I picked up James Wood’s debut novel, The Book Against God, with anticipation but also with a couple of worries furrowing the brow. I wondered whether, in this late day, it’s possible to get very worked up, as a reader, over a literary character’s blustery antagonism toward the Christian God. In fact, it’s not too hard to make the case that a hundred novels since 1880 could’ve been called The Book Against God, though the major moderns had the good aesthetic sense to sashay around the theme rather than face it frontally (see, for instance, The Sun Also Rises).
Another source of anticipation and worry had to do with Wood himself. He’s made quite a name for himself as a literary critic, thanks to his use of Oxbridge erudition and stylistic reserve in the service of trashing Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. One has to wonder what sort of fiction might originate from a man who can’t stand the best writers of our time.
Well, The Book Against God turns out to be surprisingly predictable and, frankly, wimpy. I should say first that Wood does a lot of things very well: His descriptions of the villages of County Dorset are lovely and evocative, and he has an amiable weakness for dwelling on the characterizations of interesting minor characters. But The Book Against God, which centers around the religious struggles of its protagonist and narrator, Thomas Bunting, is, at its core—how do I say this?—lame.
Thomas, for starters, is insufferable. That Wood makes him insufferable on purpose doesn’t relieve him of the responsibility of making Thomas ultimately sympathetic, which is vital if this novel is to work at all. Thomas is a man in his early 30s, a theology student with a doctorate in philosophy, who’s stuck on a dissertation he’s lost interest in. He whiles away the hours being supported by his pianist wife, Jane, and scribbling away in notebooks on a shapeless, bile-filled project he calls his Book Against God, or his BAG.
He’s an admittedly chronic (and quite accomplished) liar, a spendthrift, and such a bitter person that he uses his superior academic training to tear down as “stupid” the dinner-table religious musings of a lonely village man. He’s supposed to be an intellectual seeker caught in the chaos of modernity—Bellow’s Herzog hovers rather obviously over the proceedings—but whereas Herzog could screw up his life and say to the reader, “But how charming we remain, notwithstanding,” and be absolutely convincing, Thomas is fatally charmless. When Thomas starts ranting in a vaporous dream of self-involvement during the eulogy he’s delivering at his father’s funeral, we’re likely to agree that the speech is the “total disgrace” that his wife and friends think it is, rather than the tortured expression of a man undone by grief, the unfathomability of death and the absence of God, as Wood apparently would like us to think.
The conversations between characters are basically the kind you hear in college dorms: “I don’t believe that a God exists who created the world we live in. And if you ask me for ‘proof’ of this certainty, for how I know this, what do I do but ask you to look at the world. There’s the proof! A place of horror and pain and utter senseless longevity for millions and millions.”
Again, if this is just comic characterization, that’s one thing, but the novel’s power rests on the reader caring about the theological struggle that Thomas is in, and it’s simply so clichéd a struggle that you have to settle for the novel’s minor pleasures if you’re going to get anything out of this. The novel’s a big disappointment.