I don’t understand…

This post first appeared at Wondrous Reads.

Sometimes, when I’m speaking to someone about one of my books; they’ll tell me they didn’t understand it. This happens a lot with the end of White Crow, and then there’s the whole thing with Midwinterblood. And when that happens, I try and help them understand it, which is usually just a case of asking them to re-read bits of it more slowly. I’m not a writer who tells you something five times. I usually say it just once, and if I say it any more in a first draft, my editor makes me take it out in a rewrite anyway. That’s one of the reasons that my books are sometimes shorter than other people’s. And that’s one of the reasons why I wish some people would read more slowly. Books are patient; you can afford to take your time when you’re reading for pleasure. Anyway, I do my best to explain, but to be honest, what I’m actually thinking on the inside, when someone says they don’t understand something, is ‘good’.

If that sounds mean, I should try and explain. I don’t believe you have to understand something in order to understand it. That sounds like nonsense, so I had better explain some more. I don’t believe that you have to consciously, clearly, easily understand something through and through in order for you to connect with it, in order for you to take away something valuable from it, in order for you to ‘get it’. In fact, I think that sometimes the works of art that seem initially at least to confuse use and disorientate us are the ones from which we gain the most in the long run.
I believe that the right words, the right music, the right images can in some way connect with older and deeper parts of our minds than the ones we use to pass A-Level Maths or learn to drive a car with.
Keir Dullea as astronaut Dave Bowman, from 2001: A Space Odyssey
And as evidence of this, I offer you 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick. 2001 is many people’s candidate for the greatest film of all time and in polls by people who know, it’s usually in the top ten (it’s in my top two). A little history: The film was written by Kubrick and legendary science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story of Clarke’s called Sentinel of Eternity. Kubrick ran through many possible titles before settling on ‘Odyssey’, hinting at the epic nature of Man’s voyage through prehistory and into the future. Released in 1968, it’s an incredible film, ground-breaking in many, many ways, and far ahead of its time in certain respects. To give an example; the film accurately portrays life in zero-g, the view of the Earth from the moon and various other aspects of space travel and all this was done over a year before we actually set foot on the Moon. (Kubrick got this stuff so correct that certain sorts of people have used it to create a laughably lovely conspiracy theory in which Nasa got him to fake the moon landings so America could win the space race).
The main thing about 2001 however, is that it is weird. It is a very mysterious film, there is very little dialogue (none at all for the first 32 minutes) and when there is dialogue, it’s casual, almost throw away. It’s been called a silent film in the sound era, despite the fact that music plays a vast and vital role in the film. As if strange occurrences on prehistoric Earth, and later, on the Moon have not been enough to unsettle us, the final sequences (known as Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite) take us on a trip in the most psychedelic sense of the word. A small snippet here.
Now the point of all this is that I first saw this film when I was about seven years old My dad ran a film club at the arts centre he ran, and from time to time, my brother and I would go along and watch all sorts of movies that we were ‘way too young to see’. I think my dad knew differently. I cannot pretend for one minute that I understood anything about the film after the first hour or so. Even today, people argue and debate and write dissertations about what the end of the film means. But my point is that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to understand in order to understand. The images, the music, the words; they all connect directly to a deeper part of the brain, and our experience is all the richer for it. I saw 2001 at the age of seven and my mind was blown wide open, never, I suspect, to close again.
What has all this to do with The Ghosts of Heaven? Well, here’s one thing; realising that I was writing a story in four parts, which span human existence from prehistory to the far future, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge my love of Kubrick’s amazing film; hence the name of the protagonist in the space section, Keir Bowman (fans will know why), hence the strapline on the cover, and hence many other things. And as to understanding the book, well, I’m not sure I understand it myself, and I wrote the thing. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got something to say.

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