A few days ago, I published an interview with theologian and author Anthony Bartlett about his book Virtually Christian. If you want to get an idea of where he’s coming from theologically, it would be best to go back and read that interview before you move onto the rest of today’s post. That will also save me repeating my mini-biography of the author. Go on, read it: I’ll wait for you.
Today’s post is a follow-up interview based on another book of Tony’s, titled Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. This book is a very different animal from Virtually Christian, the most obvious difference being that it’s a novel. Perhaps the easiest way for me to give you an idea what to expect is to quote the synopsis found on the book’s back cover:
Cal and Poll belong to a world of brutal cold, relentless routine, and hi-tech religion. They live in the frozen Homeland, the artificially engineered last-stand of humanity on an earth wrecked by storm and flood. While cal tries to block out her world, Poll continually questions it. He is drawn instinctively to the remote young woman, believing she alone has the abilities to help him get answers. Very soon the two of them are pitted against the old order, demanding to know the truth even if it turns their whole existence upside down. Step by step their journey of discovery brings them to a dramatically different place, beyond anything they could have imagined…
Pascale’s Wager is a bold and unusual book, for at least a couple of reasons. First, while there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is set in a future world that is both dystopian and utopian. Second, it’s written by a theologian, and so works on two levels: the narrative itself, which is quite self-contained, and the deeper meanings that are illustrated and explicated through that narrative. It is at this second, deeper level that Pascale’s Wager gives the reader much to ponder; I found it to be in some sense a social, theological, anthropological and spiritual commentary on the world and its future trajectory. If you like futuristic science fiction with a difference, I’d encourage you to give it a try.
Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the interview.
Rob G: Thanks for being willing to answer some more questions, this time about Pascale’s Wager. First, I’m interested in how you found the writing process. Having previously written theological non-fiction, what gave you the idea of writing a novel?
Anthony Bartlett: The thing about Pascale’s Wager is that it says more than I can think, or think logically, if you see what I mean. A story works on many levels, and some of them may not make complete sense in a standard sort of universe. But that’s okay because you go with them for the sake of the larger picture they make possible. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”. It is this larger picture I was interested in (and still am), and at this level the picture exceeds what you can express in strict propositions. For me PW has the excitement and thrill of opening a space you hardly know exists and yet in some way you do know otherwise you would not write it. Writing in this way is completely different from writing formal theology. But, at the same time, it is deeply related to theology. Theology is about something you cannot see directly with your eyes, although you see evidence of it in many different ways. A story like PW can suggest to the mind’s eye a theological truth that reason and even rhetoric would struggle to present. So, having done some of that other kind of writing I decided to turn to fiction as a way of communicating. I thought, “If you let your imagination almost out of control, or just this side of the impossible, then something new can become visible”. At the same time the story has to stand up, it has to work. In fact it is only in writing a successful story, one that draws you in and fills your senses, that the opening up of a new space becomes possible.
RG: What did you find to be the main challenges of writing a book in the novelistic genre?
AB: The first thing needed was the structure of a world/worlds, life-situations I could inhabit from the inside and describe authentically. It was the sudden emergence of these worlds–something I had not conceived of before–that convinced me I could proceed. Once that came then it was simply the week-by-week work of creating a scene and finishing it, episode by episode. Writing like this is in some way as natural as playing as a child, when a child says “let’s play pirates” or something like that. There is part of the brain which is a story-telling machine. Aside from that, the main challenge was handling character development, and especially of the main figure, Pascale. A real person shifts and changes over time, and especially if they are placed in demanding, difficult circumstances. My heroine is a rich and crucial personality: it’s her journey that can possibly bring the reader to the new space I’m talking about. But you have to be able to identify with her. She can’t be unreal. A friend and colleague of mine, someone whose opinion I respect a lot, asked me after reading PW whether it was “okay to love Pascale.” I was thrilled by the question. The mere fact of asking it meant I had succeeded–at least in his case!
RG: They say hindsight is a wonderful thing. Looking back, what do you feel most happy with in Pascale’s Wager? Conversely, what did you find hardest, and what would you most want to change if you were to write it again?
AB: Well, they also say, “Don’t look back!” I don’t think I would change anything. The book’s out there now and has its own destiny, as the Italians say. What I am happiest about, I think, is something I can hardly reflect on without selling the novel short, without a huge kind of spoiler. There is a sort of mystery to PW which perhaps should not be spoken outside the book; outside the reading of it, I mean: outside of having read it. Perhaps, the remark of my friend I just mentioned will have to suffice. To create a world, a character, a mystery which evokes love, well, that’s the best thing I can hope for.
RG: What audience did you have in mind when you began to write Pascale’s Wager, and why?
AB: In a way my first audience was myself. I was telling a story I needed to hear. But of course you want to reach others too. My teenage daughter was my first reader, and she helped me a lot especially at the beginning. In terms of shelf description PW is definitely in the YA general area, alongside Hunger Games, that kind of thing, with an implied reader of late teens and twenty-somethings. In fact someone has called it Hunger Games for grown-ups, which then puts it actually in an ambiguous bracket. Just as the Narnia Chronicles can be considered children’s literature but are of course much more. PW’s true audience, therefore, is anybody who thinks about religion seriously. Anybody who feels religion in their bones and breath, and wants to know what that possibly means. The audience is the body of people who know that religion is changing in our time and want to figure out how and why and what on earth is happening!
RG: Now, onto the substance of the novel. I have to admit that I read it looking for a single, overarching meaning. Having finished it, I find that there were, in fact, multiple overlapping layers of meaning and symbolism. Was this a deliberate choice on your part? Why/why not?
AB: I am glad that it’s hard to find a single, overarching theme. There is obviously a construction to the story, one that becomes pretty evident toward the end. But PW is not a single parable. Rather it’s an exploration, of something profound and urgent. There have to be plural points of access to this, reflecting at least to some degree the complexity of our given world. In the end–and once more without giving too much away–this is about the Girardian theme of “generation”, i.e. what is it that gives birth to a human world, to all possible worlds? Again, if love arises somehow from the story, is love a theme? Perhaps it is in a romance, but this is, as many have remarked, not romantic but dystopian. So is love some kind of event of change? Something that can happen on earth, and can perhaps happen on the page? And if so, how, how does love happen? There is no single formula, no standard trope, but is there perhaps something amounting to a revelation?
RG: What would you say were the main messages you were trying to convey through Pascale’s Wager?
AB: I think the haves/have-nots thing is pretty obvious. There is a kind of “Occupy” and one percent/ninety-nine percent background to the main plot. Living in the US since the Bush-era increase in wealth disparity, it’s not hard to imagine this kind of reality. But that’s just one element in the story, as my previous answer suggests. Again, to use Girardian terms, this is a story about “anthropology”. One of the key structuring thoughts (as different from formal themes) is that human beings are themselves a kind of construct. So if they were made in a certain way a first time round, then presumably they could be made a different way, so long as the conditions were right and something really big were to happen. PW is itself a big gamble to see whether I could describe something like this!
RG: You’ve written much about the mimetic theory of René Girard. In what ways did you seek to illustrate the effects of mimetic modelling and rivalry in Pascale’s Wager? Do you think you succeeded?
AB: Mimesis and rivalry are standard motifs in so much literature. It was from iconic works where this is displayed that Girard first developed the elements of his theory, in his book Deceit, Desire and the Novel. In PW there are clearly some powerful implied rivalries, especially in the figure of Palmiro. He’s in rivalry with a string of people, a kind of lightning rod for rivalry in the book. In the end he falls victim to a pretty pernicious form of rivalry which involves almost complete identification and submission to a rival. So the question then is, how do you escape this? It’s a very dramatic situation, one on which the whole story turns. I can only ask the reader to decide whether the picture is successful or not. It is certainly a key question.
RG: Girard himself has presented a famously bleak view of the future of humankind. In Pascale’s Wager, while on one level painting a picture of a kind of dystopia, you also seem to offer the hope and possibility of a brighter future. What do you think Girard’s key insights mean for the future of humankind? And how did your thinking in this area influence the narrative trajectory of the book?
AB: This is the absolutely pivotal question for Girardian studies. A possible question to compare it to could be whether Star Wars is really just the George Lucas films, or is the new Disney trilogy an authentic development? Except of course it’s much more serious! Girard reached a term of his thought in a very hard sense. In his book Battling to the End he sees conflictual mimesis growing between political blocs to the point of global catastrophe. PW is not so much a riposte to this position as an act of semiotics beyond it. Let me try and explain that. The whole content of my thinking proposed in Virtually Christian amounts to saying that humanity can be saved by a transformed sign-system, one that is actively effective in our world today in its own right. That system is the compassion and nonviolence of the Christ, coming to the surface in countless small ways, changing our concrete perception of things. PW is itself an example of this. It belongs fully within the matrix of semiotic change brought about by the gospel. Writing PW, I let the transforming symbolism of the gospels guide the narrative. For me it is this transformed and transformative semiology which is the real answer to Battling. There is no guarantee it will win the actual argument–political mimetic conflict could win out against semiotic change and destroy the world–but it does say there is this strong and vibrant counterclaim to anthropological pessimism. And the great thing is that this alternative viewpoint shifts the ground of persuasion. It does not deny that conflictual mimesis threatens the very existence of humanity. Instead it claims there is an entirely different pattern of meaning emerging in humanity. And PW is a considered and passionate example of it!
RG: If you could add a post-script to Pascale’s Wager offering some authorial insight to the reader who has just finished reading it, what would you say?
AB: Well, I am currently writing the second novel in what I hope eventually will be a trilogy. Its title is I, Pascale and it tells the story after PW, describing literally a whole world of events as aftermath of the first Pascale story. This second book does a lot more to make plain the vision implied in my answer to the question immediately above. It’s a very different kind of story, really a different genre, but the point is I am very aware that a “postscript” is necessary–it is actually part and parcel of the original story. So I hope you will look out for it and read it hot off the press! The third book will shift the writing back more to the original genre, and I believe supply a fitting conclusion to the whole design.
My sincere thanks to Tony once again for his willingness to spend some time answering my questions. If your interest has been piqued by this post or the last one, please consider ordering Tony’s books, both of which are available from Amazon.