There is a very fine Canadian fiction writer named Jaspreet Singh. A couple decades ago, when he was in his early thirties, he was a chemical engineer working as a senior researcher at a multinational paper company in Wisconsin. It was the kind of job that promises a life of high status, income and job security. But in one pivotal moment, passed alone in a corporate boardroom, with the clock ticking toward midnight, and a copy of Ulysses in his hand, everything changed.
This story requires a brief setup.
Back when he was finishing up his master’s in chemical engineering a friend—also a chemical engineer—returned from a Fulbright scholarship with one word on his lips: Joyce. You must read this book, he told Jaspreet, pressing a copy of Ulysses into his hand. Literature begins here.
Jaspreet tried, but, like most of us on first approach to the allusive, uranium density of Joyce found it touch going. After five pages, he gave up.
After he graduated and began working in his field, he would come back to the book, at least once a year. And each time he would get about five pages in and abandon it.
One day on the telephone his mother asked offhandedly: The girl you marry, my son, what do you want her to be like? Jaspreet understood this wasn’t an idle question: She was taking specifications.
“She must have read Ulysses,” he replied. It was a strategic answer. He wanted no part of an arranged marriage, and it seemed likely that this stricture would ensure there were no successful applicants.
It occurred to him not long after: What if his mother did find a woman who has read Ulysses? It would probably be a good idea, in that case, if he’d actually read it himself.
He gave the novel one more try. But this time, when he opened it, he flipped to the back of the book, the last chapter, the Molly Bloom soliloquy. She is a concert singer, the passionate counterpoint to the cold intellectualism of the male characters, and as her words filled his head, Jaspreet was hypnotized. He finished the chapter, and promptly read it again. He got it. He got Joyce, now. A switch had flipped, the kind of switch that can never again be unflipped, in the same way that you cannot unchop a tree or unhear Mozart. Jaspreet began, then and there, to burn it in. He memorized the whole last chapter of Ulysses.
He had changed his mind about Joyce; but did not have time to read the whole novel. He vowed, “I will read Ulysses before the millennium turns.” Which still gave him five years; that ought, he figured, to be enough.
He became a very successful chemical engineer, specializing in the algorithms of absorbancy. He developed absorbent gels for diapers and tampons. (“I worked in all of the orifices,” he is sometimes wont, these days, to say). It was precise, Newtonian work, and Jaspreet was an ace at it. As a senior research scientist for Kimberley Clark in Neenah, Wisconsin, he had just received an excellent performance appraisal for his work, analyzing the flow of menstrual blood through a barrier, when Christmastime rolled around. The year was 1999.
His colleagues in the absorbency lab had all gone home for the holidays. Since much of his work was collaborative, it was hard to get anything done. He thought, Now is the time.
For eight straight days he reported for work, told his secretary, “I’m doing something very important; please don’t disturb me unless it’s an emergency,” vanished into a boardroom and closed the door. He read Ulysses, deep into the Wisconsin evenings, reminding himself, if his attention flagged or his commitment wavered: ‘You are being paid two hundred dollars an hour to read this book.’
Very late on New Year’s Eve he reached the Molly Bloom soliloquy. He read to the last page, and then he put down the book down and continued, aloud, from memory.
“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “
Seconds after he finished that last sentence, the clock struck twelve. Jaspreet Singh heard himself saying, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’
What’s the opposite of a chemical engineer? A poet is as good an answer as any. (And Jaspreet is a poet, even though you find his work in the fiction section.) Which is why Jaspreet’s arc seems like a u-turn rather than merely a career change.
Certainly, his old engineering colleagues, astounded at the abruptness of the turn, speak about his life as if it were the perfect reversal—perfect and perfectly unfathomable. His parents, too, struggled to understand. To have reached what to their minds was the America grail — “you will be an engineer or a doctor” was always the understood injunction — and then just to walk away. To leave all the trappings of the successful life – the big house by the lake, the big American car, the door to the trunk closing softly as a jewelry box as he loaded his visitors’ luggage into it. To throw that all over the side and go back to living, once the war chest of funds from those professional years was gone, like a student again. Eating saltines in a tiny bedsit in the poor part of town.
“Did it feel inevitable?” I asked him, when he passed through town on a reading tour. “This pivot point in your life? Did it feel like it was in the script?”
“It feels inevitable now,” he replied. “But at the time it did not.”
The moment in the lab is one he recognizes now as a “phase change” — which is quite different from a sudden moment of absolute clarity. In the physics of life there is an equilibrium, it is disturbed, producing a phase change and resulting, eventually, in a new equilibrium. (This is also, when you think of it, pretty much the definition of drama.) An ice cube left on the counter may pass through sixteen phase changes –each with unique physical properties. But at what point does the ice become water?
But why the Ulysses moment, then. Why didn’t it happen earlier, or later, or not at all?
Had I heard the word “metastability?” A physicist might explain it thus: On every continuum, there are certain “metastable” points, when things could go either way.
“Say I’m holding a kitchen chair like this, tipped back, balanced on the two back legs. For most of its range of motion I know which way the chair, if I let it go, will fall.” But there is a narrow band in the middle within which the outcome can’t be predicted; the chair could go either way.”
We were aboard the number 20 bus, on a rainy night, as he spoke. We looked out the windows as the bus threaded its way through Vancouver’s skid row district, past addicts standing in heroin contrapostos, victims of some unfathomable combination of chance, choice and design.
A human life is a continuum, and on it there are metastable moments when the outcome can’t be predicted. People who are not physicists recognize these intuitively, and call them by other names: “decisive moments,” say, or “teachable moments” or “moments of truth.”
“Let’s say a father must choose between obeying the law and protecting his son.” Two strong belief systems are suddenly in conflict. Cognitive dissonance is strong. The moment is metastable. That moment will have different outcomes for different people. One possible life materializes for one person, another for another. Two fathers in exactly the same circumstances head off, from that moment on, on different branches of an infinitely bifurcating tree.
Jaspreet insists that he has no answers to which father will act which way. Nor is he sure the physics metaphor properly applies to human behavior. Jaspreet is a writer who builds elaborate scaffolding for his stories, then always – always — removes the scaffolding before the story is in published form, and never talks about it. If you knew that a short story began as a differential equation, might that not ruin it? If it were true that there is a script for us, that our actions are predestined, Would we really want to know that? Wouldn’t it, in some way, spoil the story?