"Mortality has become an ambiguous concept of late. Our deepest thinkers are stumped."
--Victor Shamberg, from The Eternal Footman
Ever since God died, Nora Burkhart has been having a rough life. After the death of her parents and her husband's fatal heart attack she learns that her son has been stricken with a seemingly incurable disease called abulia. All the while, the skull of God grins down on her mercilessly high above Earth. She can't seem to get away from all the death that surrounds her.
Death and mortality are the driving forces in James Morrow's novel The Eternal Footman, the final book in a loose trilogy (which includes Towing Jehovah and Blameless in Abaddon). After God's death, His corpse floats in the ocean, deteriorating until it finally explodes, and Morrow puts the people of Earth on cleanup detail for God's body, the Corpus Dei.
Despite the dark subject matter, the novel is not the dreary, angst-ridden, soul-crying-out-in-the-wilderness experience that a reader would expect in a novel so focused on life's end. Instead, with his quirky characters, inspired writing, and wild plotlines that take the reader from a devastated and embattled New York City to a paddlewheel boat crossing the Gulf of Mexico, Morrow tells a sweeping tale of hope and love in a (literally) Godless world.
At the start of The Eternal Footman, over a decade after the first book, all that is left of the Holy Corpse is His grinning skull, which somehow has been locked into geosynchronous orbit over the Western Hemisphere (the Vatican even rents out space on the Corpus Dei for laser advertisements like "Coke is It!"). Despite the absurdity -- and potential offensiveness -- of Morrow's initial premise, the rest of the novel is a joy of irreverent, sharply-barbed satire, mixed with surprisingly textured philosophical insight.
The reaction to the death of God is mixed. When Gerard Korty, a famed sculptor, learns of the Creator's demise, he feels untouched: "For the first time ever, he saw the loss of his faith as an asset, a protection against the desolation he might otherwise be feeling." God's death allows humans to at last reach maturity, a philosopher in the novel proclaims; people no longer need to rely upon God for the answers to their questions. Call it a case of divine non-intervention.
Many fall into despair and violence; others fall victim to the deadly epidemic of abulia. The plague strikes Nora Burkhardt's son Kevin in the form of a "fetch," a living embodiment of Kevin's death who slowly sucks the life from the boy. The disease is called the abulic plague, and its sufferers are "Nietzsche-positive," riddled with nihilism. With their own personal fetch just around the corner, taking up residence in their homes, people will no longer forget about their deaths, curing them of their "death amnesia":
According to Aeschylus, prior to Prometheus's intervention everyone on Earth knew the exact date and hour of his death, a situation inflicting chronic lethargy on the majority of humankind. When at last unburdened of this awful information, people gradually -- inevitably -- began acting as if they might live forever. . . . Take away the average person's obliviousness to oblivion, and he becomes as torpid as Hamlet on Prozac.
Morrow is able to balance the morbidity with large doses of humor, with an emphasis on gallows humor -- Kevin's fetch shares an endless array of jokes about death, which he is compiling into a book he wants to call Corn on the Macabre. Then there is the reliquary for God's bones designed by Korty (and grossly distorted by the Vatican in its construction) that involves 184 popes, each holding a bone from God's body ("like a highly exclusive kennel club, each about to throw a dog a bone"), and the ongoing conversation between statues of the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the gassy Martin Luther over the future of humanity.
Unsurprisingly, organized religion gets taken to task again and again by Morrow as the novel progresses. Adrian Lucido, a megalomaniac psychoanalyst, creates a new religion to replace the orbiting deity, claiming that no existing religion can stand against "an all-consuming nihilism." Once again, the sculptor Korty is called on to mass-produce the "false idols" for the new gods Lucido creates, a job he enjoys until Lucido attempts to cure the abulia epidemic in a decidedly unconventional manner.
Morrow, like Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a master of magic realism. He balances the realistic and the fantastic in his tale, conveying both aspects with equal precision and elegance. His powers of realistic description are on display in the novel's first chapter, which tells of the first fifteen years of Kevin's life, from embryo to teen-ager, without resorting to bland exposition. His mix of the patently absurd and the painfully real is blended very well, with very few missteps.
Also, there were countless pages I flagged for their turns of phrase and ironic twists (or both, as was often the case), such as where Morrow described plague-weary New Englanders, casting "a worried eye on the calendar, toward a winter bearing down on them like a Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, a rider with Freon in his arteries and an icicle hanging from each nostril."
The only complaint I had with the novel was that at times the philosophy and theory became a bit thick. Morrow obviously knows his history, his geography, and his dead male writers, especially Dante. But when he delves deeper into Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, and other philosophers (especially during Lucido's rants), the plot slows and some of his irreverent momentum is lost. He accomplishes more with his imagined dialogues between Erasmus and Luther, and those conversations are filled with humor and insight that strengthens his themes. As one of his characters states: "Wisdom smiles, but it never smirks."
(Published in hardcover by Harcourt Brace, Nov. 1999; to be published in trade paperback in October 2000.)
Michael Jasper is the Newsletter Editor for Strange Horizons.
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