Mr g by Alan Lightman: Book Review [The Ryan Dixon Line]

Let’s just jump to the question you really want to ask: Does Alan Lightman’s new novel, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, live up to the enormous accomplishment of his first one, Einstein’s Dreams?

Comprised of chapters devoted to the dreams young Albert Einstein had while working on his theory of relativity, Einstein’s Dreams was the “it” book of 1992. One could find it both within the backpacks of lit majors and atop strollers of soccer moms. It wasn’t hard to see why. Lightman had a genius for merging seemingly incomprehensible scientific topics into illusive narratives laced with hypnotic lyricism. After reading it, everyone felt smarter and a little more human.

Consuming the book in one sitting as a young teenager, Einstein’s Dreams didn’t so much change my reading taste as reveal it. The novel was the perfect first date to a lifelong relationship with fictional fabulists like Borges, Eco, and Calvino. It showed that a fictional world could still be a fantastical place even without fire-breathing dragons flying overhead.

Following a series of more traditional narrative novels and non-fiction works that failed to have the impact of his fictional debut, Mr g seems conceived, conceptually and marketing-wise, to deliberately echo Einstein’s Dreams. When put side-by-side, both titles create a sort of cosmic Rashomon; Dreams focused on the secrets of the universe from man’s point-of-view, Mr g is a memoir of the creation as told by God.

As a novel, unfortunately, Mr g is a still-born prose universe brought forth by a well-meaning creator who is in over his head.

Einstein’s Dreams succeeded in part because the ethereal nature of dreams freed Lightman from worrying about typically essential novelistic elements like characters and plot.  Lightman’s attempt to incorporate those same elements in Mr. g result in muddled incoherence.

Mr g’s narrator is not a booming-voiced and bearded Yahweh/Zeus hybrid or even a wisecracking George Burns clone.  He’s the nebbish nephew of two other gods, Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva. (Don’t let their distinguished mythological names fool you, on the page Aunt P. and Uncle D. read like to wacky supporting characters from a rejected 80s TV pilot.)

On a whim our narrator creates several infant universes in a manner that could only be described as Quantum Jenga. Watching as his handiwork churns from chaos into creation, he eventually becomes attached to one universe in particular (bet you can’t guess which one?). As for the novel’s emotional thru-line, instead of “a boy and his dog,” think “a boy and his universe.”

Onto the void where our narrator resides, the mysterious Belhor arrives to challenge the conception of free will and the nature of evil, a duel that forms the thematic battleground for the rest of the novel. (Somewhat inexplicably, two creatures also accompany Belhor. By the description, they sound like less frightening [and far less funny] versions of the devil dogs Zuul and Vinz Clortho from Ghostbusters.)

In the many short chapters that follow, there are visits to various planets, omniscient interior monologues about the nature of existence and creaky vaudeville routines supposedly intended as comic relief. The low point of the novel is also one of the longest chapters; Belhor, in what can only be considered a failed audition to become the sixth Marx brother, causes chaos at an opera house located on a water-covered planet. (No, I’m not kidding.)

If Lightman had aborted the malformed conceit of anthropomorphizing the creation of the universe, Mr g could have perhaps achieved the same profundity of Einstein’s Dreams. Instead, the only times Mr g resuscitates from its fatal overdose of “cuteness” and “preciousness” is when Lightman removes the veil of novel writing and allows chapters exploring such topics as mortality and infinity to be straight up essays, an art form at which he excels.

And while Lightman’s ideas of how life would evolve on planets with different proximities to the sun are fascinating, his decision to devote so much page space to other worlds when ours is, in my humble opinion, mysterious enough, is a near-fatal miscalculation. I understand that there’s probably a lot more going on in the universe aside from all things Earth, but couldn’t we have at least discovered what the creator thinks about Tim Tebow?

Speaking of Tim Tebow, intentionally or not, proponents of intelligent design have their first legitimate work of literature. By giving the act of creation a persona, no matter how unbiblical, Lightman is still writing from the point of view of a creator. If Lightman were a more polished comic writer (imagine what Woody Allen could do with this concept?), the nagging feeling that one is reading an explicitly creationist work wouldn’t be nearly as strong, nor would the question of the author’s specific theological beliefs cast such an uncomfortable shadow. It’s hard to forget that Lightman, an exceedingly accomplished dual professor of theoretical physics and humanities at M.I.T., also likes to dip his toe into the murky pond of the spiritual.

Since Mr g forgoes scientific secularism and embraces that watered down religion on the rocks known as “spirituality,” any sort of passionate readership it finds will likely consist of those looking for pulpy self-help comfort food on Target book shelves rather than the seemingly infinite array of humanity who continue stare up at Einstein’s Dreams in awe and wonderment.

Follow Ryan Dixon on twitter @ryanbdixon. Order a copy of his graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening.