BKafka is said to have quipped about G.K. Chesterton, "He seems so happy, one can almost believe he has found God." But then, Kafka wasn't Chesterton's son. If he had been, his attitude toward God might have been as venal and mean-spirited as that of Thomas Bunting in James Wood's first novel, The Book Against God.
Bunting is an intellectual--an intellectual in a modern English novel, meaning an academic with raging neuroses. He loves his classical pianist wife (though he knows no way to express it aside from immature jealousy). He also loves his father, a cheery country vicar, but is bewildered and unsettled by the old man's unquestioning faith. (The most charitable image of God Bunting can conjure is that of "a father who breaks his son's leg just so that he can watch his son learn how to appeal to his dad for help in mending it.")
His revenge--perhaps more against his father, one imagines, than against God--is a work in progress entitled "The Book Against God," or as he affectionately refers to it, "BAG." Dodging his seven-years-delayed doctoral thesis and taking time off from his hated job writing newspaper obituaries about famous scholars, Bunting likes to "copy out apposite religious and anti-religious quotations, and develop arguments about [his] own theological and philosophical matters."
Bunting continues about the BAG:
It has swelled to four large notebooks. It has really become my life's work as far as I am concerned. And whenever I was about to begin one of those damned obituaries, I found myself drawn to some crucial novelty in my BAG, and the day would disappear into theology and anti-theology.
If this is the work of an atheist, it's an atheist unhappy in his disbelief. C.S. Lewis himself did not devote more intensive thought to the subject of God than does Thomas Bunting.
Wood is a brilliant and frequently quoted critic who is best known in this country for his work in The New Republic. Happily, Wood doesn't write like a critic, which is to say he doesn't write fiction as most critics have, from Sainte-Beuve to James Wolcott. (Edmund Wilson, though he did not enjoy penning fiction, wrote it well and stands alongside Wood as an odd and happy exception). The Book Against God isn't stilted, safe, or derivative: It's real flesh and blood--rather old-fashioned considering Wood's tastes as a critic--with humor, passion, and some serious flaws that strangely serve to make the novel more endearing.
A skeleton key to TBAG might be found in the author's introduction to his 1999 nonfiction collection, The Broken Estate. "If one chooses not to believe," he writes, "one's choice is marked under the category of a refusal, and is thus never really free: It is the duress of a recoil. Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free." As polemic, this is nonsense; believers and atheists alike will tell you, Pascal and William James notwithstanding, that belief or disbelief is hardly a matter of "choice." As Wood is no believer himself, he is hardly in a position to determine that "once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free." I'm no expert on this, but as Thomas Bunting's father could have told him, some believers, most notably G.K. Chesterton, have maintained that it was precisely their belief that set them free.
Though Bunting's worldview seems perilously close to Wood's own, The Book Against God isn't a diatribe, and Bunting--a whiner, slacker, and compulsive liar--is at once insufferable and compelling. It's difficult to pin down precisely why this is, though I suspect it has something to do with hating the sin and loving the sinner. For instance, take his obsession with lying. "I dislike my lies," Bunting claims. "Morality aside, lies add to the general confusion of my life, a confusion I sincerely want to reduce." The absence of Shavian double talk is refreshing; who else but a relentless seeker of truth would submit himself to such pitiless self-examination? (As an original moralist, Bunting would make Henry Doolittle blush with shame.)
We've heard arguments like Bunting's before--"I simply repeat that either God doesn't exist, or if He exists, He is not a creator worthy of worship, love, or even comprehension"--but somehow Wood makes them seem fresh. Some would relegate questions about the existence of God to the 19th-century novel, but why is the issue less vital for us than for Ivan Karamazov?
One wishes Wood hadn't given in to the temptation of flashing his wit quite so often. (Removing a sticker from a review copy of a book, he glues it to the cover of a Bible, which then reads, "This is an advance copy sent in lieu of a proof.") There are worse things than a good laugh, though.
Most novels that deal with the subject of religion, whether approvingly or not, preach to the converted. The Book Against God is really the book against smugness and, God willing, it will probably fascinate, irritate, and disturb just about everyone from Karl Marx to Billy Graham.