The Book Against God
by James Wood
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 257 pp. $24.
James Wood is a formidable writer with a growing reputation. Solidly the product of the English middle classes—a classical education, a childhood of music lessons and cathedral evensong, a degree from Cambridge—he was chief literary critic of the Guardian newspaper in London before becoming a senior editor of the New Republic in 1995. Add to this a well-received volume of essays in 1999—The Broken Estate—and a pen by turns elegant, witty, indignant, and fiercely uncompromising, and the result is a name likely to become greater as years go by. Wood is also, unabashedly, an atheist: no hindrance in the world he has chosen to inhabit.
The Broken Estate, subtitled “Essays on Literature and Belief,” records Wood’s loss of faith, his embrace of literature, the latter becoming a new faith, a more humanly persuasive account of love and loss than the too-confident theodicy of his churchly upbringing. Wood’s childhood was spent “in the command economy of evangelical Christianity,” an Anglican past he has abandoned with relief but with perhaps some small nostalgic regret for its vanished balm, its liturgical and musical beauty, its theological certainty in the face of a suffering world. Now he has written a novel, The Book Against God, and—critic turned practitioner—he awaits the judgment of his peers and public. The first may be kinder than the second. His prose has the painterly quality that appeals to the trade (“in summer, [the trees] exuberate into green, each leaf a delegate sent out by life . . . their broad stems pedestals to the caught heaviness above them”), but what the Times Literary Supplement calls his “obsessive intellectual wrestling” turns out to be surprisingly pedestrian: more of a pillow fight in the Lower Sixth dorm than a serious engagement with the truth.
Thus described, James Wood sounds very much like a character in a novel by, well, James Wood. Indeed, The Book Against God, set in the overlapping worlds of academia, music, journalism, and the Church, is narrated by Thomas Bunting, an undeniably clever unbeliever, impatient with the easy comforts of religion, psychologically sharp, bookishly dedicated to the life of the mind: the very model of a modern metropolitan. Like his creator, he graduated with top honors; like him, he writes with panache and superb fluency; like him, he despises the frail logic of belief. There the resemblance ends. Bunting is a liar on an antiheroic scale. Hostile to the falsehoods of religion and the social conventions with which it protects itself, he has his own serial problems with the truth. Everyone is lied to: wife, parents, colleagues, friends. The world thinks he is writing a Ph.D. dissertation—almost finished, he says, so that a proper lectureship will be his, a job enabling him to stand on his own feet and be no longer dependent on his implausibly patient wife.
Not so. The thesis is a sham, long ignored as another volume takes shape. This is the “Book Against God”—part diary, part confessional, part collection of profundity-seeking aphorisms—wherein he rails against every defense and defender of divinity. Gradually, as his marriage collapses and his never very promising career goes down the drain, the book becomes a kind of mania. It is his only friend, the one companion to take him seriously as others abandon him to fecklessness. After a row with his father or a trip to the pub, a visit to the dole or a morning spent in bed, the book will be opened and added to, a secret pleasure threatening to take over his life.
Here, as only slowly he comes to realize, is the solipsist’s madness powerfully symbolized: he is man alone in the cell of his own mind, arguing with a shadow, an absence, an empty space. Even as a metaphysical category, a mere philosophical problem to be solved, God cannot leave him alone. He chases Bunting down the labyrinthine ways, down the nights and down the days, haunting his waking hours and his dreaming. They have become old enemies to each other, God and Bunting, their hostility strangely comforting, familiar and fixed in a world of disintegration. The midnight scribbler wants God gone but lacks the courage to banish Him forever. Addicted to phantom conversation, to debate with a Holy Ghost, he resembles a famous madman of literature, expounder of the modernist dilemma in four simple lines:
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d stay away
God—most annoyingly—refuses to stay away. For his part, Bunting has neither heart nor head to close the door for good.
Bunting is not Wood, but surface resemblances suggest a teasing autobiographical turn. To read The Broken Estate is to see anticipated some of the ideas of The Book Against God: the inadequacy of theism in the face of higher criticism or propositional logic, the “evasions and weak-mindedness” of much that passed for theology in the nineteenth century, the empty conceit of established religion, the paltry certitudes of the man in the pew. Wood’s atheism began as adolescent revolt and, conceptually, has not gone much beyond it.
At the age of fifteen or so, I sat down with a notebook and tore myself away from belief in God. You are so quickly, so easily free. Before one has read any atheist or skeptical philosophy one has apparently invented the old, old objections to God—the problem of evil and suffering in the world, the senseless difficulty of faith, the cruelty of heaven and hell, the paganism of Jesus’ ‘sacrifice,’ one’s own lack of religious experience. . . . These objections are so obvious and so old that atheism, as a philosophical tradition, is generally underpowered.
The result is that literary atheism tends to be little more than “gauntlet-throwing naughtiness,” mere debating society stuff. He wants stronger material. Yet Wood cannot resist naughtiness himself, craving the old teenage pleasures—God as Nonsense, as Bully, as Cosmic Thug—while demanding an atheism at once more confident of its philosophical implications and less ignorant of “the negative revolution” it has begun. Bunting as thinker is little more than a vehicle for the arguments that Wood claims to be shopworn and too easy. Recognizing their over-familiarity, Wood still wants to give them another outing, a last loving look. This is tiresome. He hopes to have it both ways, throwing every argument against God, even the hoariest ones, but inoculating himself against criticism by mounting the “I-am-not-the-narrator” defense.
As for the deeper implications he claims to find in a more mature atheism, these turn out to be variations on a nihilist theme. As Wood writes in The Broken Estate, “Life-under-God seems a pointlessness posing as a purpose (the purpose, presumably, being to love God and to be loved in return); life-without-God seems to me also a pointlessness posing as a purpose (jobs, family, sex and so on—all the usual distractions). The advantage, if it can be described as one, of living in the latter state, without God, is that the false purpose has at least been invented by man, and one can strip it away to reveal the actual pointlessness.” So this is the Big Idea? Poor Mr. Wood. Chased by the Hound of Heaven, it turns out that all the while he was running away from a chihuahua.
The truth is that The Book Against God is not the “elegant novel of ideas” one critic claims it to be. There is elegance, to be sure, both of description and psychological insight. Wood’s writing is full of fine surface effects and painfully accurate understandings of human motivation. Particularly good is the account of Bunting’s relationship with his clergyman father—the heart of the book—where some human depth is attempted and achieved. He has produced social comedy of a very high order, a novel of discomforting knowingness.
In two ways, however, the ideas are inconsequential: first in themselves; second in the part they play in the novel itself. There is an unseriousness at their core, a play-acting at existentialist angst. Bunting’s dark night of the soul is a slightly gray afternoon in Durham, a north-of-England drizzle in the air. He wrestles, Dostoevsky-like, with the deepest agonies of Good and Evil, Light and Dark, then has a pale sherry and a nice cup of cocoa before bed. The reader is reminded of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’ cleverer older brother, whose cleverness was always asserted, never shown. Likewise Bunting. We must take on trust his claim that cosmic questions really do tear at his inner being, leaving him orphaned in a howling universe. In fact, they are more like social inconveniences alienating him from various worlds (marriage, work, belief) whose cosiness and self-satisfaction he despises because he cannot achieve them himself. Which is cause and which effect—the unbelief or the adolescent revolt—Bunting seems unable to know. Readers may judge for themselves the emotional and intellectual seriousness of both.
This is, of course, intentional. Wood knows what he is about when he creates a character who seems to take ideas to heart but cannot quite conform to their real implications. To that extent The Book Against God is not against God or the godly, although it offers no comfort to either. The Divinity remains capriciously cruel, an absence masquerading as a presence in a world without sense; His followers remain delusional, clutching beads or songs or threadbare theologies, sad cases all. No: The Book Against God is actually “against” atheists themselves who lack the courage of their own atheism. Bunting’s failure, Wood suggests, is to imagine that he may swap a gemütlich godliness for a gemütlich ungodliness; that the agreeable certainty of belief may give way to unbelief equally agreeable, equally hemmed in by pleasant social convention. Not so. Real thinkers prefer nihilism, Wood boasts, where pointlessness is the point and unmeaning really means it.
The problem, alas, is that this paradox, like the novel itself, is its own refutation—playful, ironic, allusive, pithy, self-admiring, invincibly bourgeois. It is merely the Higher Smugness looking down on the Lower. Its one big idea is not much of an idea at all and is, in any case, conveyed by a plot and characters insufficiently strong to carry it. Thus the one irony the author did not intend: it is Wood, not Bunting, who lacks the courage of his nihilism, penning a novel whose very cleverness seems to invite approval, endorsement, a recognition of shared values and meaning. Form fatally undermines content—a real pity in a novel of real promise. In The Book Against God Barbara Pym meets Friedrich Nietzsche. Pym wins.
Dermot Quinn is Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University and serves on the Board of Advisors of the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture.