Friday, June 21, 2013

Some Thoughts on God Is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr.

God Is Dead
Ron Currie, Jr
192 pages
Published 2007

Some stream-of-conscious thoughts on God Is Dead...

The inside flap in God Is Dead asks, "If God took human form and was killed, what would become of life as we know it?"

I have a hard time with short story collections. They typically take an eternity for me to read, but I read this one pretty quickly.  I practically devoured it, actually

People don't react well to something called God Is Dead. I felt like I was baiting people when I carried it around or read it in public. I wondered if Ron Currie, Jr. was baiting people with this title. I think the concept of writing about what would happen to the world if God really, truly ceased to exist in the world is kind of baiting the general public. It would be so easy to write something cynical and hateful and call it God Is Dead, but this book is not that.

Many of the reviews I've read of this story collection make a big deal out of the opening story in which Colin Powell loses his shit. I thought it was maybe the least compelling story in this collection and felt like it was just an opportunity to take the piss out of George W. Bush. It was funny though.

I'm maybe not giving that story enough credit. It's the title story, after all and sets up the premise of the entire collection and it's clever and funny and all of those things, but it just kind of fell short for me. Maybe because it's the only story that has solid real-world references? It threw me for a loop when Michael Chabon included Barak Obama as a character in Telegraph Avenue. Maybe I have a bias against that kind of thing? Maybe the story is really great, but I can't see past the characters?

Most reviews tend to downplay the stories at the end of the collection, ("The Helmet of Salvation and the Sword of the Spirit" and "Retreat").

I'll admit that the first of those stories was a little hard to get into, but once I'd figured out what was going on, I re-started the story and I loved it.

I keep thinking about how, despite all of these scenarios in which God no longer exists, humanity keeps doing what it's been doing since the beginning of time.

And maybe that's the point of all of these stories?

Let's look at "The Helmet of Salvation and the Sword of the Spirit." I'm tempted to spend more time talking about the greater world situation in which there is an epic war between the Postmodern Anthropologists  and the Evolutionary Psychologists.  Since there's no more religion (because no God, remember?), humans have found new ways to split into factions and in this case, it's those who believe in free will against those who believe in genetic predetermination.

As humans, we're not happy unless there some kind of "other" to rail against.

But the story has multiple layers. Follow me here. First layer: God is dead and traditional religion is obsolete. Second layer: There's this crazy war going on. Third layer: parents just don't understand. The heart of the story is about a boy named Arnold who feels out of touch with his mother. Yet it's really tempting to comment on how humanity has replaced fighting over differing concepts of God to fighting about differing concepts of human existence (which, if we're being honest, aren't that different). I could easily write an entire blog post unpacking the second layer of this story without ever really discussing the heart of the story. It's really well done.

Most of the stories are like this. I could list each out, give you the framework of the second layer and then reveal the real story at the center.

What happens is kind of the opposite of that whole "can't see the forest for the trees" thing. The framework for the story is often so dazzling that when it's over you remember that second layer more than the actual core of the story.

I think what I'm trying to get at here is that the world-building sometimes steals the spotlight. No, I don't think that's what I'm trying to say. It's more like a slight-of-hand trick. You get distracted by the flashy part. Maybe it's subversive in its own literary way.

It's not a bad thing, it's just a thing. George Saunders does the same thing in his own way and apparently he's  awesome and has written the best book of the year.

And I guess when I really think about it, most (good) fiction operates that way. Set up an interesting premise that lets the author explore the human condition in a new way. So I guess that God Is Dead succeeds in that way.

Since I've read Ron Currie, Jr.'s two other books, it's hard to put God Is Dead in the context of the rest of his work other than it feels less mature than the later stuff (as is typical for a first book, I guess). You can see the darkness in Everything Matters! and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles in the stories "Indian Summer" and "My Brother The Murderer." But you can also see the heart (so, so much heart in those two later works) in "The Bridge."

My man-crush on Ron Currie, Jr. is now well established and I'm still deeply embarrassed that he knows about it. I plan to write about his other two books shortly.

Do I recommend God Is Dead?  I sure do. If nothing else, it's imaginative and sometimes touching and other times revolting. Regardless, it touched a nerve in me and it might do the same for you.

Book Source: St. Louis Public Library

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