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BooksJune 16, 2016

Danyl McLauchlan: Five things I was thinking about while writing Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley

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In which Wellington writer Danyl McLauchlan approaches his latest novel Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley from five directions. He took the photos, too.

Thing one: Tone

I was about halfway through writing this book when a friend asked me what it was about. I thought for a while, then answered, “Sorry, but I can’t really put it into words.” He gave an amused snort. “You can’t put your own novel into words?”

I am a slow-witted man. Most people get into arguments and then hours later they think of something clever they wish they’d said. L’esprit de l’escalier. For me this process can take weeks or months, so I said nothing until much, much later.

“What I meant,” I explained, perhaps a little too aggressively, and after so much time had passed that my friend had forgotten about the original conversation, “Was that my book was about a feeling.  A tone. A vibe. The thing that matters to me when I read a book is not so much the plot or the style or the theme but how these things come together to create the tone; a unique interior state that you enter into when you read that particular book, and that can’t be communicated or ‘put into words’ in any other way than writing the entire book to convey it. So yeah, I can put my own book into words, thank you, but quite a lot of words. If I could put it into fewer words it’d be a short story or a haiku not a novel.”

I knew what the tone was for Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley long before I knew the plot, or any of the themes. It was to convey a mood that often settled on me when I was in my early twenties and living in a tiny squalid room on Raroa Road, a winding and sunless street overlooking the Aro Valley. Most nights I would stay late at the Victoria University library, reading, because it was warm there. When it closed I would trudge home in the darkness and rain, heading for my miserable flat which was unheated and damp and never had any food. I felt a terrible despondency; that the world was a bleak, futile place and I was trapped within it, with no prospects of improving my situation.

Yet I also felt that the world was not what it seemed. Back then I was reading a lot of mystical and esoteric literature, and also a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and also – sometimes – taking hallucinogenic drugs, and it all convinced me that the mundane world was just an illusion; that there was a deeper reality, a secret true reality of limitless possibility just out of sight somehow. I believed there was a way to pull off the dust-cover of everyday existence to reveal the unseen world beneath it. There had to be! I just didn’t know what it was, or how to find it.

And I never did. But most of the characters in my book feel the way I felt back then: mundane confinement mixed with a sense of infinite possibility hidden just out of sight. They have no social or economic capital, or any prospects of conventional success. But they don’t care. They seek other worlds. What would happen, I wondered, if they found them?

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Thing two: Data structures and mathematical platonism

One of the first things you learn when you study computer science (which I did some years after I was a lonely impoverished arts student living in Te Aro) is that it isn’t really about computers, and it isn’t really a science. What you mostly study – at least as an undergraduate – are data structures and algorithms. These are ways of storing and manipulating information. Computers are useful tools for doing this, but they’re not the only ones. The phone book is a data structure. Storing information about names and numbers in alphabetical order makes it a lot more useful than if it was all entered in randomly, with no order.

Novels are another, far more complex form of data structure (designed to communicate tone and interior states, among other things).

You probably recognise the names of some famous computational data structures from error messages when your computer does something weird. “Array index out of bounds.” “Binary search tree error.” That means the code tried to do something that the data structure doesn’t allow it do to. Data structures are a big deal in the modern world. Technological modernity is based on the storage and manipulation of huge volumes of data, and mostly this happens through a fairly small number of well known structures and algorithms.

When you spend a lot of time writing computer code and working with these structures, you start to have philosophical thoughts about them. Or, at least, I did. Like, what are they, exactly? Are they real? Are they a cultural artifact, like language? Did someone invent them? Or did data structures exist in some odd, abstract way before humans came along and invented novels and computers and learned how to build and access and manipulate them?

Obviously these structures aren’t ‘real’ in the sense that they’re instantiated in spacetime. You can’t touch them. But they feel real when you work with them. Every now and then a computer scientist invents (?) or discovers (?) some new property of an existing structure or algorithm, and other programmers can write their own code and determine that this property exists. You can’t do that with cultural constructs like language. Writers don’t get to say “Hey everyone! I’ve discovered a new form of punctuation: the upside down exclamation mark. It means the opposite of surprise or excitement, when you’re totally underwhelmed and bored by something,” and then have everyone look at their keyboards and say, “Wow. You’re right. The upside-down exclamation mark! It was there all along.”

I had a vague notion I would write about this in my book and as I read about it I discovered that my ponderings about data structures were a version of one of the oldest unsolved problems in western philosophy: what is the relationship of mathematics to reality? Plato famously thought that mathematical objects existed in a more pure, rational, deeper version of reality; that we’re like prisoners in a cave seeing shadows on the walls, not understanding that the shapes dancing before us are just the vague outlines of the true reality.

There are huge problems with this theory: firstly, it violates the principle of scientific parsimony: you have to invent a whole new universe to support your hypothesis. Secondly, how do these perfect platonic mathematical forms interact with our universe? Why can’t that interaction be measured? If it can’t be measured it can’t be disproved, so it can’t be scientific. But even after two and a half thousand years the theory remains, because no one else can adequately explain quite what mathematical objects – like data structures – are, or how they exist.

So this is an unsolved problem. You might even say that this is a deep deep mystery. Which suited me. I was writing a mystery novel, after all. I might as well throw in a 2000-year-old philosophical enigma.



Thing three: Atlas Shrugged.

Towards the end of the 1990s the US publishing company Modern Library commissioned a survey of literary types to find the “greatest novels of the 20th century”. And the results were pretty much what you’d expect. Joyce’s Ulysses at number one. The usual suspects dominating the top ten: Nabakov’s Lolita; Fitzgerald; Faulkner; Steinbeck. All those guys the kids today refer to as “dead white males”.

But Modern Library also commissioned a second survey. A reader’s survey in which ordinary people voted online. And the number one book in that survey was by a woman novelist. It wasn’t Virginia Woolf, or Harper Lee, or Toni Morrison. It was a novelist that many literary critics don’t even consider a novelist: the objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. The book was Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas Shrugged – for those readers not familiar with it – is a twelve hundred page long epic novel set in a dystopian version of the United States in the middle of the twentieth century, in which socialism seems to triumph over capitalism and individualism, leading to the total collapse of society. I read it when I was about seventeen and was overwhelmed by it. I concluded that I was one of the free thinking supergenius supercapitalist superhumans Rand’s book celebrated, and that my total lack of any academic success and my inability to keep a holiday job for more than a couple of days had nothing to do with my laziness or the modesty of my intellect, or my other painfully obvious shortcomings. It was because socialism had brainwashed everyone around me, rendering them incapable of perceiving my genius.

I explained all of this to various teachers and classmates and parents, and they all gently rejected Rand’s theories, just as the great lady herself predicted the deluded masses would do, thus confirming (to me) her farseeing infallibility.

It took me a few years to get over the influence of Rand. Many who read her work never recover: they remain in thrall to her ideas for life. The objectivist philosophy is very appealing to a certain type of person and her books can be very convincing; they’re masterpieces of propaganda.

Rand believed (among other things) that all government is evil – because it undermines the free market – and I was convinced of this until I left New Zealand and started backpacking around countries that had robust free market economies but basically no effective government, and so had cities filled with packs of wild dogs and raw sewerage flowing down the streets. Because there is no effective free market response to wild dogs and sewerage regulation. That’s when I began to realise that everything Rand had taught me about the world was wrong. But that doesn’t mean that her books are as bad as many people claim.

Literary and cultural elites tend to celebrate literary style, and the style of Rand’s writing is poor. Critics also tend to believe that good novels should be opaque; mysterious, the message and themes a complex riddle for the initiated to unlock, and there’s nothing remotely opaque about Atlas Shrugged which consists of Rand beating you over the head with her philosophy in every sentence and on every page for over a thousand pages.

So it is not considered a serious book. But the storytelling is, I think, very serious and very accomplished. At the heart of the novel is a mystery. All of the great thinkers and industrialists and inventors and thinkers in America are disappearing. A man comes to see them, talks to them for a few minutes and then they just . . . vanish. Why? Who is this man? Where do they go? The solutions to the mysteries are a delivery system for Rand’s philosophical theories, and even though I now regard those theories as basically insane I still love the way she hooks the reader in so she can sermonise at them.

Rand actually had four of her books in the Modern Library reader’s top ten. And pulp sci-fi author and Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard took three of the other slots. Obviously, as many commentators pointed out at the time, the poll was flawed. It wasn’t measuring the most popular books with the reading public, because none of those books are actually that popular. People who were obsessed with those authors gamed the survey by voting multiple times. So, it was argued, the reader’s list means nothing.

But it does mean something though, right? It measures the degree of obsession an author’s fans have for their work. Not many people like Ayn Rand or L Ron Hubbard, but the people who do like them really like them, so much so that they’re willing to self-organise and dedicate considerable time and effort to gaming an online survey to promote their work.

I think about this a lot. Because, what do we mean when we say that a book is great? Does it illuminate our lives? Change the way we think and feel about the world? Well, for many of its readers Atlas Shrugged does both of those things. After the global financial crisis in 2008 Atlas Shrugged shot to the top of the bestseller list in the US. It helped people make sense of what they (wrongly, I think) thought was happening. It’s hard to imagine any political event that would turn James Joyce’s Ulysses into a bestseller. Doesn’t that mean that Atlas Shrugged is an important book, worthy of examining, even if you don’t agree with its values?

I think it is, but I’m pretty much alone in that, at least among non Rand-fans. Critical reception when it was released back in 1957 was overwhelmingly hostile and has only gotten worse with time. So I decided that my second novel would be a partial homage and partial critique of Rand’s book. This let me steal her central conceit – a philosophical mystery novel in which people vanish mysteriously, and to comment on some of the non-political problems with her novel, like her belief that humans should be creatures of pure rationality. So I gave some of my characters mental illnesses, and forced them to try and make ‘rational’ and extremely important decisions while struggling with their illness, and also working with false, misleading or imperfect information. Which is, after all, how many of us make important life decisions in the real world.

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Thing four: Toilets and stomach flus   

Mystery novels don’t usually feature toilets. Mine does, and the hero makes dramatic, dizzying escapes from no less than three bathrooms over the course of the book. That’s three more bathroom escapes than is standard in the genre.

Why? Well, they say write what you know and when I wrote most of this book I had a young daughter. She started creche and when kids start creche they pick up lots of colds and bugs. Especially stomach bugs. And when very young kids get those bugs, their parents generally do too. So I spent a lot of that year trapped in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet while infections ravaged my digestive tract. But, as Milton said, the mind is it’s own place and can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven. While my body was condemned to the toilet my imagination soared, transporting me to other fictional toilets within my work.

So I devised three diabolical bathrooms my hero could be trapped inside, and I then devised three ingenious escapes. I think these are some of the strongest scenes in the book, and that’s because I had a lot of time to think about them. If life gives you diarrhea, make dire art. Wordsworth had daffodils; I had rotavirus.

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Thing five: Clinical depression

I also had clinical depression! The main character in the book also suffers from depression but that wasn’t in those early drafts because the book is supposed to be funny and depression is the opposite of funny.

Or so I thought. It was about 18 months later, coming out the other side of the illness that I saw the funny side of things. I’d been on antidepressant drugs and I was weaning myself off them. This is a process that often has odd side effects, and one of the most common is “brain zaps”. You feel an odd painless mild buzzing sensation inside your mind. It’s often caused by stress, and stress is something you’re supposed to avoid when you’re discontinuing mood altering drugs, so the brain zaps can act as a kind of early warning system.

One day I was at work. I work in a biochemistry lab, and I was trying to repair a very complicated, very fragile, very expensive piece of equipment. And I was being very careful, because if I broke it further we’d have to send away for a replacement part. This would take weeks, and cost money and everyone using this piece of equipment would be inconvenienced. So I wanted to get it right.

But as I was trying to concentrate my brain began to buzz at me, gently at first, and then with increasing urgency, which made concentration very difficult. A small voice in my mind spoke up. ’Danyl?’ It said. ‘I’m giving you the brain zaps, and that’s a stress warning, buddy. Okay? You getting these? Buddy? You’re under stress, okay? Just letting you know.’

“I know I’m under stress you fucking imbecile,” I thought back at myself. “You warning me about stress is putting me under stress. If you stop telling me I’m under stress I won’t be under stress, you blithering moron. You got that, buddy?”

This internal conversation went on for some time. “It was actually pretty funny, when you think about it,” I concluded when I told my wife about it that night. She did not agree, and actually seemed a little disturbed by the story, but the more I thought about it, the funnier it seemed, and I began to laugh out loud which further disturbed her.

Comedy and drama both stem from conflict. What better source of conflict, I reasoned, than pitting my character up against his own brain? And, due to my own recent illness I had a wealth of material to draw from, which – once you took out all of the madness and pain – was actually rather amusing.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley (Victoria University Press, $35) is available from Unity Books.

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