The Book Against God is the first novel by James Wood, a rigorous and sometimes merciless British literary critic who now lives and writes in the U.S. Many critics have prefaced their reviews of the novel with predictable noodlings about the critic-novelist reversal involved (the hunter now being the hunted, and so on). Since Wood’s admirable (if vaguely fanatical) aesthetic seriousness sometimes enables a portentous critical style, though, another matter actually seems more important: Can Wood write fictional prose good enough to sustain a readable novel? The answer is yes and no (and yes). Wood is not a great, or at least consistently great, prose stylist, but his first novel is nonetheless a gratifying success — a droll domestic comedy that flowers into a heartbreaking Oedipal drama, which itself contains a challenging and bleakly funny story of a thoroughly botched philosophical quest.
The Book Against God takes its title from a quixotic work in progress, an episodic anti-theological polemic written by our narrator, Tom Bunting, a philosophy grad student at University College, London. The God book (abbreviated as the BAG) is a distraction from the doctoral thesis he tells everybody he’s just about done with, which is just one of his many lies. In building his first novel around hapless and morally compromised intellectual, a dislikeable schlub, Wood is working within an archetype almost uncomfortably familiar in contemporary fiction. And as The Book Against God begins, it seems to confirm worries that Tom, the cynical, unreliable guide, is a bit too pat, too convenient a stand-in for Wood himself, the philosophical literary critic and anti-God polemicist (Wood has aired several arguments similar to those made by his narrator here).
It is in the early chapters, when you’re not sure just how contrived Tom Bunting feels as a character and narrator, that Wood’s prose feels the most tentative, and his figurative efforts fall short or overreach, or just run wide of the mark. It’s as if he’s not only writing his way into his main character. He’s also groping toward a whole narrative approach. In describing the modest financial means of his parents, Tom notes, “All our textures were strained through the sieve of their finances.” Laden with one abstraction too many (“our textures”) this metaphor sounds vaguely mixed, even if, technically, it isn’t. And when, watching his future wife Jane play the piano for the first time, he notes the contrast between her childishly skinny limbs and “the more rounded, certainly adult deposit on which she sat,” he’s chosen to push the figurative emphasis in a truly unfortunate direction. When you refer to a woman sitting on an “adult deposit,” you can’t control the associations whereby readers are moved to hope, more or less automatically, that she’s also wearing an adult diaper.
But the introduction of Jane soon shows that Wood has a lot more up his sleeve than just a narcissistic smart-aleck narrator. Tom’s various loved ones — wife Jane, his best friend Max, his parents — reveal a curious dramatic role for the narrator himself. Tom, the irresponsible, lying, infantile protagonist becomes not so much an object of our sympathy as a conduit through which we sympathize, powerfully, with the other people in his life. His wife Jane, a concert pianist and music teacher with a soft spot for Beethoven, is enough of a romantic to be drawn to Tom’s rebelliousness but, finally, too levelheaded to tolerate his dishonesty and laziness. Max, a phlegmatic newspaper columnist, has managed to turn a cerebral disposition into a viable profession. Max’s reconciliation of mind and world is a dire threat to Tom, who wants the intellectual passion he has shared with Max since they were teenagers to excuse him from all worldly obligations. Most important is Tom’s father, Peter, a happy, intellectually resourceful Anglican priest tending to a small but devoted flock in the northern English village of Sunderhall. Several key questions about Tom hinge on his relationship with his father — whether his beef with God is actually a struggle against his devout father, whether his conflict with his devout father is merely an irrational outgrowth of his hatred of the idea of God, or whether his conflicts with both his father and God are merely displacements of a more prosaic rage against the material world itself.
For that seems to be Tom’s real problem, a deep revulsion at the quotidian claims that the world makes upon him. Early on he laments, “Whenever I sign a cheque for some idiot company or other, I feel a little like a man in an electric chair or hospital bed, streaming with wires and connections and linkages.” It would seem more common to strive toward otherworldliness through belief in God, but Tom operates differently. For him, belief in God is a way of sanctifying all these ugly and soul-compromising “connections and linkages,” a way of underwriting metaphysically the world’s grimy sovereignty over him. Raging at God is a way for him to question this sovereignty, and thus to justify his leave-taking from the responsibilities that everyone else accepts. This makes Peter, whose faith has left him both at home in the world and spiritually content, an inviting target for Tom’s resentments. Tom’s inability to disentangle his genuine love for his father from these existential resentments leads to the novel’s emotionally gruesome climax — Tom’s disastrous eulogy at Peter’s funeral.
This assortment of mostly gentle antagonisms, involving a borderline loathsome character, gathers into a diverting and humane story thanks to Wood’s surprising technical strengths. For a book in which Tom’s obsession with theological disputation hovers over every relationship, there is nothing stagey or pedantic about the dialogue. Tom’s friends and family try energetically to pull him out his BAG and into the world that they inhabit, and these encounters, though never hilarious, are always droll and real and propelled by a palpable sense of desperation. And the novel’s shambling back-and-forth structure masks a sly dramatic sense.
It was brave of Wood, who has embraced the heroic and quixotic and somewhat ridiculous enterprise of arguing against God, to take as the subject matter of his first novel the comical and nihilistic tendencies of that enterprise. He also gets credit, not incidentally, for turning this subject matter into a touching and intellectually nourishing work of fiction.
— Matthew Feeney is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.