review by Jeremy M. Barker
Reading a review of a novel called The Book Against God in The Sinner, you might assume it's a vicious rant on the stupidity of religious zeal or something thereabout. Unfortunately, that's anything but the case. By the same token, it's not as bad as some have suggested.
The novel has already received an undue amount of attention due to the author's fame. James Wood is the book critic of The New Republic and author of The Broken Estate, a collection of essays on literature in which he describes his thoughts on the nature of great literature, lays out the basic criteria he applies in writing reviews and, in the process, decries a number of major American writers, including Toni Morrison, Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon. For Wood, literature is all about (or should be about) the truth, or the human experience, or something - in fact, he's never quite clear. "In all fiction those moments when we are suddenly swayed, suddenly moved, have to do with something we stumblingly call 'true' or 'real.'" This truth, however, is a skeptical sort of truth, as opposed to religious truth, which is based in faith. "Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality," he writes in The Broken Estate. All this creates about the most negative atmosphere imaginable to publish a novel in; the countless enemies he's made have his own book, laying out his own set of criteria, to judge the novel by, and it does come up wanting.
The Book Against God is the story of Thomas Bunting, a lay-about teacher and intellectual who, in seven years, has failed to complete his doctoral thesis in philosophy and instead spends his time writing an assault on Christianity, which he refers to as "BAG," or the Book Against God. His rage against Christianity is the result of his rebellion against his father, a conservative priest from Northern England for whom God is very much so real. As Thomas says, "The rhythm of the village, and of the seasons, were also the rhythms of my father's ministry..." But Thomas' rage has cost him dearly; his wife Jane has separated from him due to his inability to move on and his generally mendacious nature.
The novel is told in the first-person some seven months after Thomas' separation and four months after his father's death. He meanders about, recalling his loss of faith and the failure of his relationship, and the novel culminates in recalling his father's death.
But the point of the novel is Wood's interrogation of the relationship between the truth of fiction and religion. The device of using a professor as a narrator is a cheap trick that allows the writer to simply have his character state his big ideas rather than showing them through the writing, a surprising choice from a critic who's lamented Delillo's "denial of fiction's groundedness," since at least Delillo shows rather than tells, the rule that passes for the first lecture of any creative writing class. The prose, furthermore, is generally weak. Thomas' voice is pompous and pretentious, and seldom achieves anything approaching "moving," except occasionally, and at the narrator's most unguarded moments. For instance, recalling his wife, he notes: "It used to be that Jane, smelling my first cigarette of the day, occasionally cried out, 'Fee fie fo fum, I smell the fug of an Englishman,' which I loved to hear, and came into the kitchen to kiss me."
But Wood's bigger aim, representing the tension between religion and skepticism, ends in pretentious failure. Thomas is hardly an unbeliever - he's completely obsessed with God. And this is Wood's point; in The Broken Estate," he writes: "If one chooses not to believe, one's choice is marked under a category of a refusal, and is thus never really free." Unfortunately, Wood himself is mistaken: While he may be obsessed with his own agnosticism, many of us live quite happily assured that God does not exist without giving it a second thought. While the novel does achieve some moving moments, they are wholly personal ones, in which Thomas recounts his emotional and sexual failings, or his shame at his father's wedding. But the obsession with religion is sophomoric; religion for Thomas is more akin to dealing with a bad habit than a real spiritual crisis. James Wood needs to realize that for most of the enlightened, mature world - ostensibly the intended readers of his novel - the nonexistence of God is not a matter of concern at all, and the tumultuous obsession of his narrator is not even immaturity so much as a sign of serious mental problems necessitating the aid of a therapist. Wood simply fails to realize that his concerns are not those of the contemporary world; his beliefs are anachronistic, and his book suffers by default.