Suspending Belief



Turtle is about a young boy, Donald, and his crazy clairvoyant mother, Trixie, who believes he’s cursed to die on his eighteenth birthday. It’s about the madness that flows from that, and how Donald escapes it. It’s also about dysfunction in families; what happens when we fail to relate; what happens when there’s not enough love to go round; what happens to reality – and to our perceptions of the world – when we grow up within a seriously damaged family setting. It’s also about life and death.

Just some moderately big themes.


When I started thinking what on earth I could say in this forum, I was drawn towards even bigger themes; Truth for example, and belief.

Towards the end of his life, Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he believed in. For a long time, he said, he believed that God is Truth. But, after many years of close contemplation of the matter, he had now come to the conclusion that Truth is God. I’ve no idea what he meant by that. I’m told it’s quite profound. But, if I was to paraphrase Gandhi and say; For a long time I believed that Eric Clapton is God, but now I believe God is Eric Clapton, we don’t have profundity at all, we have absolute nonsense. A small part of the difference is that Gandhi uses the Truth word. A large part of it is that Gandhi was a genius, and one of the few people in history who could be trusted to deal honestly with Truth.


Truth is a difficult, dangerous notion, especially for writers.


So I started thinking about belief. Now, there’s another big theme.

I was reading the other day about this guy in America – a theoretical physicist – who believes that he can mathematically prove the existence of an afterlife. He’s crunched the numbers, and he says that, providing our current model of the universe is correct, the laws of physics dictate that in the far future we’ll be able to resurrect every living thing, including those of us living today. 'Once you accept the theory of an infinite universe’ he says, ‘resurrection is a relatively trivial point.'


As we say in my native Glasgow, ‘Aye, right pal. Ye’ve a heid fulla broken bottles’.


Now, I know I’m missing something here. Something essential, like a few million neurons. But when modern scientists talk like this I start to wonder if there are any limits to what we’ll believe in. I really don’t think there are.


And that took me to thinking about imagination. The human imagination knows no bounds, and this is one of the fantastic things about being us. It’s also, I think, what allows us to hold the most extraordinary beliefs, and to hold to these beliefs fervently – whether it’s the existence of an afterlife, or that the New South Wales government can fix our transport problems.


I’m being unfair (well, not to the New South Wales government). I actually love this stuff. I love it because it’s the imagination vaulting into the unknown and the unknowable. A process of trying to make sense of reality that we’re all involved in at one level or another. Science is trying to make sense of it, religion is trying to make sense of it, superstition, magic, and people who believe the world was created by a flying spaghetti monster – they’re all trying to make sense of it.


Anyway, what I’d like to suggest, by way of a contribution to this morning’s discussion, is this:


* The only big theme that matters in fiction is life and death in all its infinite variety, its mystery and perplexity - the human comedy as Balzac put it. All other themes flow from this – truth, belief, love, revenge, whatever, they’re all sub-themes, if you like.


* That in writing fiction, the story – and what happens to the people in it – is paramount; themes develop out of situations, from characters interacting or failing to, from the capriciousness of fate, the play between good and evil etc.


* And finally, I’m going to step out on a limb and propose – entirely for the sake of discussion – that realism as a literary form is exhausted. That fiction in the 21st century needs to find new ways of pushing the boundaries between the real and the imagined. New ways of handling the themes of our age.


Fiction is all about the imagination: It doesn’t have to be about belief, though it can be, but its relationship to Truth should, I think, be like our ordinary, everyday, relationship to Truth – muddled, obscured, cloudy and ill-formed, grasping for something just out of reach. Good fiction creeps around the truth if there’s one handy to creep around, revealing tantalising glimpses that we the reader recognise about ourselves and the world we share, but don’t necessarily fully understand.


I think it’s the search that’s important, the imagination that takes us on a journey of discovery, even if – as so often in life – we end up somewhere totally unexpected. If it’s good fiction, we’ll be happy to be there, even if we’ve lost the bus fare home.


(Contribution to a forum at the Sydney Writers' Festival, 2009)