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Alison MacLeod

Alison MacLeod

Alison MacLeod is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. She is the author of two novels, The Changeling and The Wave Theory of Angels, and her next novel, Unexploded, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013. She is also the author of Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, and is currently completing her second short story collection.

MacLeod's stories have been widely published and broadcast on the BBC, and she was awarded the Society of Authors' Prize for short fiction in 2008. She was also shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award (for ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’) in 2011 and longlisted for the 2012 International Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester.

The Wave Theory of Angels

Energy, in general, interests me: its physical realities, its mysteries, its metaphors, its frequent resistance to equation. The Wave Theory begins one morning (in both 1284 and 2001) when Christina, a twenty-year-old girl, fails to wake up. Is she alive or dead? Aware or comatose? Blessed, charmed or damned? All we know (all I knew as she entered my mind) is that she has been overcome in some way by the demands of her own need for a passionate life, both physical and mental. Giles, her father, is, in turn, driven by an urgent need to understand and hold fast to the puzzle of his daughters, while Christina’s sister is desperate not to lose the intimacy and closeness of a family life she has depended on, almost entirely, since the death of her mother years before.

Questions, not answers, fuel my work. What, I wondered, is passion, this fierce human energy? What are the risks one takes to be true to one’s passions? What, if anything, is the force of yearning as an energy in the world? As Ted Hughes once pointed out, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, mortals and immortals spontaneously combust, mutate or levitate under the terrible pressure of their own passions. As readers, we watch in wonder, amusement and sympathy as their assorted longings bear down on them with an emotional g-force the physical world itself cannot resist.

Other questions pulled me forward as I wrote The Wave Theory. As the organ of our passions, of our desires, can the human imagination be a merely passive thing? Is it really nothing more than an outlet for our longings, dreams and fantasies, as our education tends to teach us? Or could it possibly be an active faculty – a bridge of some kind between the inner force of our desire and the physical world itself, as artists often intuit? Might the imagination be truly creative, a mysterious maker in some way of new worlds?

I can very clearly remember the final pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read when I was sixteen. The character of Aureliano Buendia has discovered the ancient parchments of Melquiades, the far-seeing gypsy. The parchments are a chronicle of the Buendia family’s long history, a chronicle so rich and knowing, that Aureliano finally, dizzyingly, arrives at the moment in the story of his family in which he reads of himself reading the chronicle. Melquiades’ story, we realise, is itself alive and is gobbling up even the present, moment by moment.

Later, I would come across the term ‘metafiction’, but the word would never begin to do justice to the exhilarating experience of those final pages, to their innate breathlessness, and to my direct, if fleeting, experience of other worlds, or orders of reality, that seem to tremble, alive, within the reality we think so familiar.

It seems to me that any good story has a will of its own. No matter how sharp or sophisticated, it is essentially a primitive thing, something that makes demands; that gets greedy, like Melquiades’ all-consuming chronicle; something that gathers up everything in its path. At times, The Wave Theory of Angels has felt less like a novel-in-the-making than an irresistible glacier moving through the last several years of my life, claiming in its progress images I’ve hoarded, questions I’ve loved, apparently random facts, private memories, the unfolding present, news events, polysomnograph readings, the Latin mass, sub-atomic mysteries, TV trivia, chance encounters and copious notes: from cathedrals, coffee bars, physics labs, dreams and old haunts.

For me, art and literature are what happen when the pressures of some inner world or reality are brought to bear upon the external world we all generally know so well. So, as a writer, I’m interested above all in those landscapes or spaces or times where inner worlds might be found seeping into the outer.

The year 1284 was such a time. In 13th-century France, the field of metaphysics (or, the study of the orders of reality) was also, simultaneously, physics (the study of nature and the material world). Both set out to define the dynamics of Creation, so an angel of the heavenly host was not merely a decorative messenger of divine will, but rather, an irreducible ‘atom’ of the universe. For us today, such a sweeping breadth of inquiry looks both suspect and wonderful, and it was this contradiction that drew me to this time and place. The more detail of the period I uncovered, the more I fell in love with its cultural landscape – one marked by a burgeoning knowledge of the world and an age-old appetite for mystery.

I also found myself wondering if, against all expectation, we don’t find ourselves in an equally paradoxical place and time. I wanted to explore where, if anywhere, the mysterious might lie for us, we creatures of this Information Age. In the welter of data these days, is it possible that, even as notions of mystery grow less visible, they grow more urgent – like anything else that gets pushed to the dim margins of our cultural unconscious?

Is it, for example, significant that many of our assurances about the physical world have begun to come undone in the field of physics itself, arguably the elite domain of 20th- and 21st-century rational thought? In the last century, of course, Newtonian physics made reluctant room for the unpredictable quark and lepton, and quantum inquiry has nudged us toward questions about the nature of a reality we had long assumed to be fixed, solid and knowable. Suddenly the world is, once again, much bigger than we are, and mystery has surfaced, stubbornly alive and kicking. In the words of Sir James Jeans, one-time Secretary of the Royal Society, ‘[T]he universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.’

In The Wave Theory of Angels, Fermilab physicist Giles Carver, struggles with his own incredulity even as his daughter’s state of being seems to defy – not unlike Schrodinger’s infamous cat – all reasonable explanation.

Alison MacLeod
May 2005

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