Is there a God and a rational, moral order in the universe--or is the whole scene one big cosmic crap shoot? Is death an end? A beginning? Or is Bob Dylan correct when he sings that "people don't live or die, people just float"?
Carolyn See, in her disturbing, but sometimes eerily tender Making History, provides answers that you may not like as she creates an absorbing, frightening world that extends from trendy Southern California to the exotic, isolated fringes of the Pacific, "the pretty blue plate with the thick gold rim."
Ms. See's wildly episodic story seems, at first, to drift chaotically from viewpoint to viewpoint: an opening chapter narrated by Robin, a zoned-out surfer, immediately precedes a second set in a gilded corporate office related by an international venture capitalist which, in turn, flows into others narrated by an angst-ridden mother, a Simi Valley seer, a Hindu goddess--and the surfer again, now dead, who discovers (Oh, Wow!) that the universe, like some multi-galactic McDonald's, is structured around golden arches.
Reading this book is an unusual experience. Even while wholly absorbed in a chapter, you find your mind drifting, wondering who's going to show up next and what they will say or do.
But every plot twist, every line of dialogue, every seeming irrelevancy eventually connects to the novel's philosophical core: "...there are no such things as accidents." Instead, catastrophe is integral to the world God designed, and the God who pushes the buttons isn't benign (he's not even a He). And death? Merely being alive, speaking, and feeling in another dimension that allows the "dead" to observe, comment on--and even physically enter ("Jerry's ribs rattled, his heart opened. Whitney jumped right in.")--friends and loved ones left behind.
Making History is a hard novel to characterize--but try to imagine Judith Guest's Ordinary People meeting The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying with bits of Einstein and particle physics sprinkled throughout. Oh. And a little Ralph Waldo Emerson, too. A hard-edged dissection of an affluent and loving, but also dysfunctional family whose tragedies provide the pulpit from which Ms. See preaches her disturbing metaphysics.
On its surface, the story's not that complicated.
Jerry Bridges, financier and visionary (reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy, but nicer), has a house right out of Architectural Digest in tony Pacific Palisades, an ocean view, a garden "exploding with bougainvillea", the requisite Beemer and car phone, and a family including wife Wynn, who married Jerry (her second husband) for the security he provides, two adorable kids, and stepdaughter Whitney, a gorgeous, but star-crossed teen whom Jerry treats with coolness to mask his fierce physical desire.
But his family is often an afterthought. Jerry's consuming obsession, the driving force in his life, is to literally create a perfect world--better even than God's creation--in the most primitive reaches of New Guinea. In pitching his grandiose plans to a consortium of Japanese and Australian high rollers backed by the World Bank, Jerry is nearly evangelical in communicating his vision:
They would build an artificial community, a unit defined by economics and (even ethical) values as much as nationalistic considerations.... A world--if everything went well--where workers were treated fairly, tourist money poured in, and the diversified economy spun along like a self-winding watch. Her miniature country would be a Hong Kong, but without the congestion; a Singapore, but without the fascism; a Catalina, but with meaningful work attached to it; a Bali, but without the hard-eyed peddlers. A better world.
Chasing his dream and the money to realize it, Jerry spends a year traveling to Tokyo, Australia, then the backwaters of Indonesia and New Guinea, the latter vividly evoked by Ms. See.
...if they could just get past the horror stories of limbs getting crunched off in six inches of ocean water, and the Rascals who shot arrows at you as you walked down the street in Port Moresby, and Russel's vipers that slept under your pillows, and crocs who slid in kitchen doors and down bungalow halls and yawned with great grins...
and just beyond the coastal town.....
...blue-black Highlanders in the smoking jungles; fierce men who painted themselves in dazzling yellow and blue, and wove old copies of Look magazine into their headdresses...
A primitive, sometimes horrifying world (wait two hours after eating before you read page 188). But it can't dull Jerry's zeal. Pump in a few billion, some technology, eliminate all wickedness and disorder, and voila! A perfect new country. Things happen when one wishes them to happen, Jerry believes. Not so fast counters Ms. See, for whom the problems of existence are more complex, more unpredictable. So Jerry, one of life's innocents who has never even seen a person die, is force fed a few lessons: that human perfectibility is an illusion, that "suffering, seriousness, sadness and sorrow, are part of the order and the norm", and that life is only "a narrow road curved over a great chasm." That the power of will and moral goodness are not part of the equation.
Ms. See, whose eclectic theology includes the Eastern doctrine wu-wei (struggle gets you nowhere; the harder you swim, the more likely you are to sink), then proceeds, in the last third of the book, to demolish Jerry's secure little world by inexorably, horribly weaving family members and complete strangers into a grisly tapestry of flames and shrieks and ruptured tissue presided over by the Hindu goddess Kali, the Destroyer.
A sound of screaming joined with the sirens, an aria of sorrow and terror; and men joined, in tenor voices, Oh God, Oh my God. But the God they were thinking of wasn't present. This one was a goddess with bright blue eyes and golden arms that arched across the seven lanes of traffic. At first her eyes rolled back into her head so that all you could see was that fathomless, endless pale blue: I am Nothing! I am Chaos! There is Nothing behind my eyes! And I myself am Nothing! So much for all your hopes and dreams! Then her eyes clicked back into focus and she surveyed the mess...."
In the above scene, the novel's denouement--and in the funeral and its aftermath that follow--Ms. See's prose, mesmerizing throughout, becomes electrifying. Every sentence crackling, every word charged. Entire chapters that physically exhaust the reader.
Jerry is left spiritually ravaged--so desperate for some way to replace what he has lost that he babbles to himself "I can buy two Porsches and put them in a double garage. And those Porsches will be our children. And they will never break down. And they will never get hurt." His wife just goes to bed, staring blank-eyed at television talk shows or falling asleep, unread novels face down on her chest. All dreams dead, all happiness interred.
Grim, gut-wrenching, provocative.
Making History is all of these and more--a novel of immense power, troubling and confusing. But not altogether. There is another aspect of Ms. See's vision (developed through Thea, an Australian clairvoyant who emigrates to California's Simi Valley). But, overpowered by the novel's apocalyptic elements, it doesn't come into clear focus until near the end--an almost Emersonian view of human existence where, as in his Universal Oversoul, every life is interconnected, like molecules running through the wires of a single universal circuit. Robin, the surfer who dies early on, says late in the story "I was part of a crowd, a field of particles over the Pacific Coast Highway", depicting a hereafter where "things go in arches and they hum" and that all whose deaths followed his have become "part of that buzz, the whole proton/neutron buzz."
Ms. See, in the end, holds out not hopelessness, but salvation. Although she stains her landscape blood red, she mitigates the horror of the seemingly senslessness, terrifying personal loss endemic to human existence by going beyond what hard realism would grant and suggesting that the nature of being transcends both life and death, leaving none of us alone in the universe.