Over the past two years, I have been honing my thoughts about fiction. And I just received some help from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in that regard: I have (finally) read Good Omens. (Thank you, Kate Flynn – you were very generous to loan me such a great book – I promise to keep faith with you and return it.)
I don’t know about you, but I suspect that I am typical rather than outstanding among readers in the tendency to become absorbed into the world of whatever book I am reading. This can mean that when reading, too often readers feel that they are gaining greater insight into the world and how it works — instead of understanding that the world of a book is at best a collection of the author’s own insights.
I started becoming a more critical reader about ten years ago – less easily absorbed, more able to hold a book at enough of a distance to understand that I was reading an author, instead of unquestioningly allowing each new book to redirect my thinking (no longer “blown about by every wind of doctrine…”)
Which is especially good when it comes to these “battle between good and evil” books.
Usually sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are prominent among what people mean when they use the term “speculative fiction” – fiction in which the world is not going about business as usual. But in fairness, all fiction is speculative: all fiction takes place in an alternate universe that is the creation of the author – and perhaps “literary fiction” is the more dangerous for seeming to be set in the “real world,” when in reality the characters and the settings and the way that one event leads to another reflects the author’s philosophy of life as much as in more obviously contrived universes.
Of course, there is so much more that may be altered in “speculative fiction” – and this is usually done in service of addressing ultimate concerns. Which may be why “the end of the world” is so ripe for the speculative fiction treatment. There are a number of agnostic/atheist writers who are drawn to write fiction loosely based on their ideas of what Christians mean by the Apocalypse – Evil is usually misunderstood or more interesting, God is usually rigid, distant, disinterested. Usually those who find themselves compelled to read such works are God haunted in some way, and when they are swept up in the narrative, echoing “yes, yes – of course!” they find themselves in crisis: how shall they reconcile what they had understood about God before encountering the book with what they now understand, given the “reality” of the world of the book they are now immersed in? It escapes all too many that God and Satan, angels and demons all exist as fictional characters in these books – creations of their authors like any other fictional characters. (Which typically troubles the authors not at all, since for them God and Satan, angels and demons are always and only fictional characters.)
Good Omens was better than most books in this sub-genre. And not just in that it was better written – if the book only gives me insight into the minds of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, then that is a good gift indeed. They must be a lot of fun, and they are now definitely on my short list for the old “if you could have any person living or dead join you for dinner…” question. They are brilliant and hilarious, and their book exhibits faith in the goodness of everyday life and friendship.
But as much fun as I had with what Pratchett and Gaiman imagined the friendship between an angel and a demon might look like, Good Omens was extraordinary in that it was more complex than the usual “evil is so misunderstood / God is such a right bastard” storyline. Evil was evil. God was inscrutable. Fate was precise and yet thwartable at the same time. In the face of all that was wrong with the world on a macro level and micro level, love of the particular triumphed over rage.
But I cannot say that I had any “a-ha!” moments about the nature of life, or God, or good and evil. Because I believe in God’s wisdom and love for us, I am not for a minute worried about Heaven being boring – and since I believe in the resurrection of the body / the renewal of all creation, I don’t see God’s ultimate triumph and a fully sensuous embodied existence as an either/or proposition. And I am going to be extraordinarily surprised if Hell turns out to be permanently populated.
So Neil and Terry – if either of you ever read this, I would love to have a beer with you should you ever find yourself in North Carolina. Scratch that – I would fly to almost anywhere for the privilege of a long conversation in a pub with either or both of you.
To the rest of you out there: remember when you are reading Good Omens – or any other book (or blog post) for that matter – that when you read you are reading an author – not an absolute and reliable guide to what life, relationships, God, or anything else is all about.