The Big Idea: Blair Austin
Philip K. Dick once asked if androids dreamed of electric sheep; author Blair Austin wonders about the dreaming habits of another entity entirely in the Big Idea for his first novel, Dioramas.
What if the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition (1906-11) fell asleep and began to dream?
Since I was young, I’ve struggled with the gap between what happens, what things are left behind and how memory reconfigures them. There is an irreconcilable space between what came before and what comes after. When I climb a mountain and pick my building out of the bird’s-eye view, for example, then climb down, go back home and look at the mountain, there appears to be no way to reconcile the two places. The vantage place, from home, is not the same place it was when you stood there looking down at the city. It feels like a mirage. Intellectually, it is the same, but you can’t quite believe it. Sight is like a memory you can’t accept or have failed to process. This is an abstract problem at the juncture of perception and reality that I feel in my bones as a wonder and a deep anxiety. I turned to dioramas, which, though they are quite simple, lie beyond the valley of language.
Dioramas themselves are pictures of reality, constructed scenes that appear more real than life itself. What has gone on, before, to make them so—all that work from the death of the animal, to the removal of its skin, the stamping out of paper leaves, the painting of backgrounds—happens out of sight. The museum diorama contains more than what appears. I felt I could marry these two things, the unseen and the seen, by making the imaginary dioramas in my novel, Dioramas, into blank symbols. A blank symbol is a symbol in a work of fiction (or in life itself) that is destabilized, capable of carrying multiple interpretations. A transparent surface on which different ideas/anxieties may be written, the diorama waits, passive, and we project onto it our notions of what it is and what has happened to make it that way.
The problem was, how to make the scenes that lecturer Wiggins is describing have flexibility so that the diorama might stand in for the Big Ideas we would project onto it. The only way I could figure to do this was to get out of the way and let the old man, thousands of years in the future—describe them.
While writing Dioramas, I began to wonder what would happen if the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition had fallen asleep and begun to dream. I wanted those wood paneled rooms, the tweed, the subject expertise of cloistered scholars, and I wanted the encyclopedia, through the medium of the diorama, to dream the endgame of its colonial project. Over time, I felt I could see a city rise four thousand years in the future, a city built on the ruins of our own cities. Wiggins’s fussy voice came out of this. Just as the scholars of the Britannica focus on the facts as they understood them, Wiggins, the narrator of Dioramas, describes the dioramas he sees. Wiggins, an expert himself, is lost in the fine details—microscopic sometimes—behind the glass. He sees them in the darkened room of his memory, too, and we see them through his eyes.
All the while, he is trying to describe a feeling—an intuition too far down to find words for—and that he will stitch the shape of as he walks the museum halls but which he will never penetrate. He is doing this to get at the feeling of the unnameable—the thing behind the Big Idea. The big idea that would have to come from the reader by way of the book’s roadmap and that would change completely upon a second or a third reading. That was the hope, anyway. When you summited the mountain, closed the last page, what you remembered would not be what was there. You would stand and look back over the experience and not quite be able to say what the ground you’d been standing on had been. Because it had passed already and couldn’t be gotten at except by way of another read-through, which would necessarily change the whole experience once again. The feeling of that, the sense of what was gone from the world, including the moment of our own perception.
Many things can be said about this as an idea. The challenge was to write so that these things could be experienced while reading, experienced in language but also beyond language. So I felt, “literature is an experience beyond words.” Through the marriage of form and language, we feel it. Then it is gone. It has the dead-alive complexity of the diorama, resting there behind the glass to welcome anybody’s approach, till it is moved out, into the basement of the museum as in a dream, to be stored forever out of reach.