It's a neat trick to compact big ideas into a novel without letting them take over the human aspects of the narrative. An author who does this masterfully is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.
In her new book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a work of fiction, the Princeton-educated, genius-award winning philosopher, currently at Harvard, nimbly manipulates her characters' relationship struggles, their beliefs about religion and human consciousness, and their paradoxical life choices. Academia, unexpected fame, and game theory as applied to who says "I love you" first all come in for their share of Goldstein's wry and vastly intelligent narrative. Even the chapter titles are evocative and quirkily amusing ("The Argument from Dappled Things").
I recently interviewed Rebecca to learn more about the psychological and practical aspects of writing an outspokenly atheistic novel. My first question was how the process of writing this book was different for her. Her response:
The process of this one was exactly the same as for my other novels: (1) Thinking a lot about some particular philosophical question and thinking that I ought to write a straight-up philosophical piece about it, and then deciding that, no, only a novel could express the confusions and conflicts and ambiguities and irresolvable messiness that seem to me essential to the problem. (2) Spending a long while trying to talk myself out of undertaking a novel, because I find writing straight-up philosophy much easier. (3) Beginning to play around--not entirely seriously, since I'm still not committing myself at this stage to a novel--with characters who could embody what I want to say, and then (4) building on these characters until they take on a life of their own that far exceeds the narrow purposes for which I conceived them.
And now we've moved into the real process which is: (5) managing the whole thing, controlling my characters as much as I can, trying to keep them from swamping my original themes, nudging them in the directions I want, bursting into tears when they completely surprise me, giving myself over to the mad obsession of writing a novel (the very reason I'd tried to talk myself out of it at stage 1). So that's basically the process.
Q: Was it harder to get published?
No, I wouldn't say that. Editors know that there's going to be a substantial amount of intellectual matter in my novels. If they find that indigestible, then they know to stay away from me. And this novel, unlike some of my others, deals with a fairly topical nexus of questions: science and religion, reason and faith. These issues have received a lot of attention in the past decade. I always write novels about issues that are obsessing me at the moment. This is probably the first time that one of my own obsessions happens to intersect with the obsession of a sizable number of other people. My last novel, Properties of Light, after all, was about interpretations of quantum mechanics, and that one I was surprised to get published.
Q: Like Dawkins, you seem to enjoy exposing the humor in the absurdity of religious thinking, including that of the Hassidic movement. Yet you do it so gently. Are you yourself torn between honoring past sacrifices and being true to one's own rationality?
I felt my most cynical self wasn't vented on the Hassidic community, but rather on academia. One of the themes of the book is that the religious impulse expresses itself in purely secular settings--for example, the cult-like devotion surrounding intellectual figures. One sees this all the time in academia. One sees it among people who would never recognize that they have anything in common with a community of Hassidim. But they do have much in common with such a community. People who read my books generally don't need to be informed about the absurdity of Hassidism; actually, it's more likely they need to be coaxed to see the deep humanity they share with "backward" people whose ways of life seem so alien and impenetrable. I was more interested in doing that than in exposing the absurdity of Hassidim, which is why, as you say, I'm gentle.
And I love Azarya, my little Hassidic mathematical prodigy. I first thought up his story about twelve years ago, and I found his dilemma so painful that I couldn't bring myself to bring him into life. I wrote two straight-up philosophy books, one on Godel's incompleteness theorems, and one on Spinoza, trying to avoid having to deal with Azarya's dilemma. And then the whole new atheism thing happened, and I got somewhat drawn into that debate, and those issues gave me a way of dealing with Azarya's tragedy in a way that could be somewhat less painful.
Q: How close was your own upbringing to that of your characters?
I was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household, though it wasn't Hassidic, and I spent a great deal of my adult life within Orthodoxy, though I became an atheist at about twelve years old. This is not as unusual as people might think, and it's an aspect of the complexity of that nexus of questions surrounding religion that I felt could only be undertaken in a novel. In philosophical arguments, you can be perfectly consistent. In life, it's harder.
Q: Was it difficult to write the "God Exists" debate scene, the actual words that so much of the book leads up to?
The debate was one of the easier sections to write. It was just a matter of developing arguments on both sides, and that is exactly what one is trained to do as a professional philosopher. And by the time I got to the debate I knew my main character so well that it was easy for me to know how he'd feel from moment to moment.
Q: How did the idea of the extensive appendix come about?
Another of the themes of the book is that religion is about far more than belief in God. It's about such things as loyalties to a particular community and its history, and mysteriously transcendent emotions that seem to carry one right out of one's own life, and existential dilemmas, and a whole lot more. Cass Seltzer is my main protagonist, dubbed by Time Magazine "the atheist with a soul." Cass constructs his famous appendix which analyzes 36 arguments for the existence of God, as a sort of after-thought, to show that pointing out the flaws in theistic arguments isn't going to have much effect on people's religious beliefs. Since I talk about his doing this, it was only right that I show it. And I wanted this book, even though it's a novel, to add something to the raging debate that's going on right now about religion and reason.
Nobody's ever tried to catalogue all the reasons that people give for believing in God. There are the famous arguments that you analyze in Philosophy 101, but then there are these far vaguer sorts of arguments, which--for those who are moved by them--seem all the stronger because they're vague and emotive. I wanted to pin them down, and separate them from each other (they tend to get sloppily merged).
Q: Has it been satisfying to be one of the few successful novelists who tackle such major philosophical themes head-on, as it were?
The work is certainly satisfying to me, though the tendency, among some, to trivialize fiction can be irksome. Just because fiction is so intensely pleasurable doesn't mean it can't, at the same time, be doing serious work. I get peeved sometimes when I hear the science and philosophy types with whom I hang dismiss fiction as mind candy. On the other hand, when a prominent science blog, published the appendix from 36 Arguments, and then Arts and Letters Daily picked it up, there was an explosion of discussion about it on the blogosphere, some of it violently taking issue. That pleases me. I think that fiction should get itself inserted into the middle of intellectual debates. I think fiction can do things that no other form of writing can do to illuminate how certain abstract questions function in our lives, how they change the entire feel of the world for us.