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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, April 24, 2005

more reflections on prophecy

Again this morning: 2 pages from The Twelve Caesars, then notes toward chapter 15. I'm trying to tame the overload of things to think about in preparing this chapter by moving from one topic to another in my notes, as the mood takes me. What are the things Alexander must attend to, administratively? Where will Marcus and Gaia wind up being accommodated? Things like that. There is much to think about in trying to answer these questions. Usually I don't come up with an answer, but the quest for it sends me on a train of imagining, or on a research errand (such as looking up how Jews of that period handled their funerals). I spent maybe 3/4 of an hour at it this morning.

In the past few days I've been thinking about my relationship with prophecy: when did it start, in a specifically spiritual context? There might be clues buried in my journals from late adolescence (all of which I still have, locked away in a Rubbermaid box), but I do know that by 1979 I was using the idea of a modern-day millenarian cult as a key component of a novel I started writing, called More Things to Come. I started working on it sometime after returning from my Mexican trip with Brad in June. Certainly I was working on it by fall 1979, my first term at UBC. (My abortive and lonely career there fizzled out by spring 1980--I never passed first year.)

Strongly influenced by Gravity's Rainbow, which I'd read in 1978 while traveling in Europe with my friend Tim (just before the trip with Brad), More Things to Come was planned as a savage satire on the contemporary world with its materialism, frivolity, and spiritual bankruptcy. It was intended to be brilliant, the dazzling launch of an important and precocious literary career. It would be big, and yet only the first part of a trilogy. It would be super-intelligent, but also funny--just like Gravity's Rainbow. It would be a showcase for my talent.

I poured a lot of effort and a lot of anguish into it, writing hundreds of pages of notes and drafting a few hundred pages of first draft. In time it joined the scrapheap of my other unfinished projects--but I relinquished it slowly, reluctantly. I recall working on it as late as 1985, with chartpaper unrolled on the kitchen table in the apartment I now shared with my girlfriend Kim (by that time I was diagramming the story in a kind of rudimentary, self-devised PERT chart). There was probably no decisive farewell. I probably put it away, as I had many times, planning to pick it up again, and never did. I had felt revulsion with it at almost every step of the way. The idea had seemed good...

But it involved prophecy. I had invented a secret society called the International Bi-Millenarians (IBM for short) who were planning for the Second Coming of Christ in the year AD 2000 (at that time, a far-off future date). They were a neo-Gnostic cult who hated materiality and physicality (not unlike the Essenes), and who furthermore had discovered a secret: how to synthesize antimatter by singing certain sacred syllables. Antimatter, when it comes into contact with matter, causes the complete annihilation of both in a blaze of intense energy, much stronger than any nuclear explosion. This annihilation of matter was to them a spiritual act--one they planned to carry out at a time and place of their choosing.

So there were the elements: a spiritual prophetic society with an agenda for initiating an apocalypse in the near future. I was treating it satirically (so I thought), but in fact I was fascinated with the idea, and felt the attraction that such a group might have for me personally. I knew that this attraction would help me write the group plausibly (not at first glance a very sympathetic bunch). Thinking back on it, there were shades here of the apocalyptic zeal of Osama bin Laden and his merry crew. I believe I did sense the coming turn to apocalyptic, world-shattering zealotry.

There is a marker, then, in my literary development. I had taken on the theme of apocalyptic prophecy as a literary subject by 1979, not long after my idea of the "spiritual adventure story" in Belize that spring.

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