If the author Madeleine Thien were an Air B&B, there would be a waiting list 600 people strong to occupy her rooms.
The rooms of her imagination, the rooms of her research, the rooms of metaphor, and tangible rooms of exacting detail. The rooms of her prose and connectedness to the great minds of 20th Century theorists and the early Enlightenment, 17th-century rationalists hunted and scorned by church and body politic alike for questioning the composition and very existence of their God.
What brilliant yet challenging rooms they are, in the prose of Thien.
Spinoza’s rooms, for certain. And Martin Heidegger’s. And the adjoining and more intricately appointed rooms of the mind of his acolyte and lover, Hannah Arendt. Philosophers all who wove brilliant thoughts, existential transports, with universe-spanning concepts that transcended time, space, and dimension.
In nine intricate and illustrated pieces from her newest puzzle, Thien took us on a tour of these myriad rooms on Wednesday night as the inaugural keynote speaker of the 15th annual San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival.
At the end of the night, praise for Thien’s tour de force was a double-edged laudatory: “You’ve certainly given us a lot to think about.”
Holy cow, did she ever.
Rarely has an author exposed so much interior real estate from her own mind, her own raw rooms of creativity, doubt, exhilaration, tenacity, research, profundity, humility. We got to see it all as she pursues the essence of Spinoza across time and geography and real estate.
This felt like hard-wired creativity in real-time, a direct infusion of Thien into our own brains, the content and meaning of which we will not fully grasp until her own quest — half-way done, she says, maybe, possibly, I don’t know, we’ll see … — is completed and bound between two covers.
Her talk, “Spinoza’s Rooms: Spacetime in the Imagination of the Novelist” yields a vast playground of thought. She plucks a brilliant idea from the past — let’s say that the biblical god os a construct of humankind and that the real god such as it is is found in the existence of Nature, of the universe in its entirety. As the writer, she can take that idea and wrap it in modern thought, hand it on the line for us to see it through fresh lenses and tie-dye colors.
the writer, Thien sits down beside Hannah Arendt — a woman she is sure would not even recognize her in a real-life room — but yes, she can sit and they can talk and Arendt can open up to her as equals in the secret room of the Great Imagination.
Picture them sharing tea, sharing ideas, intimacies, hopes, dreams, and discouragements.
Thien does not walk into this room expecting to play the role of confidant and sounding board without first getting to know her subject intimately — “These characters have no time for me, the burglar of their stories,” she says — through Arendt’s own writings, other’s criticisms and accounts. Intimately. Thoroughly. Thoughtfully.
The people in Thien’s many rooms — like Arendt — provide her with a source of endless fascination and responsibility.
“I hang around, wondering if I will ever understand what they do,” she says softly. “They are my flawed and mysterious family. I do not want to let them down.”
Knowing this, only then will Thien’s own mind be free to follow her imagination into the great unknown.
“A novelist is loyal to many rooms,” she says.
Thien has spent three years visiting with Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) — Bento to some, Benito or Benedictus to others — in his many rooms, real and imagined. “All his rooms are small,” she says, of the real ones I think.
Spinoza, the humble lens grinder who spent his days in the tedium of the foot lathe — “the mother of all machinery” — grinding then polishing gobs of glass into lenses for eyeglasses, microscopes, and telescopes so that others might see more clearly the past, the present, and the future.
What metaphorical deliciousness. The reflection and refraction of light by day and the enlightenment and elucidations of philosophy by night. Once the lathe has been put to rest, the mind of Spinoza comes to life.
It takes only two lenses to carry the intricately detailed image of Saturn one billion kilometers to the very surface of the human eye. Two lenses enable the human eye to see things that are 13 billion years old. How could Spinoza not question the literary and self-serving pronouncements of mere mortals about the existence of a god?
For his efforts, official curses were heaped upon Spinoza by church and state. The public was forbidden to come within two meters of his corpus as if his thinking were a contagion — a coronavirus of the intellect? And all before he had written a single book.
Thien says all this opprobrium bothered Spinoza not one whit. Or so he said — or didn’t say, by ignoring it in all of his writings. No defense? No retaliation? No snark? Spinoza would have made a terrible soldier in today’s Twitter wars of personality assassination.
Thien thinks otherwise. “The most painful things never reach the page,” she said. Spinoza’s pages? Or her own?
It is hard to separate them at this point, so fully has Thien inhabited Spinoza. Like a modern-day John McPhee who uses details like can openers to access universals, Thien knows all about lathes and lenses, and the details of Spinoza’s bookcase (150 titles all intimately cataloged), and even the fine coat of crystalline dust that covers everything, and even geometry because Spinoza loved it so.
She is awed by “Spinoza’s lonely choice: To think out the world by himself.”
Later, Thien confides that her most successful novel to date, “Do Not Say That We Have Nothing,” might be her least satisfactory because the pain is so close to her own origin story.
She is the Canada-born daughter of Chinese immigrants. In writing the novel she hoped that following back the thread of immigration to the source would explain the pain, the loneliness, the isolation, the foreignness experienced by her own parents and to some extent her and her siblings.
Her life was one of moving around a lot, to ever-smaller rooms as the family enterprises failed or changed and the family crumbled in divorce and dispersal.
Her conclusion is a familiar one: Life is more complicated than that. A single act, no matter how heroic, does not hold all the answers to subsequent behavior.
As a novelist, the writer of fiction based on a historical past, she wrenches events into the present to see them through the filter of modern eyes and then tries to see around the great arc into the future.
It is a tough job but someone — a Madeleine Thien for certain — has to do it.