Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Michel Faber's "The Fire Gospel": Book Review

Featuring a splendidly observed chapter, "Judges," which shows an eager if rather callow, previously unknown, scholar on his book tour checking his Amazon rating, mulling over his reviews, Faber as a bestselling author (the deservedly successful "The Crimson Petal & the White") knows his subject. He revamps the myth of Prometheus for "The Myths" series from Canongate; this story of the hapless mortal who steals fire from the gods enriches the manic, wry, and entertaining story comprising this brief, fast-paced, witty novel, readable in a sitting or two.

Theo finds nine scrolls written by Malchus, Caiaphas' spy who had his ear severed by an angry Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. Malchus watches a less than edifying crucifixion of Jesus and renders an alternative account of the Deposition (removal of the body of Christ) which challenges the gospel accounts of any bodily Resurrection. He converts to follow Jesus after an ironic, yet movingly told, inversion of baptism.

Malchus writes his report in the language Jesus and his disciples spoke, Aramaic. The scrolls are dated circa AD 40, far before any Gospel. They predate Paul's letters. They relate the last hours of Jesus in the vernacular of Roman Palestine, therefore "the oldest surviving piece of Christian literature," from a witness on Calvary.

Naturally, when Theo, a flabby youngish Toronto-based academic, spirits these documents back from their hiding place-- revealed after the museum in Mosul he visited was bombed-- he begins to study them. Well-preserved, they represent a dramatic statement. Not for their polished prose, but for their fiery power to undermine what the churches and preachers control. Understandably, in the wake of "The Da Vinci Code," he's excited by their potentially lucrative contents.

He's also bored. Their literary quality lacking, their narrator a tiresome nebbish, they're still a truly eyewitness telling of the good news that, fifty years prior to Matthew or John, appears (according to expert Theo) verifiable. The early portions prove as dull as most real-life apocryphal texts. However, I must admit the section in the chapter "Acts" overcame tedium and ends movingly. A clever salesman of his own text, Faber lets the story Malchus tells unfold gradually as his narrative of Theo's impetuous promotion of this "oldest Christian gospel" continues.

It's a credit to Faber that he manages to imitate both the awkward quality of Dead Sea Scrolls-types of scriptures, and the sporadically poetic verses of Gnostics. While parts of the storyline of Theo's promotional forays veered into welcome if tangential satire of the book world, the main structure elaborates intriguingly upon Prometheus, whom Theo will come to recall as his adventure escalates. (I recommend Wilton Barnhardt's "Gospel," by the way, as another novel on this general theme.)

Ultimately, as with fire, the power of what's marketed as "The Fifth Gospel" lies more in how Malchus' handwritten documents are interpreted, rather than their inherent value. Of course, this could be said of any religious writings.

But, the set of manuscripts maxes out at thirty pages with ample margins and large font. Theo has to expand these complaints and anecdotes of Malchus (Faber's little novel earns 213 generously formatted pages but Amazon lists it at a meager 186!) with his own tale of how he came to find them in Iraq and how he got them home.

Like the text that Theo Griepenkerl finds literally dropped at his feet, this adaptation of an ancient story that holds appeal thousands of years later, despite translation and shifts in faith, has found its critics for some padding of a slight plot. I do think a few pages could have been sharpened; the plot for a significant stretch does follow not very surprising directions after its red-hot first half. And, I don't know what to make of Jennifer anymore than Theo apparently did.

Yet, Faber wraps it up in the last few pages with aplomb; Faber shows again how his skewed perspective aligns with his graceful humanity and his vision of meaning. Advance reviewers appear to be let down by the second half. I was not, for he makes a comeback in the very last section, as he has before. A longtime admirer, I'm as delighted by Faber as I have been with his fiction. You can find his shorter stories packaged as "Vanilla Bright Like Eminem."

(That anthology was tellingly retitled for the American market from "The Fahrenheit Twins;" also find novellas collected as "The Courage Consort" a.k.a. in Britain as "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps"-- I reviewed both books on my blog and on Amazon US. I also enjoyed his daring novel "Under the Skin" along with that triple-decker "Crimson Petal"-- my wife loved the latter's CD-audio version. By the way: why isn't "The Apple," further "Crimson" stories, in print outside of Britain? Faber earns his right to satirize the fickle book business here.)

Faber's prose shines. A few early examples? As he's kicked out of their flat, telling his suddenly ex-girlfriend about his escape from death in Iraq: "Meredith was unimpressed by his little display of sublimated joy in the dismemberment of a female." (13) Soon after: "The cold bed was waiting for him, there was half a pound of salami-encrusted, Pepsi-marinated mozzarella lodged in his stomach, and Meredith probably had her legs wrapped around the neck of the wildlife photographer by now." (38-39) To a publisher: "'My book isn't about teaching dogs geometry,' Theo reminded him." (48: this passage makes bemused sense in context!)

And, speaking of misspellers, hacks, ill-informed or pedantic audiences, Faber's chapter dramatizing Amazon's rating and reviewing system from an author's perspective deserves applause. (I recall one fictional predecessor applying a plot-point through this review process, a brief episode in Jonathan Raban's novel "Surveillance," also reviewed of course by me here and on Amazon!) Only one of the reviewers quoted takes time to thoughtfully critique Theo's work in a balanced, scholarly, and complete manner. Yet, the odds are stacked. "Twenty-three of fifty-nine people apparently found Frank Felperin's review 'helpful', which, given the trouble Frank had gone to, seemed a tad ungenerous." (85). I know that feeling!

Regarding the debased ravings-- and Faber glories bitterly in their typos, rants, and boilerplate-- that get posted on this very medium: "He wished there was a more dignified, alternative version of Amazon that well-educated people could access, an Amazon where such trash was automatically filtered out. He felt like a classical conductor forced to share a stage with a bunch of simpering pop babes." (79) (I add that many classical CD's feature cover shots of only the most luscious divas or prodigies, if female at least; savvy marketing works to hawk higher culture as well as middlebrow wares.)

Back to Theo's dilemmas after he captures the divine spark: are those goods stolen if the museum had no idea they had been hidden-- in the statue that falls apart in the bombing as Theo cowers inside a museum chamber? Are they Iraqi patrimony? How will true believers react to this obscure atheist on talk shows hawking his wares? Can he assert his claim to them vs. those on the Net ready to pounce on the "fire gospel" he translates, as public domain, once the book-- complete with silver-foil embossed title and cut-away double cover-- draws the attention Theo craves along with the profits and luxuries? Will he be able to handle the leap from linguist to sybarite?

I will not reveal anything beyond the exact mid-portion of the plot. Enjoy this fable yourself, especially as an Amazon scanner of reviews. Yet, one hint: at the apex of his powers, a lissome publicist warns Theo, at number one on the New York Times list. "'Go easy on the hubris, lover,' she cooed." (105)

(P.S. Christian Griepenkerl [1839-1912] painted "The Theft of Fire.")

(Obviously, cross-posted to Amazon. Second in the queue; another critic beat me to it earlier today.)

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