I've decided to use this space to review some recent books. I'm attempting to identify books that might matter to an intelligent adult. Unfortunately, that rules out most commercial genre fiction. The SF and fantasy genre, which at one time was an area of almost breathless exploration, has become a dismal realm of hidebound conventionality in which the same tired tropes and plot devices are trotted out ad nauseam. There’s a larger story at work here, of the intersection of commerce and the popular arts. High moments in popular art begin when no one has cracked the commercial code sufficiently to know what will work, and a proliferation of possibilities is available. Combine a receptive audience, a writer with an inner vision, and the basic commercial uncertainty about what works or can be made to work and presto, you get Lord Dunsany and R. A. Lafferty. Then someone cracks the code of commerce and you get Arkady Martine and Sarah Pinsker.
Lydia Millet is a writer of some talent who has written quite a few novels. Her latest caught my eye.
The opening chapters of Genesis can be read as a coming of age story: Adam and Eve, who are living in a golden age of carefree joy, learn the nature of good and evil and must leave the garden of childhood and live in the world of adulthood, where they earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. An idea such as this may be what gave Lydia Millet the idea for A Children’s Bible.
At the book’s start we are presented with a gaping generational divide. The adults are idle and useless, doing little more than hanging around waiting to die. The children are lively and active, most of them at that most attractive age when the youth is just starting to rise into the grown person. Overlaid onto this generational divide is another, that of the impending climate crisis. A storm of Biblical proportions is coming which will bring civilization to an end, and the children blame their parents for creating a disaster they will have to endure. Of course we, the readers, know the state of civilization was not wholly the creation of their parents, but the children are unable to see their parents as people like themselves who inherited a system they had no choice but to conform to. A student of history is likely to conclude that people have always been just people, stumbling from one disaster to another and hoping that the ultimate hammer won’t come down in their time. But now the hammer is coming down, and if civilization at its very peak has created a generation like the parents in this book, then God should destroy it and start again.
“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.” The children see this coming, because their parents have broken not only the laws of nature, they have broken God’s moral law.
There are signs that God is relenting after the fist devastation caused by the storm. This is the reason for the mention of the Aurora Borealis in Chapter 5, which corresponds to the rainbow following Noah's flood.
It would be interesting to see how this plays out, but the writing in this book is rather careless. I can’t help but feel the book was thrown together in a hurry. There are a lot of characters, but all of them, with the exception of Evie and Jack, are nothing more than a name and a distinguishing attribute. The author has not made the effort to inhabit her characters, which is necessary to bring them to life. Millet seems to be aware of this. She herself, at one point, says, “As though, if you held the parents up to the light – you could lift them easily, like paper – you’d be able to see right through them.” What she says of the parents is true of the children as well. Also, the landscape they inhabit is not clearly depicted. I can’t feel the environment. Nothing rubs up against me. The author leaves all the heavy lifting to the reader’s imagination. Millet has written a lot of books in a relatively short period of time, and I have the feeling she is laboring under the commercial lash to get a book out. However, this is one book that could have benefited from a longer process of gestation. In it’s current state,it feels unformed. Evie herself is little more than a tone of voice and a resentment. She doesn’t behave like any adolescent girl I’ve ever known. Jack is made interesting because he bears the only idea expressed in the book, that God is nature and Jesus is science. Jack says, “Science comes from nature. It’s kind of a branch of it. Like Jesus is a branch of God. And if we believe science is true, then we can act. And we’ll be saved . . . Like the earth. The climate. The animals. Heaven’s part of the code. It just means, a good place for us all to live.”
By the way, in this context I can't help but remark one bright moment in the book. When Jack lists the ways in which Jesus is like science, number four is "Walks on water (HOVERCRAFT!!)" I love that HOVERCRAFT!!
Anyway, let’s think about this for a moment. Jack is saying civilization has produced, and is largely made possible by, science. And if we use it, we can save ourselves from impending disaster. Is there anything supporting this idea in the book? It is nature, acting according to the laws of science, that is threatening to destroy civilization. How will humanity be saved? In the book, the children are led to the promised land where the unseen owner gives them the ten commandments they must obey. Subsequently they are intimidated and imperiled by a gang of thieves with guns who take over their compound. The thieves crucify the angel Mattie. At this point the children are rescued when the owner, a veritable deus ex machina, arrives and destroys the evil bandits because “they broke the rules.” This is like nature destroying the civilization of the parents because they broke the rules necessary to conserve the ecology. (On another level, it is also the Day of Judgement, when the saved are separated from the damned.) However, God (Nature) will intervene to rescue mankind if they place their trust in science. This is the hope Millet holds out for us. Perhaps the Bible says it best: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”
Of course, Millet still has to contend with the generational divide. We all know what is coming, it’s a story that’s been enacted generation after untold generation: the parents will undergo a process of decay, dissolution, dementia and death, at the end of which the children will have become like them. But true to form, she takes the easy way out. The children don’t have to watch over their parents’ ultimate demise. The parents simply disappear. One day the children wake up and their parents have vanished. Into thin air. Poof. And then the book ends. A bit of a disappointment.
Ultimately, I would judge the book only a partial success. Millet’s message is clear, but her technique is lacking. She needs to develop her powers of observation, in order to see clearly the characters who inhabit her novel and the surroundings in which they live. I’d like to see her do that, and breathe more life into the world she creates. She clearly has the necessary intelligence; I think she’s capable of writing something that really matters.