Benjamin Wood’s ambitious, psychologically compelling debut, The Bellwether Revivals, centers around twenty–year–old nursing home assistant Oscar Lowe and the opulent, heady world of brilliant Cambridge students into whose circle he is drawn. It explores the complicated relationships between scientific skepticism and credulous faith, music and healing, genius and madness, class divisions and the love that can transcend them.
When Oscar walks by King’s College chapel, the otherworldly music wafting out lures him in. “There was a fragility to this music,” he thinks, “as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer,” a description that turns out uncannily prescient [p.4]. Oscar will soon fall in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful medical student and the sister of Eden, the eccentric musical prodigy from the chapel. During the course of the next few months, Eden will play puppet master to Oscar, Iris, and several others, with tragic consequences.
Fascinated by the German composer and music theorist Johann Matheson, Eden is convinced his music has the power not only to manipulate emotions, but even to heal physical wounds and illness. He subjects Oscar to an experiment—a nail is driven into his hand while he’s hypnotized—creating a wound that Eden then apparently heals. Oscar is deeply offended, and highly skeptical, but his hand does heal, and there is just enough ambiguity to make him wonder if Eden truly possesses some extraordinary power or if he is a dangerously narcissistic young man.
Iris and Oscar devise a plan to enlist Dr. Crest, a prominent expert on narcissistic personality disorder who is suffering from a grade four brain tumor and is also writing a book on the delusion of hope—precisely the kind of hope the gravely ill place upon people like Eden. Iris and Oscar want to see if Eden can heal Dr. Crest or if Dr. Crest can help Eden—or at least determine if he is indeed suffering from NPD. Iris is convinced her brother is ill and needs help, but when she breaks her leg and Eden appears to hasten the healing process beyond all expectation, she begins to believe in her brother’s unexplainable gifts.
The novel sustains a high level of psychological suspense as the true nature of Eden’s “powers” hovers ambiguously between the supernatural and the delusional. And as arrogant and eccentric as Eden may be, he is also undeniably brilliant, exerting an irresistible fascination on those around him—and on readers as well. He may be mad—and maddening—but he’s impossible to ignore. Eden is Oscar’s polar, or perhaps bipolar, opposite. Oscar is working class where Eden is soaked in wealth and luxury, level–headed where Eden is reckless, compassionate where Eden is self–aggrandizing, and grounded in reality where Eden inhabits a world of dangerous metaphysical fantasy. They attract and repel each other with a magnetic force, and their interactions bristle with tension throughout the novel.
In bringing Oscar into Iris and Eden’s world and showing it to us from Oscar’s point of view, Wood gives us a rich, multilayered portrait of love and friendship across class lines and offers a brilliant investigation into the vexed relationship between genius and madness.
ABOUT BENJAMIN WOOD
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in northwest England. He was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he was also the fiction editor of the literary journal PRISM International. He now lectures in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
A CONVERSATION WITH BENJAMIN WOOD
Q. Why did you choose to begin the novel with the chaos of the crime scene, with a prelude that presents the aftermath of the novel’s main action?
I felt it was important for the novel to have a sense of intrigue from the outset, to make readers aware that they would be entering into a story which builds towards a tragedy—that way, I hoped I could engage them in the task of wondering “who?” and “why?” as each chapter layers and unfolds. One of the central conflicts in the book is between faith and doubt; because of this, I wanted the readers’ expectations, empathies, and opinions to fluctuate throughout the novel: Do they trust Eden and believe his claims? Do they side with Iris? Or do they hold on to Oscar’s reasoned viewpoint? The best way I could think of doing this was to provide an early glimpse of darkness in the opening scene; this way, shadows would loom over certain characters in the lighter sections.
Q. First novels, especially ones as ambitious and complex as yours, typically take a long time to write. Did you revise The Bellwether Revivals a great deal?
I am the kind of writer who is constantly reworking the scene I wrote the day before, line by line, word by word, until it finally sets. So, in that sense, I was constantly revising the novel throughout. I finished the first draft in three years, and there was an extra year of refining the manuscript before it was accepted for publication. Then another four or five months of fine–tuning with editorial feedback—it takes a long time before you can let go of it, and I’m not sure you ever really do.
Q. Did you plot out the novel before you began or let it lead you once you started writing?
I didn’t go as far as plotting the precise dimensions of the novel, scene for scene, but I was always aware of where the characters’ actions were going to lead them. I’m a big believer in three–act structure, so I kept a wall chart (really, it was just the reverse of a Bruce Springsteen poster) near my desk, which showed the dramatic arc of the plot and the key climactic moments I wanted to build towards. The scenes between these key moments were arrived at without much foresight. Herbert Crest, for instance, was a character who was never part of my original conception for the book—he just appeared on the page one morning and, once he had, the whole story found its anchor.
Q. Is there something inherently fascinating/troubling about triangles in human relationships—like that between Oscar, Iris, and Eden? What engaged you about that particular triangle?
Well, conflict is intrinsic to such triangles—I think that’s why writers are drawn to them, and why readers find them so rewarding. When characters’ motivations clash, when their intentions are obstructed or obscured by those of another character, it can make for explosive results (especially when the reader is rooting for a certain character and wants him/her to get what he/she wants in the end). I think the Oscar– Eden–Iris triangle has a range of conflicts within it—sibling rivalry, jealousy, class tensions, intellectual differences, romantic interests, ego battles—which is why I enjoyed writing their characters so much.
Q. Does the conflict between scientific and religious ways of understanding the world hold a special relevance for you? What drew you to write this story?
It holds no special relevance to me other than being a subject I’m deeply interested in. I’m a believer in the logic and empiricism of science as a rule, and I’m not a religious person, but somehow I find myself at odds with the current scientific conception of human consciousness. I was drawn to writing a story that explored the territory between these two faiths—spiritual faith versus faith in science—because I think that both sides can be too blithely disregarding and dismissive of the other. Creativity and artistic ability are things that science has thus far been unable to provide a convincing explanation for, and I find that aspect of the debate utterly fascinating. Eden Bellwether is an extension of that fascination.
Q. In terms of music theory, Iris is a cognitivist and Eden an emotivist. Which camp would you place yourself in? Is there an equivalent aesthetic divide among contemporary novelists?
I don’t know if I’d place myself in either camp, as such—I don’t really like to apply terms of categorization to art, or to align with any particular school of thought. Certainly, I believe the elements of music can be manipulated by a composer to achieve certain emotional effects, but whether those decisions are made consciously or unconsciously by the composer, I’m still not sure. Mozart and Beethoven could write music with profound (and diverse) emotional power, but I don’t know if they conceived of it in a measured way or just instinctively. All I know is, the sadness I feel when I hear a sad song is genuine sadness, not simply awe at the beauty of the music itself. I’m sure there are similarly divergent aesthetic approaches in contemporary literature—realism versus magic realism, etc.—but I think these terms are usually applied by critics and English academics, rather than by writers themselves. The best writers, in my opinion, are those who write the kinds of stories they are compelled to.
Q. What is your personal opinion of alternative therapies—art therapy, music therapy, etc.?
Oh, I’d like to plead the fifth on this, if I may. It only matters what the characters believe and what the readers believe. All I will say is that music possesses such unique and mysterious qualities that more work should be done to understand its effects on us. But this is rather complicated by the conflicts of faith discussed above.
Q. What is your view of the relationship between genius and madness, creativity and mental instability?
I don’t believe you have to be mentally unstable to be a genius, but looking back through history, there seems to be a tradition of association between the two states of being. Radical thoughts often come from untamed minds, but I’m sure they also come from focused ones.
Q. Brideshead Revisited would seem a likely influence for The Bellwether Revivals. Is Waugh an important writer for you? What other writers have been most crucial in your development?
It’s a shameful thing to admit as a British writer, but I hadn’t read Brideshead Revisited until I’d finished the first draft of The Bellwether Revivals. Of course, it’s a terrific novel with wonderful characters, and its appeal has endured for many years, so I am honored when people mention the Bellwethers in the same sentence. At the same time, I hope readers will view my book as possessing its own distinctive qualities. There are many British writers whose work I revere—Graham Greene, John Fowles, V. S. Pritchett, Iris Murdoch among them—but my reading tastes have always been more attuned to American writing. I can’t help but refer to writers such as Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Patricia Highsmith, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner. These are the authors I would point to as direct influences.
Q. What are you working on now?
Another novel. I tend to be secretive about things I’m working on, because (a) I’m an unbearably paranoid control freak, and (b) I like to give the characters the privacy to define themselves before I go advertising their names and particulars. I can say that the next book is likely to inquire into metaphysical and philosophical ideas, in a similar vein as The Bellwether Revivalsbut it will cover very different territory. I’m excited to be in the company of a new set of characters again; it’s fun to carry them around in my head wherever I go.
- What is the effect of the prelude to The Bellwether Revivals by beginning at the end of the book? What expectations are created by this projection into the future?
- What makes Oscar such a likable character—both to the other characters in the novel and to us as readers? Why is he accepted into the “flock” despite its differences in class, education, and background? In what ways is Oscar the book’s moral center?
- What enables Oscar to fit into a social group that he had considered forever beyond his reach? Why does Oscar and Iris’s relationship work despite their differences in class and education?
- Why does the organ music pull Oscar into the church, even though he is an atheist? Does his meeting Iris there seem purely accidental or in some way fated? Is Eden right to suggest that he is responsible for Oscar and Iris’s romance?
- Eden Bellwether is a complex and fascinating character. How sympathetic or unsympathetic were you toward Eden at the beginning of the novel? At the end? When did your view of him begin to change?
- Oscar tells a Mrs. Bellwether, who wonders if her son is exceptional or abnormal: “I’m not sure it’s possible to be exceptional without being a bit abnormal too. Goes with the territory” [p. 309]. What does the novel contribute to the long–standing debate about the relation between genius and madness? Are the two necessarily inseparable?
- Benjamin Wood has a gift for particularly vivid metaphors. When Oscar listens to Eden at the organ, “It was music like gushing water, like frantic animals being herded on a hillside, like all the conversations in the world being spoken at once, like an ocean prising itself apart, like two great armies converging on each other” [p. 230]. What makes these metaphors so evocative? How do these metaphors, and many others like them throughout the novel, make the reading experience more imaginatively engaging?
- Do you agree with Dr. Crest that hope can be a dangerous delusion? Why does Crest himself arrive at that conclusion? How different do you think his revised book would have been from the earlier, pre–Eden edition that was published?
- What stops Oscar during his physical struggle with Eden? Does he make the right decision?
- Oscar tries not to think too much about how he might have prevented the deaths at the end of the novel. Who is most responsible for not stopping Eden before he went completely mad? What might Oscar, Iris, and Dr. Crest have done differently? Should Eden’s father, Theo, have intervened? Or was some kind of tragedy inevitable?