The Book About The Book Against God

Cover art from The Book Against God (detail)

Cover art from The Book Against God (detail)

Thomas Bunting, the narrator of literary critic James Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is an atheist. Or at least he says he is — though anyone so obsessed with railing at the botched handiwork of the (nonexistent?) Creator, so angry at the very idea of a deity, may arguably be more religious, in a way, than the believer who thinks about God only on the days of obligation. His tormented disbelief is the manifestation of a perverse faithfulness; his ranting fury, a kind of prayer.

It is a paradox, but one familiar enough for anyone who has read Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky. And Bunting himself has read them — which only ratchets up his neurotic self-consciousness and/or beatitude to still higher intensity.

The life of any given saint is, quite often, a study in barely managed pathology. By his own confession, Bunting, a perpetual student, is lazy and dishonest, a procrastinator, averse to paying his bills and also to bathing. He tells people he is finishing up his dissertation on the Epicurean philosophers — but in fact spends all his time reading theology in order to denounce it in a manuscript he calls “The Book Against God,” which he abbreviates as BAG. His marriage is falling apart. He drinks alone.

He is, in short, a cosmic loser. The primary difficulty in coming to terms with The Book Against God (Wood’s novel, that is, not the book Bunting is writing) lies in figuring out which element really dominates the story — the cosmic part or the loser part.

Some reviews have described Wood’s book as a “novel of ideas,” and there are certainly enough pages given over to philosophical discourse. But it is also a first novel — not just in the literal sense of being the author’s debut in fiction but in the stronger regard of offering a portrait of the artist as a young man. The First Novel is a way of settling accounts with family, of making sure that “you can’t go home again” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Wolfe, who wrote four First Novels).

Only a naive reader would equate a narrator’s “I” with the author himself. But Wood invites that confusion while slyly playing off it. In the closing pages of his 1999 collection, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, Wood recounts his childhood as the son of an evangelical Christian minister — one rather more fervent than Bunting’s father, who has adorned his Bible with a publisher’s sticker reading “This is an advance copy sent in lieu of a proof.” Likewise, Wood’s account of his loss of faith has its parallel in Bunting’s musings, while the pages on philosophy in The Broken Estate read like a polished draft of the narrator’s notebook scribblings.

The duty of the hero in a First Novel is, typically, to embody the author’s ego ideal: the introspective, embattled consciousness, sensitive as a burn, escaping the restricted universe of childhood, on a quest to give birth to its own identity. Wood’s alter-ego is a different sort of autobiographical proxy. Bunting is more abject, for one thing, and also a lot more ironic.

But he is ultimately the victim of the author’s still greater ironies. The themes of God and godlessness in the novel may echo passages in Wood’s essays, but Bunting’s anti-theological speculation lacks the element of self-possession that helps to make the critic’s work so intellectually graceful. Bunting’s ideas do not grapple with the world so much as evade the moment of having to face it for real — just as his lies, unpaid bills and trial separation from his wife all
postpone the inevitable.

He is, then, a kind of scapegoat. Like the “invisible man” in Ralph Ellison’s novel — or his closest relative, the narrator of Kenneth Burke’s novel Towards a Better Life — Bunting carries the burden of painful experience that he does not yet quite understand how to shape into something meaningful. Or, to choose an example that may be more exact, he has the same problem that Saul Bellow’s Herzog does: that of having just a few too many philosophical arguments available to patch over the holes in his life.

What Bunting requires — and what, in a more problematic way, the novel itself lacks — is the hard jolt that comes falling out of the stratosphere. The death of Bunting’s father doesn’t quite do it. Nor does the moment when his marriage gives its last, almost inaudible gasp. These events never quite register as instants when Bunting’s protracted adolescence has come to an end. Nor is there any sign that it will.

He ends, as he begins, a “dangling man,” in Bellow’s phrase, suspended between thought and action, unable to go back but with no evident way forward. His passionate belief in disbelief (or, what amounts to the same thing, his sanctified blasphemies) is the muddle of indecision that comes from never having accepted the obligation of living with either faith or the void.

What Bunting needs, but has not found, is one of those figures Bellow calls a “reality instructor” — a mentor, someone with traction on the hard ground who understands the demands of worldly life. Whether God exists or not, you’ve got to render unto Caesar sooner or later.

Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Feed, Lingua Franca, The New York Times, and Studia Swedenborgiana. He writes about the humanities for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where the present article first appeared in somewhat different form.