Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review - Towing Jehovah

Towing Jehovah
by James Morrow
1995 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

After reading Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter I was looking forward to Towing Jehovah. Only Begotten Daughter was intriguingly philosophical and despite some problems with it I enjoyed it quite a bit. A novel of similar style built on a more unique premise sounded right up my ally.

Anthony Van Horne was a great ship's captain until he left the bridge one evening due to illness and and a massive oil spill happened in his absence. He can't escape the guilt but an opportunity presents itself when an angel appears to him. The angel informs him that God has died and his two mile long corpse is floating in the Atlantic ocean. The angels have prepared a tomb for corpse and conscripted the Vatican in arranging for a ship to tow his body. The angels are insistent on Van Horne captaining the ship.

There are other forces at work to defeat the mission: militant atheists who cannot bear the thought of any evidence of God even if it is dead, predators slowly consuming the body, and the fact that mankind reacts poorly the realization that there is no higher power sitting in judgment of them. Over all of this hangs the question of just how God died.

The best thing in the novel is the concept. The corpse of God looks just like the traditional images such as the one on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Placing such common cultural images in contrast to the modern world is a great hook and it fires the imagination. The question of how the western world would react to finding out that their faiths were more or less correct and that their divine patron is gone is interesting (don't ask me how Hindus and Buddhists react; they apparently don't exist in Morrow's novel).

The plot is fairly strong as well. Morrow starts with a ticking clock to get God into freezing waters before his neurons decay too badly. Throwing in multiple factions who want to insure that God's corpse is never discovered for completely different reasons adds some intriguing complications.

Morrow shows similar skill in handling the big concepts in Towing Jehovah as he did in Only Begotten Daughter, though it falls flat at some points. A Jesuit priest holding out ethical philosophy as a stand-in for God is interesting; the same priest insisting that those same arguments would hold off blue-collar works turned pagan is less effective. I understand the effect that Morrow was going for with that sequence but that doesn't justify how clumsy it is.

So I was inclined to like Towing Jehovah because the ideas were interesting. Unfortunately the book is completely undermined by Morrows weak prose. The novel is an allegorical one and given the themes that is understandable. It's not a particularly deep allegory, though that isn't the problem. What happens is that after something allegorical happens someone makes a comment or there's something in the narration that points the allegory out to the reader. It's like you're reading the novel with the author nudging you in the ribs every few pages and saying, "Hey, did you get that? Huh, get it? Wasn't that clever?" Allegory is like humor: if you point it out and explain it you ruin it.

The net result of dealing with this for hundreds of pages is that I wound up hating the narrative voice of the Towing Jehovah. That's the fundamental building block of a novel and a problem there breaks the reader from the story.

For that reason I can't recommend Towing Jehovah. I can understand how some people can overlook that problem but it was like constantly rubbing my brain with sandpaper as I read it. I liked in Only Begotten Daughter that Morrow managed to avoid drifting too far into preaching; in Towing Jehovah I feel that he became obsessed with being sure that the readers got his message to the detriment on the book.