Thursday, December 10, 2009

God Knows

Our book today is Joseph Heller's 1984 novel about the Biblical King David, God Knows - and it serves as yet another illustration of one of literature's odd quirks: how often writers are best known and longest remembered for books other than their masterpieces. Examples multiply like toadstools, especially in the undiscriminating 20th century, where Anthony Burgess is linked instantly to A Clockwork Orange but not Earthly Powers, William Golding is known for Lord of the Flies and not The Spire, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is so well known its title is a term in dictionaries, while God Knows languishes in comparative obscurity. You can never tell what will catch the zeitgeist, but once it's caught, it sticks like fly paper.

And of course it's a shame in this case. God Knows is David's life story narrated by himself, and throughout Heller uses a historical novel trick that originated in the 20th century heyday of historical fiction: piercing the novel's equivalent of TV's 'fourth wall' - David knows he's writing a book for the 20th century, knows all about his enormous statue in Florence (and doesn't approve of it), knows the contents of the Bible and is cockily certain he has the best story in the Table of Contents - it's a story that has everything, including the bitter dispute at the heart of the book:

I've got a love story and a sex story, with the same woman no less, and both are great, and I've got this ongoing, open-ended Mexican standoff with God, even though He might now be dead.Whether God is dead or not hardly matters, for we would use Him no differently anyway. He owes me an apology, but God won't budge so I won't budge. I have my faults, God knows, and I may even be among the first to admit them,but to this very day I know in my bones that I'm a much better person than He is.

David isn't speaking to God (and vice versa) because as punishment for David's transgression with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, God kills the baby Bathsheba had just borne to David - and David can't reconcile the wanton, capricious, nonsensical cruelty of it. God Knows is a very funny book, fast-paced and firmly tongue-in-cheek most of the time; but it has a tragedy of stunning simplicity threading through its entire length, as David grapples with the weird nature of the God he used to consider a friend:

I know if I were God and possessed His powers, I would sooner obliterate the world I had created than allow any child of mine to be killed in it, for any reason whatsoever. I would have given my own life to save my baby's, or even to spare Absalom. But maybe that's because I am Jewish, and God is not.

All the familiar stories of King David are here, and all the familiar characters, from Goliath to Saul to Bathsheba to Jonathan to Solomon, all rendered with sharp sardonic humor and a depth of insight that exceeds anything else Heller ever wrote. There are wisecracks everywhere, of course - most of them deadpanning on Jewish culture:

Boy, did we have laws - laws governing everything. Before I gave up, I counted six hundred and thirteen commandments, which I found a remarkably large number for a society with a language that had no written vowels and a total vocabulary of only eighty-eight words, of which seventeen can be defined as synonyms for God.
And through David, we get fast-paced and delightfully demystified scenes from all over the Hebrew Bible, including several featuring the guy who really does have the best story in the book:

"I'll kill them all," He roared to Moses. "You think I'm joking? How much more do you think I'm going to be provoked by these people and do nothing? How many more signs do I have to show them before they begin to believe? I did it before, once with flood and once with fire and brimstone. Stand back, Moses."

"Can't we reason together?" Moses began trying earnestly to deter Him, emphasizing that God would become a laughingstock to the Egyptians for destroying His chosen people after taking them so far and promising them so much. "... they will say we were killed because You were unable to lead us in, not because we were unable to follow. They will believe You failed, not us."

"All right," relented God, who did not want to become a laughingstock in Egypt. But He aimed His thumb over His shoulder in a jerking motion and commanded, "Start walking. Hit the road."
This is a far more powerful, mature, and questing novel than the somewhat slight farces that make up so much of Heller's work, and at the heart of its many inquiries is an unflinching study of the many ways the father-son relationship can turn tragic. Of David's own father we hear almost nothing, but the book probes the depths of his bonds with his two great father-figures, King Saul and God, both of which present almost bewildering complexities (David's own sons fare no better - the book's characterization of Solomon is very funny and not very nice). And likewise Heller's facility with giving his novel's great endings (a skill that has all but vanished from practitioners of the craft in the 21st century) is at its strongest here - the final paragraph of God Knows will knock you flat, and the book's final sentence is quietly stunning.

I'm pretty sure you can walk into your nearest Barnes & Noble and buy a new copy of God Knows (the high tide of Catch-22 floats almost all the rest of Heller's boats), and you should. And of course if you'd rather not, I'm happy to send you a copy, with my whole-hearted recommendation.


Greg said...

Capitol entry!

Sam said...

I love that the reason David hates Michelangelo's sculpture is that he's not circumcised in it. "Who the fuck did he think I am!"