02 April 2010

The Unsubtle Knife

As we enter into what I, in a former life, may have enthusiastically referred to as "Quarter 2", it makes sense to take stock of my progress against what I, in that other life so dim and distant in the past, may have called "Quarterly Key Performance Indicators". In this other life, as you can see, I talked a lot of nonsense.

Last year I read a respectable 45 books from start to finish. There were a few more that I read the start of, or the finish, or occasionally the bits in between, but on the whole I am only satisfied by a complete progress from cover to cover. This year I set myself an ambitious target of a book per week, or rather I reset myself an ambitious target, for in truth that was also the goal of 2009, but as with our national balance sheet there seems to have been some unforeseen discrepancies between projections and returns, and now the poorest amongst you must all suffer. I don't make the rules, I just play the game.

While this goal may sound easy and I did indeed manage to finish thirteen books in thirteen rather hectic weeks, it was rather touch-and-go towards the end as I found myself somewhat sidetracked last month by Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, each volume of which is around 800 pages. Charlie Stross has an interesting article about why Sci-Fi books tend to be of monstrous length, and its not because the authors get paid by the word. Surprisingly it also has nothing to do with a dearth of editors in the genre, although curiously enough each Mars volume took me about as much time to go through as 150 pages of Alain Badiou, suggesting a dearth of competent editors in the genre.

I find this happens a lot in speculative fiction, that the concepts being explored are interesting, but the way in which they are explored detracts from their impact. Points are laboured and devalued by excess padding and superfluous detail all designed to lend weight to a text like so many extra adjectives added to an essay to bulk it out to the correct word-count. Or worse yet an idea so nice in naked simplicity is devalued by the choice of vinegar-and-fish-stained newsprint as wrapping.

The most recent case-in-point, Philip Pullman's new release 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'. I like Pullman, his 'His Dark Materials' trilogy being a particular favourite and not a small influencer on my decision to visit Svalbard last year. An outspoken humanist, Pullman offers his trilogy as an anti-Narnia, a children's tale as polemically secular as Lewis' is evangelical, though the literary merits of both elevate them above mere opposing propaganda.

Sadly 'The Good Man' is not so similarly blessed. Attempting to explain the discrepancies between the portraits of Jesus in the four Gospels (specifically between John and the three Synoptic Gospels), and strip away later literary embellishments of supernatural mysticism, Pullman adopts the conceit of there being not one historical Jesus but two, twin brothers named Jesus, and Christ. Jesus is the wandering preacher familiar to us from scripture, his brother Christ follows behind in the shadows, the archivist and recorder of his sibling's life and perhaps the source of the Q document from which both the Gospels of Mark and Luke are drawn.

The trouble with the book is that while the idea is immediately engaging, the execution is not. The faux-biblical style of writing with short simplistic sentences becomes tiring quite quickly, and where it does evolve into genuinely engaging prose as Jesus considers the dangers posed to society by a future all-encompassing hierarchical Church, Pullman's interjection of a thinly veiled attack on recent clerical abuse scandals seems particularly clumsy and unsubtle, and detracts from what could be a powerful scene.

Much in the same way as background images drawn from Abu Ghraib photos seem laboured in Alfonso Cuarón's otherwise excellent 2006 film, 'Children of Men', such polemical points seem jarring and sledgehammered into the work and are as unwelcome and intrusive as the taped laughter track on a sitcom, belittling the reader/viewer with their flashing neon directives to "FEEL EMOTION NOW!".

This is what happens when an artist is too emotionally involved with the subject matter of their work, the desire to transmit their message overrides their internal quality control systems, the audience is alienated and the message itself is rejected.

Maybe I too am too close to this subject. As both an atheist and a theologian perhaps what I see as awkward and clumsy may seem inspirational and insightful to someone with more distance. What I find to be a missed opportunity may be revelatory to those for whom this is their first encounter with the quest to identify and understand the historical Jesus. But to offer this defense places the book dangerously close to 'The Da Vinci Code' on the shelf of literary near (and not so near) misses, where the phrase "yeah, but it makes you think" comprises six of the most damning words ever offered as praise.

Overall this was a disappointment for me. As a summary or a conversation, the concept of the novel is amazing; I would love to hear Pullman speak about the subject and his reasonings behind the division of each gospel event between the two brothers, why he felt one scene suited the forthright Jesus and another he attributed to the more reluctant Christ. But the execution of the concept as a novel is flawed and this, for me, unfortunately detracts from the impact of the concept itself.

The back cover of my edition proclaims loudly in embossed gold lettering, "This Is A Story". Perhaps, but what it isn't, alas, is a good read.

'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' by Philip Pullman
Extract at The Guardian Online



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