When the creation myth is explained to us it comes with the idea that all creation comes from the void, from nothing, from what was not there in the beginning. Except, of course, God, or some sort of God. Genesis, this is how things begin, illogically. Consider it: something coming from nothing; how can that be when the first principle of philosophy is that anything can be (exist), and not be (not exist), at the same time. One cannot have a thought, and not be thinking at the same time. Even God is subject to that. Which raises the question of when was there a not God in existence? Was he just there, out of time, outside of time? Is it possible for there to be a non-time?
When I was first introduced to the notion of creation, by those paragons of bare-knuckled theology, the sisters of St. Joseph, I had this little idea that was in some sense fetched from a precognitive notion of the Big Bang theory. I saw God as some sort of a dot in the vast void, and he just commenced to getting bigger and bigger, and looking more and more like Michelangelo’s Sistine representation, and then he just wanted all sorts of crap play with, and got on with the business of creation by first flipping some sort of a light switch. A little innocent mind has to engage in its own little act of creation in order to quicken the narrative.
Existence is for us a curious thing; a mere hiccup in the span of creation from past to some unimaginable eternity. And, because we have come into being we find it quite difficult to consider ourselves leaving, permanently and completely, our being-ness. So, it is quite understandable that we have conjured all forms of afterlife, some state or another of continuance, at least of our consciousness, some capacity to reflect back upon that hiccup.
You may wonder where I’m going with this. I do. I don’t want to leave us hanging out here in the cosmological void looking at each other like a couple on their first Christian Mingle date. So, I’m not going in my usual direction of addressing my issues with theology and its bullshit self-serving cosmology, especially of the “creationist” sort.
Rather, I am prompted by a statement that I recently stumbled upon in The New Yorker by a literary critic. Brad Leithauser reviews books on the magazine’s website and recently posted a piece called the “Box and the Keyhole” that skirts the edges of some of the thoughts in the paragraph above. In the course of his discussion he addresses something that I gave considerable thought to in the process of forming the narrative of my novel of “the afterlife of Susie Wong.” Susie was (is) the prostitute who first appeared in Richard Mason’s novel The World of Suzie Wong, and then was made flesh by the actress Nancy Kwan in the 1960s movie of the same title. How would readers regard a novel that dealt with the afterlife of a character who is fictional both in book and movie existences? Leithauser addresses the same question:
I’m told that a national debate arose soon after [Gone With the Wind] was published. People all over America asked: Did Rhett abandon Scarlett forever? Or did the two of them eventually reconcile? I’d long considered this whole debate deeply silly. Wasn’t it obvious? Rhett and Scarlett didn’t do anything after the last page. With the novel’s close, they ceased to exist… But, of course, it was obvious only if you were approaching the book as a box rather than a keyhole*.
I make the point in my own book that if you asked someone what happened to the two main characters in The World of Suzie Wong, Robert and Suzie, at the end of the story in which in the movie version they walk off hand-in-hand “into the sunset.” The protagonist in my story, Marco Podesta, is interested in just that question; but the easy response is that Suzie and Robert are fictional characters and the end of the movie is the end of their existence, just like that with Rhett and Scarlett.
So how do you premise a book on a question that seems almost too silly to be asked? Not that people aren’t interested, as Leithauser suggests, in what might be the ongoing existence of characters whose “existence” ends come with the last page of a book. We do get inside the heads and bodies of these characters, as we must, to try to understand them and to be empathic, or sometimes antipathic, and our attempts to understand what motivates their actions. We do carry them around with us long after we close the book or watch the movie credits, sometimes they remain with us like old friends, or models or archetypes against which we judge and measure real people, even people with whom we are intimate. We might even think we know these fictive constructs better than we know real people in our lives. So they are “ongoing” in that regard. And, as expressed above, we humans are easily susceptible to the comforts of the notion of afterlife. Of course, we are not speaking here of some afterlife bouncing around in the cushy cumulus with Jesus, but of an ongoing life that is sequel to the story that interests us, or our own story.
So we are talking here of a process in which the author of a fiction creates characters, giving them life, but, in effect, putting them to figurative “death,” or sometimes into a sort of state of suspended animation, as with Rhett and Scarlett. It’s a little bit like that narrative that the good sisters gave to me about the creation of the universe. (Gee, now I wonder where they will have gotten that idea, or the source from which they got that idea, got that idea?) Are we just God’s fictional enterprise? Oh, Sister Ignatius, wherefore art thou?
Sorry about that. But it does lead to a point that I think is relevant to the theme; that is, that even God cannot undo what has been done. What has happened has happened; it cannot be put asunder. So it is with the creation of fictional characters. But there is another aspect to the creation of fictional characters that is relevant to the question of whether or not it is reasonable to speculate upon the “afterlives” of the likes of Rhett and Scarlett, or in the case of my own fictional enterprise, that of Robert and Suzie. Here I refer to the fact that fictional creations are to varying degrees based upon reality. Writers draw extensively upon their own experiences, encounters, memories and other dimensions of reality, consciously or unconsciously, when they create their Rhetts and Scarlets as armatures upon which they freely append physical and personality features.
In the case of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, if we wonder about the prospects for their reconciliation (whether Rhett will decide to “give a damn”), we are basing that speculation upon our own knowledge of the star-crossed couple as well as the manner in which Ms Mitchell manipulated their romantic trials. There are examples we probably all know of, in reality—as, indeed, there were likely such personalities known to the author.
And so, with Mr. Lomax and Ms. Wong. What, I wondered when I was considering the plot of the book is: what were the prospects for a romance between a nineteen-year-old Chinese prostitute and a Western man twice her age in 1950s Hong Kong stodgy with British colonial conventions and social sanctions? How long could it last before they encountered one of her old “customers”? How long before Robert is ostracized by his fellow Westerners for his open relationship with a Chinese girl of such repute? How long before perhaps she needs to make a little extra money? The chances are not very good for such a couple.
But, I speculate, could there have been a real Robert, and a real Suzie, who fell in love and were known to the author, even at a distance, and formed a romance destined, as so many East-West romances before them in fiction (and no doubt in fact) for a tragic denouement? Quite likely, I thought, and therefore the prospects for an “afterlife” to the romance of fictional Suzie Wong and Robert Lomax, would reside in that of a real couple, somewhere. The fictional sequel to the story therefore would have its genesis in the factual prequel.
Of course, there is no reason for writing the story at all if the Suzie Wong who “ceased existing” when the credits rolled on The World of Suzie Wong. But that is not the case; she was still alive in my memory and in the memories of many others. But if I could fictionally dip back into the real world that must have formed the basis for her fictional creation I might have a story that takes place at the intersection of reality and imagination. You don’t have to be God to do that; you just have to act a little like Sister Ignatius and the authors of Genesis imagined God to act, as someone who likes a good story and, better yet, one in which you are a central character . . . and (it gets even better) a story with no ending.
And therein hangs a tale you might wish to read further about (shameless plug).
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.13.2013)
*By “box” or “keyhole” he means whether the characters of fiction are completely contained in their personalities within a “box” when we read about them, or whether their characters are viewed in completely through way “keyhole,” and therefore they have an “existence” beyond that expressed in the narrative.