by David Maine
St. Martin's, 256, $23.95
by David Maine
St. Martin's, 240 pages, $21.95
Scripture may call for exegesis, but literature requires interpretation. This makes fiction based upon Scripture peculiarly problematic, at least for those who regard the work's underlying source as more than mere raw material: Is the novel, play, movie to be judged to some degree in accordance with its piety? While orthodoxy gains it no points—there are pious retellings of Bible stories that no one cares to reread—might apostasy cost it? The novel is a form notoriously unconcerned with fidelity to its sources; nobody praises Flaubert's “Herodias” or Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers for their fidelity to the scriptural accounts they are based upon, and the varyingly revisionist dramatizations of most later writers—the list includes Nikos Kazantzakis, Michel Tournier, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer—assert their artistic freedom like rebellious sons.
The story of Noah is probably the most famous in the Bible; young children who know nothing of Creation or the Fall will readily recognize the tale of the ark and its animals. Kipling dramatized aspects of it in both prose and verse, and modern versions include a folk song, many famous cartoons, a Broadway musical, a Bill Cosby sketch, and modern novels by such writers as Julian Barnes and Timothy Findley—and now David Maine, whose first novel, last year's The Preservationist, took up the story one more time. A spare, dispassionate narrative that abjures overt irony and stylistic flair, Maine's forty-two mostly brief chapters recount the events of Genesis 6-9 from the viewpoint of the ark's eight passengers, with testimony in turn from each family member save Noah himself, whose account is rendered in the third person.
Minor episodes are added to explain details upon which Scripture is silent—the sons' wives are sent to distant lands to gather pairs of animals, and it is the giants, mentioned briefly before Noah appears, who provide the timber for the Ark—but nothing in the account is altered.
Nobody reads Scripture for those qualities peculiar to prose fiction, such as the delineation of shifting states of consciousness, or the half-aware colloquies that the mind engages with itself. Such moments, nonetheless, appear—implicit though undramatized—throughout the Old Testament, and the story of Noah has at least two: Noah's own never-expressed response to the Lord's commission, and the late scene when Shem discloses Noah's drunken stupor to his brothers, who engage in a tortuous maneuver to cover their father's nakedness (which only alerts him upon wakening to what has happened). Surprisingly, Maine makes little of these scenes: Noe (the author uses the spellings employed in a pre-King James translation) is portrayed in the opening sentence as glancing “toward the heavens, something he does a lot these days,” but aside from the implication that he may be looking for further divine clarification and not just the promised rains, we don't see him musing much. Yahweh abruptly speaks, and Noe knows enough to follow his orders (and compel his family to do the same) without wondering at greater meanings. Only at the novel's end—with his children scattered, his God fallen again silent, and the curse upon his son Cham's child to ponder—does Noe engage in something like introspection.
The personality of Noe may largely conform to the Old Testament's abjurement of what Harold Bloom calls “inwardness,” but other aspects of the novel only seem to emulate its source. Maine gives the three sons' wives names, but Noe's wife remains simply “The Wife.” His decision to treat her unnamed condition as essential and theirs as provisional is not an attempt to draw something from Scripture (they are never cited by Genesis except together), but to create an effect specific to his novel: that the sons (and even more so their wives, who were not raised by Noe) are in varying respects more “modern” than he is. It's a good tactic, but it belongs to Maine, not the Bible.
The novel proves unscriptural in other ways, particularly in its language. When Maine describes Noe's ordeal in traveling through a desert by saying, “Around him the land quivers and ripples as if still just an idea in God's mind,” he is making a decision to admit the Platonic image rather than impoverish the range of language available to him. A hundred pages later, Noe bears the physical ordeal of life in the Ark “stoically.” The implicit anachronism recurs, but what better word is there? Once admitted, this principle can be taken to some lengths: When Japheth deals with stress by running the length of the Ark, he is described as “blowing off steam.”
In the end, The Preservationist does not follow Scripture but, rather, its own rules (one of which is: Don't contradict Scripture on an explicit point). Sentiments that are incongruous with the second century B.C. are proposed—usually by the brothers' wives—without being explicitly endorsed. Tidy symmetries and dramatic counterpoints inform the book's structure, giving it something of the texture of a fable (which is also out of keeping with Genesis). Maine's eloquent and vivid novel is finally about its own business, not Scripture's, but the two are scarcely extricable, and we read in part to see how, and how successfully, the strong-willed son will pull away.
Now with the new Fallen, Maine's second novel, the novelist's prerogative to transform his material is yet more firmly affirmed. Maine's account of the first two generations of humanity is told in reverse, beginning with a chapter (numbered “40”) that portrays Cain as a dying old man and then marching backward, with the chapter headings counting down, to the moment following the expulsion from the Garden. Formal strictures abound. The novel, for instance, is divided into four books of ten chapters, each of which concludes with a one-page chapter and each of which contains a chapter entitled “The Old Man.”
Maine's language in Fallen is even less bound to the illusion of historical verisimilitude than it was in The Preservationist: Eve likens the memory of the Garden to “the remembered scent of a lover,” a changed object is said to “morph,” and the narrator likens Cain's mark to a “Tower of Babel reflected mirrorwise” that everyone sees differently. Dramatizing the trauma of expulsion from Paradise, Maine sometimes employs the cadences of the Old Testament (“The sun rises and sets and does not change”) and sometimes the concise, allusive conjunction of high and low that characterizes modern prose (as in the Babel image, or when Eve reflects on their vicissitudes “ever since their departure from the Garden to fight their way through this deathtrap called Creation”). And the bitten single word of his title compels you to ponder to whom it refers, as The Preservationist does not.
Confident of his reader's familiarity with the calamity of the Fall and the story of Cain, Maine arranges their elements into quadrants presented in inverted order: a dolorous meal of successive missteps where one has to swallow the consequences first. The effect is surprisingly disconcerting. Something bad happens, but it is never mentioned in the subsequent chapters, which heedlessly prepare its coming about. Only in the novel's final section does Maine's narrative—of Adam and Eve in their first year east of Eden, which his design decrees be as long as the others—drag a bit.
This tension between design and the material it shapes is a matter of artfulness, which is never identical to wisdom or truth. An issue with all literature, it is explicitly raised here, when Adam, expounding to his sullen older son, pauses to reflect on “the neat way he has put it. Sometimes he has a way with words.” The shape of his utterance (he had been likening acceptance of God's will to freedom and resistance to imprisonment) can exert more force than its content.
This observation—a commonplace in rhetoric—becomes a problem the moment one seeks to move between imaginative prose and Scripture, which claims to offer truth unmediated by any form of metonymy. Maine cites the anachronistic Tower of Babel—on his first page—because he wishes to make clear that he understands this, and that his text does not carry Scripture's water in a different bucket. It may have been different in the Garden, but language (Maine seems to be suggesting) no longer enjoys an unbroken state in which Truth bodies forth in Logos. If we fail to understand this, Maine is willing to nudge harder: When, after hearing another theological apology from their father, Cain—offering interpretation, not gloss—explains to his bewildered brother, “It's not the literal truth he's saying. It's a metaphor. . . . Like saying time is a river.”
Fallen could have easily been called Broken, for it is a novel of smash-ups, acts whose resultant disasters can never be set right. The role of the divine is much pondered—the furiously indignant Cain gets no more explanation for why his sacrifice was rejected here than he did in Genesis—but the actions are all committed by humans. The overt artifice of Maine's verbal construction—its reverse wind-up, verbal anachronisms, internal echoes and symmetries—suggests order and intention, but the story itself speaks of missteps, loss, and regret: the inescapable product of human will and the heritage, Maine implies, of our exiled state.
<span style="font-variant: small-caps">Gregory Feeley</span> writes fiction and criticism. His most recent novel is Arabian Wine.