Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


In yesterday's post on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy I quoted Adam Roberts commenting on the “niceness” of KSR's characters, and it might be worth noting that in his own fiction Adam rarely gives us nice characters. Sometimes they're decent enough people, though in exceptionally challenging circumstances, the kinds of circumstances that make decent people do some less-than-decent things. In other cases Adam's characters are rather nasty, or seriously messed-up in one way or another — perverted, one might say, sometimes in the commonplace sense but always in the etymological sense: torqued from the true, twisted towards eccentric paths.

You know what else is kinda perverted? A writer dedicating a work to a friend who had read it in draft and had some reservations about it. A few months ago I read a draft of a novella Adam had written and gave him some feedback, and now I see he has published it as an e-book. I bought it, eager to see what he had done with it, and … well, more on what he has done with it in a moment, but I got to the end and saw this:

Bethany is dedicated to my friend Alan Jacobs, who read and disliked an earlier draft of it. I have taken out some of the things to which he, rightly, I think, objected; but much of what he disliked, I fear, remains.

Now isn't that kind of … perverted? I ask you.

Speaking of perversion, the protagonist of Bethany is a deeply disfigured person, and one of the things the story encourages us to do is to think about why that is —how people get that way — and that of course is a question that leads to many others. Bethany is a theological fable: like Voltaire's Candide with the jokes removed and with no answers given, at the end or anywhere else, to its questions. (Adam is often a really funny writer but this isn't a funny book.)

Adam says that his story is a kind of dialogue with Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, a book I haven't read, so I'm probably missing a good deal. But my own thoughts about Bethany start with one of its epigraphs, taken from a writer Nabokov quotes in that novel, except that Nabokov or one of his characters made up the writer, so I guess the epigraph was written by Nabokov. Anyway, here it is:

Human philosophers ponder what they call theodicy, which is to say, this question: “if God is love how can He be so cruel to us”? But this is quite the wrong way about—quite the wrong way to think of the matter. What we need, and most pressingly, is an anthrodicy. After all, it was men who tortured God to death on the cross, not the reverse. God joys in the life of men. It was a man who gloated God is dead. How may we descend into the chasm of the why of all this?

One might begin by saying that Jesus Christ is himself anthrodicy: he justifies the ways of Man to God, he who “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world”. But then, since “it is he who has made us, and not we ourselves”, every anthrodicy circles back to a theodicy, does it not?

Suppose someone were to think along these lines:

The idea took root in Todd’s mind: to hunt turkeys was less of an achievement than hunting boar, which was less than hunting bears, which was less than hunting lions, which was less than hunting cunning and armed men. The logic had a kind of inescapability to it. The greatest hunt would be to hunt the greatest creature, the most dangerous prey, to face the biggest risk and survive it. To hunt animals was one thing; and to hunt human beings another; but to hunt and kill God was the grandest destiny of any individual. Todd took another swig of beer, and the idea set, as crystals sometimes solidify out of solution in one magnificent and swift transition. That was why God had established the universe the way He had—he had looked at himself and been displeased with his invulnerability, and so he had incarnated himself as a creature that could be killed. No, more than that: as a creature that had to be killed in order for the world to be saved. Why had he done this? Because God understood the deep nature of man, that man is defined by his nature as a hunter. And so God had set the hunt.

Is a person thinking along these lines distinctively depraved? Or is he, by contrast, connecting in some meaningful way to the notorious obscurity of God's purposes and the means by which those purposes are realized? What happens when you try to join, as Todd does, paleoneurology and the doctrine of God? “What a death were it then to see God die?” asked John Donne —but what kind of death (or life) would it be to kill God, the God who made us hunters and then ranged himself among our prey?

You'd have to be some kind of pervert to ask questions like that.


  • I do hope that for all the joking it's clear that I am truly honored by Adam's dedication — there are few novelists today working at his level, and he's also One of the Good Guys, so it means a lot to me.

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