Turn Right, Past Eve and Adam’s: Physics and the Novel



Dark is a way and light is a place.

– Dylan Thomas

Confronting the moment – as he stands before the firing squad that is scheduled to shred him to bloody rags and end his life — the Colonel’s mind wanders: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” These are the verbal special effects that open 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 masterpiece.

But, many years from what? Why ice? Is the Colonel retreating into the past because the present is so unacceptable – all those rifles? Why does the author begin with the ever invisible future and then yank the gears into reverse to begin his story? Can it be that this circular story may begin only at the unknown future in order to establish that its trip back into the past covers a substantial countryside, a countryside so far away that signposts must be plugged in so that we can locate the territory long before there were ghosts and magic and the tell-tale pig’s tail, all inventions of the Buendia family. Something, some force in the novel, is attempting to escape the terrible vacuum created by bad luck and worse actions, and return to a new Eden, with Adam and Eve played by Jose Arcadio and Ursula Iguaran.

The Colonel becomes, in that unknowable future moment, an observer of his own life, in essence an outsider even to himself and therefore perhaps a trustworthy guide to the story of the Buendias, the outsider who can faithfully report their book of Genesis, the one man sent back by “Gabo” to find the truth.

Artists, including Gabo, must be sensitive to the laws of the universe. Art does not exist in the present, which I shall explain shortly. Nor can we experience art in the future, for there is no future – yet, and there never will be. We can’t get there, any more than the Colonel can.

Nor can we ever see the present. Images hurtle back at us at the speed of light, but even so, their trip is separate from our perception, and if we look, say, at a mundane good-sized rock, the light carrying the image must travel before we see the stone. It could be merely ten feet away, but there is still the voyage before visual information reaches our ability to see it. While light travels at almost unthinkable speed, it still travels. If you and I are sitting, looking at each other from opposite sides of a ballroom, what we see of each other is the way we looked BEFORE light traveled between us. That’s only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second; still what we see is not what is true NOW. We are seeing what was once true.  Still, events MUST have occurred; we can expect that they have left evidence of their existence, some footprint, some sign, some information about what we missed. The past is the territory of the ghosts of experience, and those ghosts – the remains of the past – wander around the artist and get themselves recorded. These ghosts are not former people; they are the representation of what got left behind by people.

When we deal with ghosts, we should be on the lookout for their signs and semiotics, rather than waiting around for a full-body apparition; the limits of vision tell us not to waste our time attempting to perceive what we cannot see. So we look for testimony amid what we can SAY about experience.

In a book deeply embedded in the past, we do indeed see footprints of – not howling phantasms – but changes rendered by the story’s characters, usually because the author chooses words that are unexpectedly gruesome or arrestingly unpleasant. The bucolic curtain rises on D. E. Stevenson’s MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK, and we see a peaceful English landscape unfold, with obligatory cows and the expectation of milking:

One fine summer’s morning the sun peeped over the hills and looked down upon the valley of Silverstream. It was so early that there was really very little for him to see except the cows belonging to Twelve-Trees Farm in the meadows by the river. They were going slowly up to the farm to be milked. Their shadows were still quite black, weird, and ungainly, like pictures of prehistoric monsters moving over the lush grass. The farm stirred and a slow spiral of smoke rose from the kitchen chimney.”

Here the world is awakening, a pre-Eden, but an ominous note has been struck by those “weird” “prehistoric monsters.” These are distortions. The travel of light has begun, and the shadows of these pre-Edenic beings cast their influence (a nervousness, a tightness in the prose) over the text, over the morning of the world represented here. We see the disturbance in the air over the growing complexity of this set piece. We see not time itself, but the effects of our distance from the picture.

Not only can we not see the present, we also cannot hear it. Let me supply a story that will make our seeming deafness clear. As a reporter, I used to cover the launch of space shuttles. That fleet is gone now. But my memories stay with me. I, and other observers, would stand on the roof of a small press building (about three miles from the launch pad) used by the media to capture these NASA stories. We saw the shuttle blast off and, naturally, cheered, but our own cheers were all we heard. Liftoff was sight but no sound — UNTIL, about three minutes after liftoff, the building upon which we stood suddenly shook and rumbled beneath our feet and we heard a tremendous explosion. Sound covers distance, too. We did not hear liftoff – we heard what liftoff sounds like three minutes post-launch. That gap in the launch’s revelations to us came about because sound travels more slowly than light.  The present is gone before its headlights come into view.

James Joyce seemed to address the problem directly in FINNEGAN’S WAKE, in much the same way as Gabo. Joyce’s novel begins with this sentence fragment: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Joyce includes Eve and Adam, almost to whack us over the head with the fact that he must begin and always stay in the past (in the past itself, as well as in the “past” of the novel). But, he insists that the past will take us, eventually, to some “now,” back to Howth Castle and Environs. Indeed, the final line of FINNEGAN’S WAKE, “Alone a last a loved a long the” – becomes the birth of the fragment which introduces the novel. Joyce has stated, thereby, that the past is forever rushing at us, we must always return to Eve and Adam’s, that Heraclitus’ well-known aphorism “you can never step into the same river twice” is true. The reader who returns to the opening is not returning to the place from which he left. No one can step in the same river twice. The paradox is that the reader is not returning; he’s restarting with an entirely new river. He is returning to the past before he read the book.

 If we go to an entirely different sort of book, still we encounter that writer’s dilemma, or solution to the dilemma, of writing now while seeing only the past. Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END, a masterpiece (for a mere 2007 “office” novel), commits even its title to the trip almost to the future, “the end,” and onward to the past. Can he get there? His narrator is never identified, but we know he is one among the people in cubicles at an advertising giant. The narrator invisibility is an indication that this author has faced the fact that there is no credible “now;” there is no reliable witness; there is only a miasma of broken light. His narrator is hidden in the smoke and chatter of communicating ideas, which is his job. Does Ferris get to the end? His last sentence is “Just the two of us, you and me.”

Since we don’t know the narrator, it’s tough to sort out what that final moment portends. Is it simply a comfortable companionship between himself and the reader? Was it characters in the novel behaving in a poignant moment? Whatever it is, that sentence is comforting, and that feels approximately like a satisfying conclusion, in both senses of the word.  Life will go on from this point, of course, but these two companions are now stuck to the page, together and always in the past, because this moment in a manufactured past called “the end.”  But Ferris’s characters truly feel they might not have a present since their jobs are all on the line.

In the late 1930s and early 40s, the beloved and ladylike D. E. Stevenson, wrote a trilogy of novels based on Barbara Buncle, her English country lady who, as it turns out, is a novelist. In the first two books, Barbara writes and has published two fictional best-sellers that take England by storm. In Stevenson’s second novel, MISS BUNCLE MARRIED, Barbara writes a third, better and even more financially promising, but she decides not to publish the book. Her husband asks her why. Her answer, the last report offered by Stevenson, is “Because I know things NOW.” She has faced the fact that, as she puts it, she has no imagination, that she can only write about the present, about present-day people she knows, about events that are taking place around her but slipping ever behind her, the past creeping up on her. Her answer is thought-provoking, not only to her husband, but to us, her devoted fans. Miss Buncle is retiring from literature because of her mistaken conclusion that she has no imagination; that is, she cannot create the past nor does she want to.

The film maker understands Miss Buncle’s problem down to a one/hundredth of an inch. Since light travels so much faster than sound, he must literally lay down the soundtrack AHEAD of the pictures. That’s the only way he can deliver his work without the characters’ mouths moving before we hear the sound. The first STAR WARS film (A NEW HOPE), presented an unusually sticky problem for George Lucas: Since his movie was made on film (as opposed to videotape), there could be no funny business in using the formula that determines the simultaneity of the arrival of sound and sight for the audience in the theater. Take the famous scene where (not when) Luke and his new friends are trapped in the garbage hold of Darth Vader’s DEATH STAR.

The visuals here are fairly simple – we are watching, by general agreement, a Western, a show with familiar old-fashioned themes, similar to, say, STAGECOACH or BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. But the audio — the compactor’s walls moving ever closer to the heroes to crush them, for example – are staggeringly complex and NOT the sounds of an oater. Of course there is dialogue (sound), which must be fitted to sight, but other sounds must also be mixed in: the squeaks and sprills of R2D2, as he tries to fix the problem from a station outside the compactor; the British accent of C Threepio, itself filtered to make it sound robotic; the alarms; the movements of the troopers; the metallic rumblings of giant machinery. For a simpler film, the sound would be spliced into the film ahead of the compactor scene. But this is STAR WARS. Any number of calculations were necessary to put that varied information at the right spots on the film to make it all arrive before us simultaneously. Lucas famously said that editing STAR WARS gave him severe headaches. The technology, for Lucas, had to be made to harness the story and its own “light speed” plot incidents, as well as futuristic sounds, still arriving at the speed of sound but carrying information at the speed of an “old” future, a future that has come before, in a galaxy far far away, from a past long, long ago. The light must be old light, light that left that galaxy millions and millions of years before it reached us.  We can see, if we look closely, that Lucas used a cucoloris, a device deployed in film, on stage, and with still photography to cast patterns of light and dark.  In the case of STAR WARS, it would seem to be used to cast the “old light” that Lucas needed so his picture would be true.

Though Albert Einstein was almost certainly speaking tongue in cheek, he said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” But, if we think about this witticism, it begins to ring all too true for the novelist and the film maker: Gabo simply could not have had the firing squad readying itself while the Buendias are beginning their tortured family, back in the days when ice was so rare that it needed to be discovered, not simply made, “past Eve and Adam’s.” The novelist uses time almost like a juggler, keeping aloft his measurements while they each present wildly different bits of information as if all things COULD happen at once, contrary to Einstein’s joke/insight. Time is not meant, for the novelist, to be the gatekeeper of events, making sure they keep in order. Time is, by sharp contradistinction, the guarantor of discord, and where time is busiest, it occupies the past, picking up the detritus of ghosts such as the weird prehistoric animals of Stevenson’s rural England or Barbara’s rapacious thrush, as we shall see:

Surrounded by superb order and human control over novelistic events, ghosts drop hints, and we see them in turns of startling language, frightening language. The second book in Stevenson’s trilogy is replete with ghastly images suggestive of the post-fall behavior folded into the rolling hills of this new paradise. Barbara decides to go for a walk in her ideal garden, and, “wandering round the garden, found that her bulbs were beginning to show little shoots of green. She wandered down to the stream, and found it deserted, save for a thrush, which was extremely busy cracking the shell of a snail against a stone and devouring its inmate.” Barbara’s new garden, the new Eden she herself has designed, turns out to be populated, not by the innocent alone, but also by its own messy past.

Novels in search of the return to Eden must also return to the thing that threw us out in the first place.  Ghosts appear in fiction when the past swerves into the here-and-now and gives it a good shove. That resulting collision squeezes the teeming past, which is where we live, up against the living “now,” which we can never experience.   And the paradox is that what we think we see has arrived early to the party. 

This collision creates a shadow effect, the cucoloris, apparently the separator of light and darkness: the force of the collision unleashes energy that attaches itself to both participants and they cannot let each other go. 

To cover this topic properly would require the joined talents of many thousands of close readers. But even a single reader can find a fresh way of reading, past Eve and Adam’s. Even Adam.

When I began this project, I felt as though I were lifting the cover of a book in a darkened room, peeking into the darkness, on the lookout for ghosts and anomalies and sign posts to Eden. I still feel very much that way, and I plan to pursue this line of thinking.

I give you here where I’m going next: a short list of literary landmarks that would bear investigation, into both the return to the garden and the search for both new and old light.

******* In GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Miss Havisham has stopped time, leaving things as they once were. But change and the past won’t hold still, uncorrupted and reliably under her control. Her wedding feast is rotting on the table. Ghosts are here.

******* Huck Finn’s voyage (riverrun) is away from civilization. He wants no part of that graceless modern state. At the end of the book, Huck “lights out,” on his way to another frontier, the western garden.

*******During Hester Prynne’s gentle walk back to virtue, while she is still being punished, forced to wear the scarlet letter, she begins to forgive herself and finally think about society’s role in her life. Hester’s walk starts with her growing attentions to the letter. She embroiders it – bright flowers; she beads it – colorful abstractions; she chooses different threads until it glows with a rainbow of colors – no longer the sign of an adulteress, but, increasingly, the elaboration of its true meaning, its sensuous beauty. And Hester’s “uncivilized” daughter Pearl, always as prettily adorned as the letter, casts her gaze, like Huck Finn, westward, looking for Eden and already belonging there.

*******We accept her as a classic American type. Scarlett O’Hara fights her way back to Tara, her pre-lapserian garden, on several stops along the way that is GONE WITH THE WIND. She is not simply greedy, grasping, and self-involved. She knows what the world is like after the fall of Atlanta, and her movement throughout the novel is backward, back to her pa’s plantation, back to her mother’s gentle ways, and we only see Scarlett gain real admittance when she drives herself literally into the soil, picking cotton and burying Yankees. By the end of the novel, it is Tara alone that occupies her thoughts and hopes. We see her scheming and dreaming of “home,” her only asset in getting what she wants.

*******MRS. DALLOWAY goes about her day, seemingly forward, toward the party in her immediate future, but going about the day finds her trapped by memories; she carries the past with her, as if it were a regular inmate of her shopping basket. Virginia Woolf, however, cannot allow her to reach so far ahead as to unload that basket. Only consider the last two lines of the book, or, rather, the last two tenses:

  1. It is Clarissa, he said.
  2. For there she WAS. (The emphasis is mine.)

Clarissa Dalloway, and Woolf, cannot burst through the limits of sight and sound. They are unbreakably stuck in the near past. And there they WERE.


Nearly 25 percent of all new novels published in English are mystery novels. They flood the market every year, but there never seem to be enough of them. Readers want them and can be rigid about staying within the genre. What is this fierce loyalty? W.H. Auden, the great English poet, was obsessed with the detective novel. His explanation for its popularity relied on his Christian sense of guilt. He said that readers of mystery novels themselves suffer from guilt, the great burden of our expulsion from the garden. In his view, mystery writers place guilt front and center in their texts, and the search for justice or for a solution to the crime must result in the relief, once order is restored to the community, of that sense of guilt. Auden enjoyed mysteries for the opportunity they offer of returning to the garden, returning to a past before there was sin, to a place of repose, peace, and innocence. For him, it was neither possible nor pleasant to aim for the future, where guilt may always be with us. The detective who solves the crime gives us the ticket back to paradise, frees us from the awful guilt that is our lot after the fall. Auden wants no part of “after.” His attention is captured as he silently urges on the hero detective who will restore painless peace. The following samples are worth consideration in any discussion of guilt and the lost garden; they are mystery/detective novels.


The narrator’s name is suggestive of how these novels move. I am hardly the first to point out that they are always toward the Arch Good. Which must put us in mind of saviors, God, and when the world was good. Clues to pre-lapserian themes abound in the household on West 35th Street. There is, first, the extraordinary garden, atop the concrete house. Wolfe is described by Archie as “playing with the orchids.” There are youth (Archie) and wisdom (the well-read Wolfe) in this garden. Snakes often sneak into this innocent place; we even see coffins delivered there to be filled with dirt, a sort of reverse-funeral. But Wolfe is always quick to cleanse such impurities.


Even Spenser’s name evokes past literary greatness. Edmund Spenser’s allegorical romance THE FAERIE QUEENE stacks its tropes to bring this moral and spiritual journey through sin and temptation into the light of truth and glory, but that magnificent destination positions itself back to the innocence where it began, just as the Boston detective asserts his right to glory and rightness through his crusades to save Susan or downtrodden communities or the wretched who reside anywhere. Spenser’s band of single-named second-ranked soldiers fly to his side when he needs the help of street angels against the darkness of terrible sins and terrible sinners, in a clear reminder of the flawed men of Genesis. Hawk, like Spenser and Adam, is a watershed hero, a man who sins but is, by the lights of these novels by Robert B. Parker, a perfect man. Chollo, too, represents the duality of that trip back to Eden and its untarnished bliss: Chollo carries and kills for Spenser’s worthy causes. And, with the help of these lost boys, Spenser, a modern Peter Pan, does find in the end the place (not the time) where inevitability meets up with possibility.

*******It is remembrance that empowers Miss Marple to solve crimes and return her village of St. Mary Meade back toward innocence, innocence interrupted when crime slashed through the vines and roses to upset the balance of Eden. She has cultivated her memories into reminders. “Why this knife wound reminds me of the delivery boy who . . .” And her “reminders” have the force of truth, buttressed by their place in the moral edifice of remembrance.


The “Prey” series of novels is most notable for its reliance on serial killers.

These repeat crimes, a pattern of narration and a pattern of events, need to be mentioned in the context of guilt, time, and the attempted return to Eden. Davenport knows the territory well: he’s been there, and he keeps returning. What this means is that Davenport relives his own life, body by body. He is locked in the past by the absolute necessity to find a criminal who can’t stop enacting patterns of evil. But it’s questionable whether Davenport can ever return to the innocence of the garden, though he tries: he has a family, with those patterns and that innocence to protect. He may never reach Eden, but he must convince himself that he can safely maintain a home there. Yet, past actions, guileless at the time, seem to have a habit of ambushing later on, and reuniting.

I, myself, cannot depart for the past or anywhere, without at least mentioning our young (if not youthful) century’s greatest writer in English. Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE, which is NOT about reincarnation, is the best evidence we have recently that literary greatness is alive and well and at work in the kitchen next door.  The only justice I can do that marvelous novel is to ask you to read it. I won’t print a spoiler, but the last line of that novel is the summation of theories I have laid down here — but with the confidence of the true tropological consciousness.

If you read no one else, read Atkinson. She is the alpha and omega of Paradise. And, she is a mystery writer.

I know now that the clear air and time of day in Eden makes it all seem so wonderfully near and distinct; in the first morning of the world, the light must have been like that.

That’s another story.

Ever Since,

Polly Whitney

April, 2015

3 Responses to “Turn Right, Past Eve and Adam’s: Physics and the Novel”

  1. Hmm…viewing a plot as a search for a lost Eden – that’s a cool spin on “restore order out of conflict and chaos.” You’ve chosen interesting examples. Another one in the crime genre comes to mind because I’ve been rereading it – Westlake’s comic Dortmunder series. Dortmunder doesn’t seem to know what his Eden is. When he’s living an “ordinary” life – that is, obeying laws – he’s uncomfortable and nervous. He can’t resist getting a caper going. But when he’s in the middle of a caper, things inevitably start to go bad and he wants to get out of it ASAP. Poor Dortmunder doesn’t know where to find his Eden, and he seems to look in all the wrong places. That’s a good thing for we readers, otherwise we wouldn’t have his wonderful stories to enjoy.

  2. What an astute analogy you’ve drawn — the longing for a return to Paradise and “restoring order out of conflict and chaos.” I’m led to think that perhaps comedy is the truest expression of that longing for innocence and the garden. I start giggling just at SEEING the name Dortmunder. Who was it that said “Tragedy? That’s easy. Now comedy, that’s hard”?

  3. And, you’ve made me wonder if I haven’t left out the most important part of what I was trying to say. Today’s NYT reviewed the blessed release of Kate Atkinson’s new book, A GOD IN RUINS, and came up with the following: “It’s about Paradise lost and fiction’s ways of allowing us to imagine what we cannot know.” I failed to think through the role of imagination in achieving that tough job of returning to Eden. Maybe that’s for a different article.

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