Some of the ideas below were found in books I was reading at the time of writing The Land of Decoration. The ideas found their way into the novel. I was reading these texts in the hope of finding some sort of miracle, a cure for an illness that doctors didn't have. I am not sure I believe all of them (a lot of them vaguely adhere to the concepts of Buddhism) but I was certainly interested in them at the time. I've also included here an entry from a notebook I was keeping to help me retain focus on main themes as I wrote TLOD:
Godhood God as self. Materialisation ex nihilo, something from nothing, things from words. Who is speaking, who is writing, who is in place of? Something standing in the space of something else. Death necessary. Eye for an eye. Sacrifice. God and Judith talking under the pine trees [in the first version of TLOD there was a parallel narrative about Christ on earth and Judith and God converse as if spectators in a play on his life]. Sun going down. You sent your son. Death to prevent dying. What about forgiving? Can't forgive Adam and Eve. Because their children were born into sin, death for them too. Everything One, at some point.
Every human has frequency and amplitude patterns that mould our individual experience.
The mind can organise outer energetic structures and extend beyond the borders of the body.
Powerful thoughts do not disintegrate.
There is an energetic connection between cause and effect.
Nothing that happens is an isolated event but only appears to be.
A scientist cannot extricate himself from a situation but is part of all research he performs and influences his own results.
The implicit value of something is equal to its manifestation.
All organisms continually move between the poles of disintegrating into chaos and dying from lack of nourishment.
There is no universe without an observer. Things do not exist until they are observed.
Everyone is dreaming (the Toltecs called it 'mitote', in India it is called 'maya'). The whole montage of space and light and time we perceive to be reality is a chimera.
Each part of an organised field is a hologram which contains the pattern of the whole.
The greatest potential power source in the world lies in the smallest amounts of matter, and it is the organisation, not the mass that constitutes power.
Things are controlled not only from below by atomic and molecular action, but from above, from mental, emotional properties or fields.
The end is prefigured in the beginning.
As above so below. As within so without.
Everything is space. The universe sprang from space, from emptiness.
When material substances are extended towards infinity the result is not a mass but a process, an event, a relationship.
If energy is introduced to matter, matter takes on a higher organisation.
Consciousness has an entropy-reducing capacity.
Fundamental change occurs in leaps, things move without following the laws of mechanical motion, jumping almost effortlessly from place to place.
All these ideas fed into my writing (specifically in my thinking about miracles, the idea of a gap that must be leapt over, the suspension of disbelief, and the 'space' where the miraculous can happen). Other ideas which found their way in TLOD were those I had worried and turned over in my head since I was a child: the idea of substitution, a life given for a life, the idea of something standing in place of something else and all that entails: exchange, crossing or carrying over a space in-between; the cost of that, the difference between something being the thing itself and only being like it; doubling, things becoming themselves again, self-reflection ('the pieces of comet-shaped rock which are light years across and thrust out of a nebula when it explodes are heads of corn in a blue sky, if you are lying in a field, in summer, when the sky is cornflower blue, and the corn is reaching into it…')
Then there were themes and concepts that surfaced as preoccupations in the novel that I had no idea I had been interested in before: the idea of God as the self, self-creation and self-destruction. As I began working backwards from my opening passage I also began, unconsciously at first, to create a character for whom God is a necessary invention. God- (or fiend) like protagonists (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Faust, Kubla Khan, Frankenstein, Kurtz) often populate works which exploit parallels between writer and character, work and reality, artist and creation. Or the godlike is portrayed directly through an artist figure, such as Sartor Resartus, Mann and Woolf's artists, Stephen Daedalus, or, in W. G. Sebald's dreamlike narratives, a speaker who appears to have some role, however mysterious, in the creation of his reality. These characters are their own makers and destroyers (the definition of true tragedy by ancient Greek standards) and do, or do not, know it. They dramatise what it is to be, as Frankenstein's creature says, 'dependent on none and related to none', 'confine[d] within a state of lonely and insuperable incommunicability'. I too was creating a character whose craving to communicate and be in relationship with another at first damns and then saves her, severing the connection with 'God', upon which she rediscovers 'god' in the form of human love rather than the supernatural when she saves herself by attempting to save another and so is spared the forces of chaos she has set in motion. Artistically, to separate oneself from God, means death however. Could my character survive such separation?
I also found myself writing about words. The Word, or Logos, the creative first principle; Christ as facilitator of God's plan of redemption. My character Judith made things happen, at least initially, by saying them, by hearing them sound aloud in a room which was extraordinarily empty. I strove throughout the book to make words the causal point in both the reader's and Judith's minds, carefully laying them; dormant until the time came to germinate. My character did not develop language skills easily, established a fragile relationship with her care-giver by means, initially, of reading, and that, mainly scripture. She describes her attempts to communicate with God as a long-distance telephone call. 'The Word' comes to Judith in a context of radical incommunicability. In order to become aware of it at all Judith must become aware of her own emptiness. Then, from the quietness, comes a voice. She is given the choice of the book the wisest seek to read and cannot, and declines in favour of a stone that promises power, though the promise of the wings the book would have given her haunts the rest of the novel. She cannot verbally articulate her experiences so she writes them somewhere instead, but the written word incriminates more than the spoken. Her father's declaration of love at the conclusion erases the words of any other character in the novel but 'love' is a word that initially she cannot process, and the exorcism of God is the exorcism of a voice.
Last but not least, the theme of time found its way into the novel. The mystical texts I was reading said that the human mind needs time and that when time is removed the mind stops. In The Land of Decoration my character's experience of reality was mediated by the knowledge that that reality could end at any moment. Her own identity, God's, and her father's are shattered when time runs out at the conclusion. Shattered, and then, perhaps unrealistically, partially re-built.
Bearing in mind the possibility that a writer may not know what their own work is about, I still maintain the book is not really about bullying or religion or father and daughter relationships. Whenever I have tentatively mentioned what I was interested in at the time of writing TLOD in interviews it has been cut; I suppose because it is not as interesting to readers as details of the writer's own life.
The Land of Decoration is nothing if not a 'little' book; it flaunts its littleness as other books flaunt their considerable size. The protagonist is a ten year-old child, the stage a model world she has made from rubbish, and a lot of the time the action takes place in no more than a few square feet of space. Like Judith herself, the novel is also 'young'; it is written poorly in so many places. It does however attempt to dramatise some large ideas and give life to emotions so overwhelming they threaten to completely disassemble their small vessel.
The dichotomous nature of the book seems to have been mirrored in the mixed responses to it. Some reviewers praised the plot, others derided it, some said the novel was 'melodramatic', others that it was 'deeply affecting', some saw Judith as 'convenient and uncomplicated', others as psychologically convincing, some took issue with the writing itself, labelling it pedestrian or precocious, others found it 'powerful' and 'deep'. Nearly all reviewers tried to deduce some sort of moral - 'the failure of religion to offer solace' being one (this one as misguided as the general content of the review, whose author spent the whole article criticising the novel because he believed I had located it in the present and that it was littered with anachronisms). Another eminent voice wrote: 'sadly the novel isn't written tightly enough for the cultural and psychological issues it wants to explore'. But the fact is I didn't want to explore any 'cultural and psychological issues'. In any case, I don't believe novels can or should do such things.
While I understand, as Will Self says, it is every good writer's prerogative to be misunderstood as much as possible, I want to say a few things for the record: I didn't set out to write about religion, I just worked backwards from the passage which spawned the novel ('In the beginning there was an empty room...'), decided the protagonist was probably religious, probably a child, and probably eccentric. Religion just happens to be part of the fabric of Judith's world, a context in which to couch her psyche and provides the boundaries for her exploration of a reality. I didn't particularly want to explore the topics of bullying, revenge, father and daughter relationships, or myself (although it's probably impossible for a writer not to explore themselves even if they aren't conscious of doing so). Any large-scale 'issues' that are present in The Land of Decoration are a by-product, the props, flats, scenery that enabled me to create a space to move through.
The most common criticism levelled against the novel was that it was 'simple'. The legacy of postmodernism is a culture that worships at the shrine of inscrutability, strangeness and experimentation, partly, sometimes I think, for their own sake, and perhaps it was inevitable that The Land of Decoration would be belittled (perhaps a fitting eventuality for a book inspired by the process of miniaturisation). The fact is, I wanted the novel to be 'simple', as simple as possible; as uncomplicated, as untainted and 'pure' as a fable or a children's story. In fact, my models were children's stories and myths and parables. I wanted to create something which adhered inexorably to a pattern, formula and proportion as a play in ancient Greece. I even had a chorus at one point. I wanted to create something perfectly balanced (the theme of balance being reflected in the action itself in the motif of ransoming and exchange of equals), archetypal and 'whole'. There was another factor however in the form the story took and the language in which it was expressed: I thought that unless the novel was fast paced and accessible, as a first novel, it would be unlikely to have been published at all.
So The Land of Decoration was an experiment and it was a compromise, and it became marketed as a certain type of novel, and at one point, like Judith looking on in horror at what she has created, I wanted to stop what I had begun. But I couldn't, it was already out there. Except that it wasn't. I felt the publisher's, book-seller's novel was 'out there' and mine had disappeared.
I now understand that this happens to every novelist to some degree but the experience can be particularly intense for those who are new to the process.
Things I was Thinking About When Writing TLOD
Reading from The Land of Decoration