Let me try to explain, although I have to point out before I go any further that it is precisely because I find it so difficult to untangle this Gordian Knot about life and death that I wrote the novel. This is not some philosophical conundrum for me but relates to me on a very personal level. What I’m talking about is understanding what it means to be alive. Well, of course, we all know what it means to be alive. It means not being dead, for one thing although what the essence of life feels like as harder to grasp. The paradox – or one of them, at least, and there are many – is explaining the paradox.
Imagine being faced with a duality, a probability cloud in which being alive is an uncertainty (in the Heisenberg quantum mechanics sense) until you open your eyes so that you are both alive and dead until you open them (like Schrodinger’s cat in its box). I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is the same old waking from a nightmare conundrum: how do you know when you’re really awake and not merely dreaming you are awake? Well, no. It’s not like that at all. In the dream, you believe yourself to be awake until you do actually wake up and realise you were dreaming. But in this paradox you are both awake and asleep at the same time until you open your eyes and become by that act either awake or asleep.
The problem is that as soon as you try to explain any of this, everything is changed by the explanation which is itself a quantum paradox, just like when observing electrons. The process of observation changes the electron’s position or velocity so that you can only know where it was, never where it is now. That’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
So what was this troublesome event that is so hard for me to describe? The events that led up to it, I can explain in plain language.
When I was twelve years old, my parents took me and a school friend on holiday to a place called Lochgoilhead, a sea loch on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. The nearest town was Oban 55 miles to the northwest (or 70 miles depending on the route) while Glasgow was 55 miles to the southeast. The roads between these places and Lochgoilhead were indirect, narrow and winding (they may be different now, of course). Over a period of about seven to ten days (I don’t remember exactly), I gradually became unwell, then seriously ill and finally comatose. In the last 24 hours, whatever was wrong with me accelerated. I lost weight so rapidly, you could almost see it fall away hour by hour. I peed every 20 minutes as though I had not peed for a week until I stopped peeing altogether. My core temperature dropped. I remember looking in a mirror and seeing the sunken eyes of dead child looking back me. You’ve seen pictures of starving people, skin and bones survivors liberated from Belsen in 1945. That was me. Skin and bones, barely alive.
The ambulance came from Oban and took me to Glasgow Children’s Hospital, a trip of 110 miles or 3–4 hours driving time. However, the ambulance was driven at great speed. According to my father who was following in the family car, the ambulance was travelling so fast he could hardly keep up. I owe my life to that ambulance crew. When we arrived at the hospital, the doctors began treating me immediately I came through the doors. Literally.
I should have died in the ambulance. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t. And yet. I do know why. Not from the physiological perspective – I should have suffered multiple organ failure, after all. But I didn’t. I had only hours to live at best when the ambulance collected me. Something happened in the ambulance. That’s the difficult bit to explain.
Over the years, I have often thought about it. I knew I was dying. It is a sensation unlike any other. All the metaphors and similes in the world cannot describe it. The nearest I can come up with is holding on to an ever-thinning thread being pulled out of you and sooner or later it is going to fade to oblivion, so you have to focus on the thread staying strong enough not to pull apart, the effort becoming ever greater and your own strength becoming ever weaker.
That makes it sound as though strength is the key to survival. It isn’t. This is the paradox, the duality problem. You have to let go of strength – but what replaces it, is even harder to describe. All this explanation, of course, is my intellectual interpretation of a primordial experience which contains no intellectual component whatsoever. And you can’t decide to do or not do. You either do or you don’t. It happens or it doesn’t. In the ambulance, I had a moment of absolute clarity about what it means to be alive, an intangible, indescribable moment. And that moment saved me because through it I found another way to stay alive because I understood at a primordial level. I’ve spent my life trying to understand, intellectually and emotionally, what that moment was. And whoever I might have been before, I was someone different afterwards. Read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. He describes a similar, if less dramatic, paradox.
That event, that moment, was the inspiration for The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie. The novel is an exploration of my experience, or, at least, some elements of it. My attempts to understand that moment drives me to write and it is why what I write tends to the absurd. I don’t do ordinary.