Book: God Is Dead
Author: Ron Currie, Jr.
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This one is hard to classify as odd. It’s one of those books that is hard to classify as being in any genre. It resembles some of Vonnegut’s books in that regard, so perhaps that is enough to earn the odd label. Maybe it is odd because it made me wonder if there is a word for eating God. I guess theophagia works but I’d always associated that with the concept of communion. Is there a better word for literally eating the rotting corpse of God? If a book makes you ponder that question, it’s probably odd.
Availability: Published by Penguin Books in 2007, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I bought this book at Christmas time, and I very nearly put it back on the shelf because the cover appalled me. It features a dog sitting outside a cage. Inside the cage is another dog, curled up in a miserable little pile. I couldn’t tell if the caged dog was dead or asleep and not knowing made it worse. In fact, just thinking about the picture is making my stomach hurt a little. I cannot abide it when bad things happen to animals. This reaction taints a lot of my interaction with the world. I bought a Jack Ketchum book knowing full well the plot begins with the death of a dog and even so, I had to stop reading it. I just couldn’t take it. I hope Rugero Deodato, if there is an afterlife, spends a few years getting smacked around by a very large turtle and a couple of very angry pigs. So of course, given this tender-hearted tendency of mine coupled with my perverse desire to torture myself, I had to buy this book that featured a potentially dead dog on the cover being mourned by one of his own.
My instincts were right. This book was going to break my heart and I knew it before I opened it. The plot of this book is a cliche, a hackneyed conversation every wine-cooler and cheap beer-filled college freshman has had: what would happen if God died? But despite the fact that the premise is not original, this book is surprisingly fresh and frightening, at turns tender and sickening, hopeful and horrible. While there were elements that did not work as well as others, the fearlessness in which Currie approaches this story allows me to overlook its weaker parts.
A novel of themed short stories, this book tells of how God died and then was consumed by a pack of wild dogs in Africa. A few chapters are dead ends that just show how the death of God impacts the world at large, but the bulk of the book follows a family that forms and tries to flourish in a world going to hell (and possibly Hell) when God dies. The book doesn’t waste a second getting straight to the point. It begins:
Disguised as a young Dinka woman, God came at dusk to a refugee camp in the North Darfur region of Sudan. He wore a flimsy green cotton dress, battered leather sandals, hoop earrings, and a length of black-and-white beads around his neck. Over his shoulder he carried a cloth sack which held a second dress, a bag of sorghum, and a plastic cup. He’d manifested a wound in the meat of his right calf, a jagged, festering gash upon which fed wriggling clumps of maggots. The purpose of the wound was twofold. First, it enabled him to blend in with the residents of the camp, many of whom bore injuries from the slashing machetes of Janjaweed raiding parties. Second the intense burning ache helped to mitigate the guilt he felt at the lot of the refugees, over which he was, due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, nearly powerless.
I quote this entire paragraph because it shows all that is right and wrong with this book. Intriguing ideas, intense details that border on the disgusting, excellent detail. But then there is that one sentence, the one about the “implacable polytheistic bureaucracy,” and I was in dangerous territory, though I didn’t know it yet. That sentence is meant to show how God is not omnipotent, which is why He does not intervene directly (I use the capitalizations common in pronouns when describing a Christian God because for this discussion it will keep my brain clear if I do). So God is a part of a bureaucracy, also a very cliched idea. But given the way this novel unfolds, that upon the death of the Christian God the world begins to unravel, it is hard to see that happening if God was just a cog in a machine. In his attempts to explain why his God is limited, Currie almost kills the premise of his book, for if God’s loss causes such horror, then His presence alive had to have meant more.
Worse, in a paragraph on the same page, God is implied to be quite powerful. He is suffering under the heat He created. But he is menaced by wild dogs. God could directly affect the weather but He could not drive away wild dogs… These are points that the reader has to ignore in order for this book to work. I was able to ignore them well enough but it was a bit irritating that the entire premise of why God would assume the body of a female Sudanese refugee and die is never truly explained to any real end. He is there to observe the tribal warfare, but why? We never find out.
Moreover, the chapter goes on, explaining how God is searching for a boy, and because He is in such a pretty body, Colin Powell decides to track the boy down. Another boy, a wrong boy is delivered and God speaks to the boy in Arabic, confirming he is the wrong boy. If this has some connection to some religion, some God or god in the form of a human searching for a lost child, it isn’t immediately coming to mind. The quest for the boy clearly has some meaning but I have no idea what it is and without that knowledge, it is impossible to know why it is God has come to earth in mortal form, unknown to any as God, only to die in a bomb strike over Sudan.
And I have absolutely no idea how it is that merely consuming God can make one God-like. Perhaps I am too steeped in tradition, with ideas of how holy communion, wherein via religious magic wine and cracker become blood and flesh, exists to remind people of the sacrifice of Christ. Dogs eat God after a bomb sweep kills God in Sudan and become god-like:
One small death among thousands, his passing could have gone unnoticed if the feral dogs who fed on his corpse hadn’t suddenly begun speaking a mishmash of Greek and Hebrew, and walking along the surface of the White Nile as if it were made of glass.
So theologically, Currie has made his own rules that will prick and annoy those who have a solid Christian look at godhead.
I was able to overlook these problems, problems that more or less break apart the premise that forms this book. It was tempting to stop reading, but because I endured, I came to the conclusion that even though such details are important, they were not the reason to read this book. The reason to read this book is to come to understand that no matter how much faith we have in God, gods, ourselves and our fellow men, there are patterns of behavior that will plague us no matter what. There may be a God or some cosmic presence that shaped this world, but as this novel shows, the essential nature of mankind will endure even the death of our Maker.
So I am glad I just swallowed his strange take on God. I have to admit, however, that discussing this book fills me with dread. There are worse things than dread. Dread, in the hands of the right author, is a very compelling reason to read a book. Currie proved to be one of those right authors.
Currie, who seems like he may be a mainstream writer, has a perversity of mind that was very appealing to me. The world he creates when God dies is not what I would have thought of, miring the reader in a mundane world that somehow seems fantastic. He created a strange dystopia that revolves around unexpected yet unremarkable details. God is eaten by His anadrome, people are prevented from worshiping children in the absence of God, superstition doesn’t die with religion and horrific wars continue, based on philosophy rather than religion. The world he creates is meant to show us how little the death of God means to the ways mankind has always behaved.
Currie discusses the vacant evil of this world, the small deaths of the soul we all suffer as we live and learn what pieces of shit our fellow men can be. This comes from a chapter about a young woman preparing to leave her small town for college just before the world learns God is dead. The girl, Dani, is preparing to go to college and is driving around her small town, remembering times in the past. The part of this chapter that haunts me to this day was Dani remembering, as a little girl, observing a man killing a loon. Her wing was broken and the man in a boat made sport of rushing toward her, forcing her to go under the water. He would turn around and repeat this until the loon, exhausted, was unable to come back to the surface before she drowned.
It was the only time Dani could ever remember crying, as a kid. Why, Mama? she’d howled over and over, and her mother gazing dry-eyed out at the man in his boat, shook her head a little and said, I don’t know, hon. Some men are just that way. And Dani couldn’t understand why her mother didn’t shed even one tear for the bird, or for her daughter’s grief.
Some of us never grow out of this tenderheartedness, as I clearly demonstrate. It’s hard to live in this world and believe in a god worth believing in when there are men in boats who make sport of torturing injured loons. It is a form of sentimentality that causes people to be this way. It’s not a moral high ground, to be so invested in human kindness, so don’t think I am imbuing either my own squeamishness or Dani’s with a higher moral good. But I suspect this is a point that Currie is making, that the tenderhearted are going to have a hard time in this world whether there is a god or not. Dani, even on the cusp of adulthood, leaving for college, is just as sentimental as she was when she was a child. Her sentimentality is a sign of childishness, as is demonstrated in this scene as she imagines packing for college and getting out of her small-town life:
Her mother would ask, What are you doing? And Dani would tell her: I’m leaving, Mama. I’m a woman now, and today all the signs are pointing due south. Simple as that. And her mother might be sad, and a little scared, her baby going away. But Dani thought she’d be equally happy and proud. Get going, girl, she might say after a moment’s thought and a tearful hug. Get out there and do all those things I never did.
Despite her protestations about being ready to leave, ready to fly away from her small town, Dani is still a child in some very cringe-worthy ways. And though Currie misses sound theological examinations of godhead, his characterization is spot-on because the earlier chapters showed us that God is indeed dead and there will be no place for such childish ideation. He shows us this dead-end chapter with Dani to make it clear that the world he is creating is going to hold few slots for women like Dani, who cries for loons and engages in dime store novel melodramatic conversations in her head.
The next chapter has a collection of young men, left alone when the death of God causes the American infrastructure to crumble. A mom dies from diabetes when her insulin fails to come in the mail, families die in car accidents when traffic lights stop working and the town falls apart. The teenagers left behind, caught up in the bravado of youth combined with hopelessness about the state of the world, decide their fates:
“We’re not doing it unless everyone agrees,” Rick said. “All of us together, just like always.”
We sat quietly, alone with our thoughts, for a while after that. I thought about my mother. I thought about my plans to become an architectural engineer (not a dream, strictly speaking, but an aspiration, one that had been fairly important to me). I thought about all the horrifying Mad Max-type scenarios that awaited us when we eventually ran out of food.
Then Rick called each of our names, and one by one we said yes. It was easy, in the dark, somehow, shockingly easy, as if we were deciding nothing more weighty than which toppings to get on a pizza. We lit the lamp, sealed our agreement with a dull clink of near-empty beer cans, and went to bed.
So the world isn’t even ending with a whimper. For these boys it’s ending in an emotionless suicide pact.
But the world recovers and continues even if the one who made it did not. But in the absence of God, people begin to behave strangely, because if nature abhors a vacuum, so does the human psyche. People worship the dogs that ate God, people turn to science for truth, and some turn to children. It all begins with a little boy:
… into this burgeoning chaos came a sort of secular evangelist known as The Child. The Child was just that – a boy of three or so, serene and flawless, with cocoa skin and a vocabulary so rich it seemed he must have swallowed an Oxford English Dictionary. His message, delivered first in town halls and opera houses, and later, as his popularity grew, in arenas and baseball stadiums, was simple: God has abandoned us. The way to salvation is through the child.
By which he meant, of course, every child.
And America, already teetering on the verge of child worship, was only too eager to hear him.
This paragraph is from a chapter is about the psychiatrist who is part of a government initiative to prevent people from worshiping children and making terrible decisions. The psychiatrist, whom I fancy is the boy who survived the suicide pact though I have no textual reason to believe this, must help people stop engaging in child-centric stupid behaviors and his story is important because he eventually gives this up, has his own child and moves on in life, but overall the world the man, his wife and his child occupy is far more interesting to me than they are in and of themselves. The individuals of this family are well-conceived but it’s the post-God world and how Currie shapes this world that are interesting.
Take this scene:
As a psychiatrist, I began to see examples of this strange behavior well before it started to make headlines. Ricky Mascis, an out-of-work single father who I treated free of charge, was troubling over which bills to pay, as he didn’t have enough to cover all of them.
“So, it’s really just, you know, you gotta prioritize,” he told me. “Which isn’t too hard at first. Obviously, if it’s between buying a new TV or paying the power bill, you pay the bill. No brainer. But now I’ve got to decide things, like, should I buy groceries this week, or should I put that hundred dollars into fixing the car so I can get out and look for a job?”
“It’s a tough choice,” I agreed. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I asked Boo where he thought I should put the money.” Boo was Ricky’s four-year-old son, Ricky Jr. “He said I should buy ten sets of Hungry Hungry Hippos.”
“Cute,” I said. “That’s the luxury of being a child, of course. You don’t have to make hard decisions.”
“I don’t know, Doc,” Ricky said. “Boo’s a really smart kid. I mean, supersmart, and I’ve had it with worrying about all this crap. I’m thinkin’ the hippos might be the way to go.”
It feels strange, as an atheist, to realize that the need to believe in anything could survive the death of godhead. There are those who think the will to believe is genetic. Perhaps it is. This book certainly makes me wonder, but I also had to realize that, as arrogant as it makes me sound, there will always be people so fucking stupid that they will always need a leader, be that leader God, Allah or their child who thinks buying a board game is the best use for family funds. I wonder if those board games could be considered a tithe of a sort, giving fruit to one’s god. People like Ricky force those who want society to function on an adult level to try to repress the worship of children, a godless endeavor to be sure.
There is much more to this chapter – the narrator, the most loathed man in the city because people interpret his work as a direct insult to their children – has a complicated past, a hidden girlfriend, and an addiction to ads with kids in them that psychologically resembles addictions to child porn. But none of that was as interesting to me as the way in which people reacted to a world without God by creating a world with mini-gods, which ultimately were not the paternalistic figure that people needed to look after them. They replaced the Father with a child and ultimately such a mindset is unsatisfying.
“I think that’s the hardest thing about God being dead,” Selia says. “You know? Because before, when bad things happened, you could always shake your fist at the sky and say something nasty under your breath and you kind of knew that God would understand, he put you in a shit situation, so you had a right to be pissed. Now, things go sour and there’s no one to blame.”
The book goes on, with Selia marrying the psychiatrist and they have a son who fights in a war, because of course war does not end when religion ends. Wars based on minor philosophical differences that seem ridiculous on their face but, of course, are no more ridiculous than the wars we have now. The son joins the Postmodern Anthropological Marines and ends up in a horrible mess as the PAMs lose the war. Trapped in the Southwest with a lunatic friend whose love for animals is almost as demented as mine, he witnesses what, in my mind, is the true Apocalypse in this novel, and again, the world around this character is far more interesting to me than he is. I do not think this is due to a failure in characterization, but rather because dystopias appeal to me more than men do.
The chapter that affected me the most and inspired in me the desire to discuss it the least was “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God’s Corpse.” Yeah, can’t discuss it. It’s sickening, saddening and powerful and is one of those rare things I read that hurt my heart too much to talk about. And I almost wish this book had ended with this chapter because it best summarizes what this novel is about, as the last feral dog explains the way things are now in the strange, new world:
I can offer no comfort and little insight. I am not your God. Or if I am, I’m no god you can seek out for deliverance or explanation. I’m the kind of God who would eat you without compunction if I were hungry. You’re as naked and alone in this world as you were before finding me. And so the question becomes: Can you abide by this knowledge? Or will it destroy you, empty you out, make you a husk among husks?
Currie’s writing has its problems. In addition to his strange take on theological assumptions, he also overuses commas to the point that it can at times destroy a sentence. This is a “takes one to know one” situation because I do this too. It’s a habit that dies hard. But overall, this was one of those unnerving, excellent books that made me love it despite its flaws because it asks the right questions, creates a dystopia that makes sense but is unexpected, and engages in writing that is almost cruel in its utter lack of sentimentality. I both loved and hated this book often for the same reasons, because it is a hard book to read and a hard book to like. But it is a book that I am glad I read because I like having my heart broken. Prose that rips open the wounds you may carry and poses as many theological and social questions as this book does is worth a read.