by Jason Anderson
What follows is an edited transcript of Jason Anderson’s interview with Alex Garland – author of the Beach, made famous by the Leonardo diCaprio movie, and more recently the Tesseract.
Garland: “It surprises how much you can keep in your head while you’re writing a book, in terms of all the different characters, the histories of the characters, the way they intersect, tiny little exchanges that a character will have had with another character which will have a quiet resonance later on — you keep that thing in your mind and you remember to press the button 100, 150 pages later, which you may be writing a year later after you first wrote a set-up to that little thing. The Tesseract took two years to write…”
was it diagrammed? very mathematical schematic?
“It was just in my head. The Tesseract, even more than the Beach, had an organic writing process. It was something I’d been thinking about for a long time, and then just little things about it began to fall into place. At a certain point, I decided, if I’m going to write this book I’m going to write it as three distinct stories that combine at the end. In the first story, you get Sean, this guy in a hotel room, and Jojo, who’s a driver in a car. And as I was writing that first story, I didn’t really know what would happen in the second story, short of knowing that there would be a second story and that it would be a domestic story that would be threatened by the first story. In the first story, according to the kind of reader you are, maybe you sympathise with Sean, or feel protective toward Jojo. Having said that, when you get to the second story, you just don’t want this family to get killed, you don’t want some horrible bloody thing to be visited upon this family, who are now put in close proximity to Sean and Jojo. What I was hoping would happen is that the reader would almost just wish that Sean and Jojo could shoot each other, as long as this mother and her kids were safe.”
thinking about a four-dimensional book?
“No, I was thinking about the implications of four dimensions in terms of the way they could act like a mathematical proof for something more general about life.”
fourth dimension — how people’s memories — specifically when Don Pepe dies and crosses over into myth. that’s fourth dimensional — not how people exist in the world but how they exist in stories or memories or pictures
“I’m glad you liked that. My favourite thing about Don Pepe is at the very end of the book, when it’s basically saying he’s dead and there’s all these people who have memories of him, there’s his dog waiting for him to get home, there’s a guy who served him an omelette in Spain… it says something like death has reduced him in exactly the way he thought it would. These memories are a pitiful representation of something as complicated as a consciousness. The book’s basically an argument in favour of atheism. That’s why I wrote it, that’s what I felt was underneath it. It’s saying, there’s no moral architecture to these things, no divine architecture to them. Neither are there particularly simple answers or answers that are very satisfactory. The thing I keep thinking of as a good example is a mother trying to come to terms with why her kid gets hit by a bus and is killed. And a priest could say, God works in mysterious ways. Which for me is a profoundly offensive thing to say, it makes me angry, really. I had to hear a priest say a similar thing after someone I knew died last year. So what the book is arguing is, look, God’s not moving in a mysterious way. It’s more like the driver hit the kid because he turned his head, and because the kid saw a ball over the road and ran for the ball, and you could then try to get to the root of this instant. You could ask, oh why did the driver turn his head? He turned his head because he saw a pretty girl. He was attracted to the pretty girl because he’s got problems at home. He’s got problems at home because of da-da-da. And likewise with the ball across the road. The kid liked the ball because he’d lost his ball and he wanted another one. The ball had been dropped by someone who’d been shopping and bought it for their own son and it had fallen out of the bag. You could continue expanding outwards. Throughout all of that expansion you’d never come up with a single or several good reasons why he got hit by a bus.
“All you’re basically left with is that he got hit by a bus and he’s dead and it would’ve been much, much better all ‘round if it had never happened. It’s just a tragedy, there’s no mysterious working.”
no unified field theory
“No moral unified field theory. The thing about it is, in terms of physics, there could be one. I do believe in an atheistic morality, this is an argument against religious morality, or looking for religious order in things. I think the reason I use the tesseract because it seems to me that it’s a mathematical proof for something that’s too complicated to understand. And just because when you look at these things and you can’t understand, that doesn’t by definition mean there’s some sort of divine power going on. All it means is that it’s too much for you to understand, you can’t actually understand it. In a way, you can use a tesseract as a mathematical proof of that. You can see it unraveled but you can’t see the thing itself. And it doesn’t matter how long you spend thinking about it, you’ll never be able to see the thing itself. It’s implacable. And people seem so hostile to that idea. To me, it’s like you could just make the general point with a tesseract and then apply it to life.”
can’t conceive fourth dimenson, can’t conceive God,
“It’s like people detect that there’s something they’re not understanding about something, they’re not getting about something. But what they don’t get is that, they sort of assume because there’s something about it they don’t understand, that there’s somebody out there and something that does understand and is making sense of it. Again, it seems to me that you can use a hypercube to say, look, this is something you can’t understand, it’s beyond you, but it has no consciousness, it doesn’t have a need for consciousness — it just simply is. Do you see what I mean? It’s drawing a parallel rather than saying this is how things are, and it’s not so much a statement about science as a statement about quite unscientific things — prejudice, inherited myths and superstitions, which the book is riddled with. This is what the book is about in intention, but as for whether this stuff manages to come across…
“I believe that arguments are best made through stories, through narratives. The reason they’re successful because it’s very easy for a story to approach an argument obliquely, and to have someone, who doesn’t necessarily want to hear the argument, find themselves listening to the whole argument because it’s being wrapped in the context of the story. In a way that’s the idea behind the book, which is that I was tired of having a certain kind of religious argument that always ended up having a battle… any kind of rational argument would very quickly hit this brick wall of faith, which is clearly not something that can be affected by rational argument. The answer is, I believe in it because I believe in it — that’s why I do it. It’s self-contained.
“I once went out with a girl who was Jewish, and I’m not Jewish, and she felt that this caused her parents lots of problems. And she once got sick and she felt that the reason was because God was punishing her for going out with a non-Jewish person. And I found the idea that God would intervene over a Jewish/non-Jewish relationship but let the Holocaust slide to be so incredible but also to be so completely typical of religious thought.”
is there so little going on for God?
“Yeah, to be setting that alarm clock. But here’s omnipresence. My own problems with religion stem from not being able to see a need for one. It’s like all of this could have happened without one, so it’s almost like the emphasis falls on trying to confirm that the guy exists or something like that exists, and I can’t find any evidence for that. I just end up making a pragmatic decision about it.”
Extract from the chapter entitled Supersymmetries (page 205-206) of The Tesseract by Alex Garland
Alfredo slid open the French windows of his living room and went to stand on his balcony. The fingers of one hand were curled around the guard-rail. In the other hand, he held the framed photograph from his desk. The lights of the city clustered and moved, cars and bedrooms, curtains drawing, blinds lifting, buildings etched in pinprick vectors. These lights lit the night cloud layer, and the city was darker than the sky above it.
From the thirty-storey perspective, in the cubes and rectangles, in the pinprick vectors, in the isometric conjunction of a shopping-centre complex and a low office block, Alfredo searched for and found a particular shape.
Take six cubes and arrange them into the shape of a crucifix. Take two more cubes and stick them either side of the crucifix, at the point where the cross is made. Now you have a tesseract. A tesseract is a three-dimensional object. A tesseract is also a four-dimensional object – a hypercube – unravelled.
A square unravels to a line. Two dimensions unravel to one.
A cube unravels to a cross. Three dimensions unravel to two.
A hypercube unravels to a tesseract. Four dimensions unravel to three.
You exist in three spatial dimensions. In the same way that a one-dimensional boy could not visualize a two-dimensional square, or a two-dimensional boy could not visualize a three-dimensional cube, you cannot visualize a hypercube.
A hypercube is a thing you are not equipped to understand.
You can only understand the tesseract. This means something.
For you and for me, Cente, this is the way it is. We can see the thing unravelled, but not the thing itself.