Pick up The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id, and you might guess it involves psychology with words like "paracosm" and "Id." But the phrase "Shapers of the Id" is a clue that we're about to enter the world of parapsychology -- specifically, shaping an Id with the aim of creating one's own paracosm.
Before we go further, let's reacquaint ourselves with two words we learned in Psych 101. A paracosm, according to Wikipedia, is a detailed imaginary world generally thought to originate in childhood. The Id contains our most basic, instinctual impulses.
So how does one shape an Id? Lawler describes this skill, which was perfected by his fictional professor Oliver Crowley.
"Crowley challenges the theory that the Id lives within," Lawler said. "He says the Id is more of an energy field that surrounds us."
Crowley found a way to manipulate this Id-field, a process the author compares to "blue shifting" or moving light from the red end of the color spectrum to the blue end.
"Crowley moves the spectrum from the invisible to the visible so he can sculpt it, just using his imagination," Lawler said, "and he uses a machine called the Cognitive Resonator, which does the blue shifting for him so he can make it malleable."
The Cognitive Resonator is, in Crowley's words, "what makes thought materialization possible."
Crowley's research was so controversial it got him removed from the faculty of a prestigious university. Below, you can see a video of Lawler reading the Prologue, in which Senior Lector Walter Branham, Madam Semple Drood, and Professor Hobart Hagin make their case for firing Crowley.
Crowley's dismissal coincides with the birth of his future student, Fitz Faraday. When we meet Faraday 15 years later, he's constantly cutting class to work with Crowley in the professor's dilapidated mansion. During one experiment, Faraday watches Crowley communicate with his squirrel-monkey using American Sign Language:
"Darwin, press the gray circle," the professor asks as he signs by crossing his fingers and shaking them side to side, then uses his pointer finger to draw an imaginary circle in the air.
The monkey paws at the gray circles on the screen. Its reward is a grape, which the professor tosses and the monkey catches midair with its lips. Chewing happily, it claps its hands, pleased with itself for getting the answer right.
The professor then asks, "Darwin, press the red circle," and again does the sign for "red" and "circle."
The monkey paws the red circle and is again rewarded with a grape. The professor laughs out loud and slaps Fitz on the back.
"He can see red! He was completely color-blind and now he can see red! The treatment worked!"
"What treatment, Professor?"
Crowley explains to Faraday that he injected a virus in Darwin's eyes, right between the retinas, infecting the monkey's cells with photo-pigment receptors.
"Well, that's good for Darwin. Now he can see apples ..." Fitz says unimpressed.
"Fitz, don't you see? No ... no, of course. Let me explain. Just giving Darwin the gene therapy isn't enough. He didn't know what red was -- he had never seen red before. Red was invisible to him! He had to learn how to see red. He had to be taught how to see. The genes could not repair his vision on their own. That's the trick! I taught Darwin to see what he sees, not what he thinks he sees. I taught Darwin to see the invisible!"
This experiment prepares the reader for the more ambitious ones Crowley, and later Faraday, undertake. In an interview with WNIJ, the author discusses another foreshadowing element: Faraday's synesthesia. People with this condition frequently perceive ordinary objects in unusual colors, sounds, even textures.
"This is a realistic thing that people have, and it sets that kind of ground level that says, 'Okay, he can already see things in a different way, he's already seeing the world in a different kind of reality,'" Lawler said. "So it's not that much of a leap to go to the next shift of reality when he starts really messing with things."
Without giving too much away, Lawler leaves another clue about Crowley's ambitions by having Faraday discover a copy of the professor's book, The Philosophy of Psycho-Kinetic Energy. The cover bears the motto "Thought becomes light and light becomes physical. Energy is matter."
All this seems purely fictional, but Lawler says it's grounded in reality. "There is some science out there that talks about how the mind is made up of electrical charges, electrical energy," Lawler said. "So that's what Crowley is playing on. He's using electromagnetism as kind of the model and then he's taking that power -- we don't see the invisible power of how magnets work, how electricity works -- and he uses that in a psychic way."
Throughout the book, Lawler advances the plot and character arcs without profanity or foul language, preferring to keep this an all-ages book. Nevertheless, he peppers his story with made-up insults used by Faraday and his friends Hollis and Josey -- words like schmuckstache, dopebucket and evilastro.
"Schmuckstache is one of the favorite words that I use -- It's basically taking the word schmuck and mustache and putting them together," Lawler said. "Kids use slang, and slang is a very important part of their experience, but I also wanted to make it clean and appropriate for kids."
Aaron J. Lawler teaches humanities at Waubonsee Community College. He lives in Montgomery, Ill.
Next month, Marnie Mamminga returns to our "Read With Me" series with her latest book, On a Clear Night: Essays from the Heartland.
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