The Book Against God

by James Wood
ISBN: 0374115389

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: The Book Against God
by Michael Carbert

In the midst of reading The Broken Estate, one wonders why James Wood wasn't content to just publish a collection of his excellent essays. After all, his articles have attracted praise from people like Cynthia Ozick and Harold Bloom and would seem capable of standing on their own. But instead of simply gathering together some of his best pieces, he saddles the book with a unifying theme, "The Broken Estate". Why? A few years later we know the answer. It was actually a rehearsal of sorts, a tune-up, for Wood's attempt to tackle essentially the same theme in his debut novel, The Book Against God.
In the final essay of the collection, "The Broken Estate: The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold", Wood's account of "the lost garden" that was his happy childhood and his days as a choirboy in England, is accompanied by a critical analysis of the "weak-minded" thinking of Renan and Arnold. Wood holds these writers largely responsible for the breaking of the estate (along with a string of contemporary apologists who are accused by Wood of having "dismantled" God) and the essay reads like an angry indictment against the men who made it possible for Wood to lose his faith. The obvious question is, if Wood is an atheist, why the bitterness and contempt directed at religious writers? Why does he care? And why does he appear to argue against them not so much in defence of "the savagery of truly disillusioned knowledge" as in favor of orthodoxy, religion that is "true." One wonders why a professed atheist and such a perceptive reader of literature fails to see that religion which is "true" is in fact a prison. Instead of being cast out of Eden by the breaking of the estate, were we not set free?
But Wood's perspective on these matters is resolutely literal and he even ends the collection with what can only be understood as a cry to God: " why, before heaven, must we live? Why must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal for heaven this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?"
Wood's novel, The Book Against God, is essentially a 257-page restatement of this unanswerable question, and unfortunately the material does not lend itself to dramatization. A novel about a man who refuses to grow up and deal with life, a self-confessed slob and liar who is unable to move past a rather adolescent fixation on the question of God's existence, could very well form the basis for an engaging comic novel, but in Wood's hands the material loses all vitality and becomes both tedious and profoundly unfunny. While Wood ostensibly wishes to create a sort of comic farce, there is too much at stake for him. As in The Broken Estate, his treatment of the themes in the book is deadly serious and their moral and metaphysical weight essentially crushes all life out of the story.
The novel's protagonist, Thomas Bunting, is a Ph.D. student in philosophy who, instead of working to finish his thesis (currently in its seventh year), spends his days writing arguments against the existence of God in what he calls his BAG', the Book Against God. Like Wood himself, Bunting experienced an intensely religious upbringing (whose depiction closely resembles that described in The Broken Estate) and is preoccupied with Christianity while proclaiming himself an atheist. Presumably unlike Wood, Tom is on the dole and his life is a mess. The book is narrated in the first-person and its entire length is given over to Tom telling us how he has ended up in such a sad state of affairs. But his narrative voice is weak and uncertain, seeking to impress us with declarations and exclamations that only emphasize his lack of conviction. (Wood's misuse of the exclamation mark could serve as useful instruction for aspiring writers.) An air of futility and wasted time hangs over everything he does, a mood reinforced by his being in exactly the same situation at the end of the book as at the beginning. Having confessed to being an incorrigible liar, even this fails to charge his narration with any kind of energy. His lies create no drama and he remains a two-dimensional creation from beginning to end.
Because we see through Tom so easily, all of the religious and philosophical arguments in the book quickly become tiresome. We are given a single glimpse into Tom's "BAG", and it is disappointingly thin. In the main, Tom's protests against religion are the utterances of a child, a whiny lament about how unfair life is, while at the same time he seems unaffected in any meaningful way by what goes on around him. His father dies of a heart attack, his friends abandon him, his wife leaves him, and Tom's behaviour never alters; no impact is registered. What is the point of portraying these things if they are not to serve as catalysts for dramatic events? Instead Tom continues to rail against a God he doesn't believe in, turning his back on every opportunity for redemption, while life simply passes him by.
What would appear to be the novel's climax comes at the funeral for Tom's father where Tom is set to deliver the eulogy. It is a final opportunity for our protagonist to assert himself and win our sympathies, but before he can even launch into the substance of his speech, his estranged wife inexplicably leads him away from the pulpit and any remaining drama in the book is also forced to sit down and keep quiet. However, this strange retreat on the part of Wood is perhaps fitting, as the entire novel appears to be a retreat from the high standard he sets for himself in his essay collection. Nothing in The Book Against God comes close to the best passages in The Broken Estate, because while Wood's novel is weak and confused, his essays remain compelling arguments informed by strong opinion and a passion for literature. Perhaps part of what we can draw from all this is that doubt and disbelief by themselves are not the stuff from which good literature is made, for it is the element of conviction, so present in Wood's criticism, that is exactly what is missing from this sadly ineffective novel.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us