The Cabinet of Curiosities

Some centuries ago, it was common for wealthy individuals to indulge their appetite for the strange using so-called cabinets of curiosities. These were not cabinets in the modern sense. They were rooms arranged with artefacts for which categories had yet to be invented. Narwhal horns. Fossils.

There is a sense in which my current novel, The Amber Rooms (Saskia Brandt 3), is a cabinet of curiosities. Even now, I cannot be sure how the elements will cohere. They simply interest me. There is the Amber room itself. There are elements of Soviet propaganda, such as songs dedicated to Josef Stalin. To this list I could add another six or seven elements; however, to do so here would spoil the book.

From Wikipedia:

The juxtaposition of such disparate objects, according to Horst Bredekamp’s analysis (Bredekamp 1995) encouraged comparisons, finding analogies and parallels and favoured the cultural change from a world viewed as static to a dynamic view of endlessly transforming natural history and a historical perspective that led in the seventeenth century to the germs of a scientific view of reality.

I am currently two thirds of the way through the final draft. In six weeks or so, it will be complete. The metaphors at the sentence level, scene level, and the level of the story itself will have come together. Their juxtapositions will be set. It might surprise you that I do not know for sure when this will happen, or even if. What is the book about? How does this quality of ‘aboutness’ inform the plot? Which impressions will be left in the mind of the reader six months after the book is closed?

The curiosities for my novel Déjà Vu made little sense to me at the close of the first draft. It was only later, months later, that I changed the research project of Jennifer Proctor from something interesting but thematically irrelevant to time travel. That was the eureka moment for Déjà Vu. Curiosities, which I had been collecting for years, came together.

For Flashback, the eureka moment arrived early. I was reading a fairytale in which a character cut her finger and fell into a bewitched sleep. Then I understood how the reconstruction of memory unified stories of Saskia, Cory, and Jem.

Right now, whenever I open the file containing the latest draft of the Amber Rooms, I feel like an 18th-century man of independent means browsing his cabinet of curiosities. Why are these things interesting? How should a visitor be introduced to them? What are they doing in this room anyway? Back to the basic question: why are these things interesting?

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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