder that many creative individuals lead intense existences; we are navigating multiple realities, all the time.

With Inception, Christopher Nolan deftly skips between worlds, displaying a seemingly effortless control and the lightest of touches (which is also a fantastic testament to and argument for the power of multiple script drafts). It’s an intense, thrilling experience, partly due to the story, and partly because such accomplished, bravura, show-stopping creativity is exhilarating to watch. We rarely see that in cinema anymore; but we do it ourselves, all the time, every day. We’re all creative geniuses; that’s what being human is.

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beyond the darkness lies the truth

Emotional truths are risky things to obtain. To place yourself in the emotional abyss in order to tell us something about the human soul is a dangerous enterprise, whether you are an actress, writer, philosopher, musician, creator of art installations, dancer… Why do we search for this? What possesses artists to go on the difficult journey to bring us some kind of truth? Showtime’s series Californication gives us some insight into this journey, telling the story of Hank Moody, a New York writer forced to stay in LA by a relationship that subsequently disintegrated, leaving him washed up in the brutal city of artists and dreamers. The first episode of this series was a masterpiece in miniature. It revealed the writer, played by David Duchovny in a manner described by the Guardian as “revelatory,” tormented by the emotional realities of a life truly messed up. The writer whose “exercise in nihilism”, God Hates Us All, was turned into a romantic comedy. The writer whose insistence on an alternative, punk, rock’n’roll, Bukowski-loving, tradition-shunning outlook on life has separated him from the love of his life, and his daughter. He journeyed into the darkness to write brutal truths, and perhaps didn’t come all the way back. That first episode ended with Hank staring helplessly into the darkness of an LA night, with My Morning Jacket’s version of Rocket Man drifting mournfully in the background. It conjured an intergalactic loneliness, the lonely voice of God murmuring truths about the dark night beyond the lights, the lizard kings and run-down bars, strange creatures moving around out there, and nothing human left in the universe; a perfect encapsulation of isolation. By the end of episode two, Hank was alone, again, sitting in his car at night, desperately haunted by the emptiness of the passenger seat, while a voice on the soundtrack described how “some nights I wish that the sun would never show its face.” Hubert Selby Jr, author of searing, unflinching portrayals of the human soul such as Requiem For A Dream and The Demon, writes of the requirement to to go as deep into the darkness as possible to bring back the truth into the light. He notes that, “obviously, there is always the chance that you will go too deeply into the darkness and not come back.” He took the risk of the artist in placing himself in unsettling and terrible emotional places; walking the emotional and psychological high-wire out to, and back from, from the loneliest of places. Searching in these lonely places for truth, discovering things about what it means to be human; this is not the end. The journey back still awaits; the truths must be conveyed. It has been said many times that writers lie to tell the truth, since words on a page are not truths or things in the world; they are words on a page, symbols, non-representational. How should the artist convey the things they have discovered? What language should they use? Words and movements, art and music, can evoke these elusive emotions. The most non-representational form can convey the most exact truth. Acting, for example, is not real, but the transformation of consciousness it requires cannot be faked. Who really knows what transformative effects the truth will have upon one’s consciousness? One cannot truly know without experiencing it. It’s why we do it.

subtle fractures, hidden structures

“As the variety of the environment magnifies in both time and space and the structures that were thought to describe the operation of the world become progressively more unworkable, other concepts of organization must become current” – Brian Eno

“One story just isn’t enough… I think I’ll keep going until every sentence is a different story” – Michael Cunningham

What makes a novel, a novel? What makes it “one thing,” one cohesive object? How disparate can a work’s elements be for it still to be considered a novel? These questions come to my mind as I read and reread my novel, because it began life as a short story, and then another, and another… until suddenly I had a whole book of stories focused on the same characters, their lives, their places – in one way, it contains multiple emotional trajectories, but in another, more profound way, it’s one trajectory, one “moment.” All the stories, or chapters, weave together as the one story progresses to a conclusion (of sorts). So, it’s a novel. As I thought about it more, I realized that this a scene that has been quietly developing: works published as novels that may be collections of stories in disguise. I trace it back to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, back in ’99. Published to great acclaim as a novel, the connections between each chapter are minimal. It does not fully involve the same people, places, emotions or atmospheres. It’s disparate, diverse. In Tessa Hadley’s Accidents In The Home, published in 2002, the fault lines are much more subtle – the chapters involve the same characters at least, but in different times, different situations, far away from each other. Michael Cunningham took this further in Specimen Days, published in 2005: it features the same set of characters in the same city (New York), but in three completely different times (the past, the present and the future), and in different incarnations of themselves (human, android, alien). It could be three novellas, or one novel, depending on your preferred perspective. We’ll leave aside the marketing and commercial perspective for now, save to note that publishing something as novel is clearly commercially more viable (interesting though that this commercial imperative creates these hybrid works). In 2006, David Mitchell (having published Cloud Atlas in 2004) returned with Black Swan Green, which he described as thirteen stand-alone stories that happened to be a novel. It’s fascinating, this crossing of the lines. This is where the energy is. Michael Chabon, in a precise and cogent essay entitled “Trickster In A Suit Of Lights,” references Lewis Hyde’s notion of the Trickster, the maverick creative spirit that resides in the borders between between genres; the intersections of the known forms of writing. “The Trickster goes where the action is,” writes Chabon, “and the action is in the borders between things.” The Trickster dwells at the threshold, the crossroads, the places where new directions take form. Chabon urges writers to uncover “the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore.” Once we step outside of what we think we know about genres and structures, interesting things can happen. Once we realize that what we used to consider “a novel” is changing, we can discover beautiful things, wonderful possibilities, like those brought to light by Mitchell, Hadley and Cunningham. How contiguous does a novel really have to be? Could its ‘novel-ness’ be an emergent quality from a swirling mass of narratives? There are underlying, hidden structures, felt rather than seen, that can allow a diverse collection to be considered “one thing.” If we look to other artforms, it seems easier: an album is really a collection of songs, but is seen as one coherent item. Maybe if we think of these fractured novels as concept albums, we’ll have an easier time of it. Maybe the individual stories are movements in a symphony. It seems as though we need a new philosophical landscape for the novel; we need to move, as Brian Eno describes, from definitions that are fixed, to definitions that are “multiple, shifting, blurred, experimental and adaptive.” Theories are stories, theorists are storytellers, and existing hierarchies are comfortable fictions. It seems that it’s just a story we tell ourselves at this point in time, that this is a novel, and that is a short story collection. We can tell new and different stories about what we consider to be novels. As Chuck Palahniuk has said, “any long story, any novel, is just a collection of short stories.” Our whole world (“one thing”) is of course a collection of many stories. Our consicousnesses are a blend of all the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and why we did this, or that. Our “consciousness,” which we think of as one unbroken flowing thing, is a beautiful emergent quality of many millions of things. Once you explore beneath what Michel Faber calls the “narrative exteriors,” any number of wonderful things might be happening. It’s incredibly exciting to me that a book could be a novel and a collection of stories at the same time, that we can not just be held to one linear definition, but can move to quantum states of multiple ideas coexisting in the same space; novels evolving in fluid motion over time, into newer forms.