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She sees art in science

Marianne Wiggins' latest novel, 'Evidence of Things Unseen,' centers on the notion that our perception influences experience.

August 03, 2003|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

Marianne Wiggins has always been a writer who sees connections, who incorporates a wide range of subjects and settings into her fiction, and draws influence from both the natural and aesthetic worlds. For her, there are commonalities between music and literature, art and science, and she explores them in novels that are open-ended and complex.

Her most famous work, 1989's "John Dollar," has been called a feminist reworking of "Lord of the Flies" -- it involves eight schoolgirls shipwrecked on an island -- but it also traffics in ideas as diverse as seismicity and colonialism, and finds grisly resolution in the chaos that emerges when the strictures of society dissolve.

Her "Almost Heaven," on the other hand, takes at least some inspiration from J.D. Salinger (its protagonist is named Holden Garfield), while using tornadoes and other extreme weather as a metaphor for millennial America, a landscape marked primarily by dissolution and loss. It's a view of fiction that operates out of a middle ground between myth and history, truth and imagination, what we wish for and what we believe.

"The form is so symphonic," says Wiggins, whose seventh and latest novel, "Evidence of Things Unseen" (Simon & Schuster), encompasses such diverse elements as the Wright brothers, the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the development of the atomic bomb. "You can go on for 28 pages about the mechanics of building a Quonset hut. Or not. But for me, you've always got to have the human in the landscape. Whether it's Ahab on the deck of the Pequod, or "The Last of the Mohicans," a human being is writing it and a human being is reading it, and we need to connect ourselves through that."

"Evidence of Things Unseen" is very much a novel of connection, on both the theoretical and the human scale. Revolving around a photographer and amateur scientist named Fos, his wife, Opal, and his best friend and partner, Flash, it takes place in Tennessee between the world wars, and re-creates a world in which science and technology are on the verge of changing everything, albeit in ways its characters cannot predict.

At the heart of the book is the notion that perception influences experience, that what we call reality is mostly a matter of what we are prepared to observe. "The eye will seldom see what the mind does not anticipate," Wiggins writes late in the novel, describing a sign at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility where Fos is hired to document work on the bomb. "Above [that]," she continues, "one of the physicists had written, 'Isn't this The 1st Principle of Magic?' Fos thought it was."

This may sound contradictory, the correlation between science and magic, but for Wiggins, they aren't antithetical in the least. "I didn't take science in high school," she says. "but when I went back as an adult, I went to Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. Both are gorgeous writers. And so smart. But both, with their huge hat sizes, came to the conclusion late in life that there is wonder in all of this. In other words, they didn't take science as an antiseptic road to a logical definition of life. They got on that road and said, 'This is a miracle. This is fantastic.' So if they were finding art at the end of their research, that gave me license to employ it in a similar way."

Wiggins smiles when she invokes Feynman and Einstein, her eyes crinkling in the midafternoon sun. Yet it's less an ironic smile than one of affection, as if she were discussing two old friends. In conversation, she's like that -- casual, enthusiastic, comfortable in white cotton pants and a sleeveless blouse. In her late 50s, she's been living in Los Angeles for nearly three years, drawn by her daughter, a photographer and her desire, after 16 years in London, to reconnect with her American roots.

This repatriation, Wiggins acknowledges, has been a double-edged process; although during her time in England, she never felt like anything but an American, the United States is a very different place than when she left. This was underscored from the moment she arrived in California, on Nov. 8, 2000, election night. "I got off in L.A.," she recalls, "and I said to the customs man, 'Who's the president?' And he said, 'Lady, I wish I knew.' This is an extremely exciting time for someone who wants to write about politics."

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