I picked up James Wood's debut novel, The Book Against God, with anticipation, also with a couple of worries furrowing the brow. I wondered whether, this late in the day, it's possible to get very worked up, as a reader, over a literary character's blustery antagonism toward the Christian god. Not that there aren't lots of folks who haven't found themselves plenty upset looking back at the theological steamroller of a Christian education that flattened them when they were too young to get out of the way—we've got a high density of just such folks in this county. But as a literary theme, this is pretty fusty stuff unless the writer can work himself free of the conventions of religious rebellion established in Dostoevsky's day (which, as we'll see, I'm afraid this novel doesn't begin to do.) It's not too hard to make the case that a hundred novels since 1880 could've been called The Book Against God, though the major moderns had the good aesthetic sense to sashay around the theme rather than face it frontally (see, for instance, The Sun Also Rises). In fact, one critic wrote a book of literary analysis called God's Funeral—and he was talking about writers from the 19th century.
Another source of anticipation and worry has to do with Wood himself. He's made quite a name for himself, first as a literary critic for London's The Guardian and, since 1995, for The New Republic. His youthful prominence—he began publishing in his mid-20s and is now 37—has come directly from his use of Oxbridge erudition and stylistic reserve in the service of trashing such novelists as Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Why he can't stand the best writers of our time he explains in his 1999 book of essays, The Broken Estate, where among other things he condemns them for their "hysterical realism." Wood can't quite fathom why writers—in dealing with American slavery and its aftermath, say, or the horrible dislocations of colonialism, or the monstrous growth of late capitalism and its attendant logics of constant warfare and social control—why such writers might feel the need to relinquish good forms, conventions, and what certain donnish Brits in their cherrywood-lined studies like to call "common sense" in the service of an art that reflects rather than simply corrals historical materials that are, by any measure, insane.
Coming from such a literary critic, and with such a Job-shaking-his-fist sort of title, The Book Against God turns out surprisingly predictable and, frankly, wimpy. I should say that Wood does a lot of things very well: his descriptions of the villages of County Dorset are lovely and evocative. He has an amiable weakness for dwelling on the characterizations of interesting minor characters (especially welcome when the main characters aren't so compelling). He's particularly good with the little world of aging Brits—like the narrator's parents and their neighbors—living out their last years in villages far from the madding crowd. And I got quite a kick out of Wood's amusing representation of London's classical music world, noted for its abundance of great musicians and paucity of great composers. Some of the novel seems just right for a future Hugh Grant project.
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But in a novel as tightly controlled in theme as this one, these are only sidelights and can't make up for the fact that The Book Against God, which centers around the religious struggles of its protagonist and narrator, Thomas Bunting, is at its core—how do I say this?—lame. Thomas, for starters, is insufferable—that Wood makes him insufferable on purpose doesn't relieve him of the responsibility of making Thomas ultimately sympathetic, which is vital if this novel is to work at all. Thomas is a man in his early 30s, a Ph.D. theology student stuck on a dissertation he's lost interest in, who whiles away the hours being supported by his pianist wife, Jane, and scribbling away in notebooks on a shapeless, bile-filled project he calls his Book Against God, or his BAG. He's an admittedly chronic (and quite accomplished) liar, a spendthrift, and so bitter that he uses his superior academic training to tear down as "stupid" the dinner-table religious musings of a lonely village man. He's supposed to be an intellectual seeker caught in the chaos of modernity—Bellow's Herzog hovers rather obviously over the proceedings—but whereas Herzog could fuck up his life and say to the reader, "But how charming we remain, notwithstanding," and be absolutely convincing, Bunting is fatally charmless, and so with each new revelation of the various ways he screws up his life, we like him less, rather than understand his pain more. We never comprehend why his wife puts up with him as long as she does—their entire marriage lacks an air of reality—and when Thomas starts ranting in a vaporous dream of self-involvement during the eulogy he's delivering at his father's funeral, we're likely to agree that the speech is the "total disgrace" that his wife and friends think it is, rather than the tortured expression of a man undone by grief, the unfathomability of death, and the absence of God, as Wood apparently would like us to think. Without some readerly tie to Thomas—some sufficient sympathy for a man who's become such a jerk—it's hard to keep going. We stop caring, and a reader's care for the novel he's reading is one of those good forms that you'd think Wood would take pains to keep up.
It would be nice, of course, if Wood's thoughts on theology—either those we read in Thomas' BAG or those uttered by characters in conversation—were compelling, but we don't get much help here, either. We read one multipage rant from the BAG against Kierkegaard that so fundamentally misconceives the Danish philosopher's theological spirit that it's hard to know if Wood is trying to expose Thomas as a charlatan of a thinker or if Wood simply doesn't know his Kierkegaard. And as for the conversations, they're basically the kind you hear in college dorms: "I don't believe that a God exists who created the world we live in. And if you ask me for 'proof' of this certainty, for how I know this, what do I do but ask you to look at the world. There's the proof! A place of horror and pain and utter senseless longevity for millions and millions."
Again, if this is just comic characterization, that's one thing, but the novel's power rests on the reader's caring about the theological struggle that Thomas is in, and it's simply so clichd a struggle that you have to settle for the novel's minor pleasures—the village scenes, the characterization of Thomas' father—if you're going to get anything out of this. The novel's a big disappointment.
James Wood, The Book Against God. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $24.