A Critic’s Tidy First Novel Mixes Theology and Humor

The Book Against God , by James Wood. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 257 pages, $24.

The word around town is that James Wood’s novel, his first published fiction, is no good, and that he should stick to criticism. Of course he should stick to criticism (redundant disclosure: The publisher advertised the novel with a quote from me proclaiming him the best literary critic of his generation), but I also think that The Book Against God is both better than the gossip allows and also incontrovertible evidence that Mr. Wood will not rest until he’s expressed himself fully in fictional form. His literary essays have always been lush and writerly, and his novel is packed with little imaginative leaps, mini frolics that shout out: “This is writing, the free play of fancy fixed on the page!” He’s hooked on metaphor. Like it or not, more novels are on the way.

Let’s just hope that Mr. Wood learns to make up stories. Nothing much happens in The Book Against God , a first-person account of a rough patch in the career, marriage and family life of Thomas Bunting, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and an inveterate liar. I found Thomas witty and perceptive and entertaining enough to keep me reading perfectly happily for the 250 pages it takes to summarize his predicament and identify its proximate causes-but most readers are partial to plot; they like, at least, to encounter a succession of dramatic incidents. In Mr. Wood’s novel, as you might have guessed from the title, theological argument substitutes for action. As you might not have guessed, either from the title or from my description so far, the novel is meant to be comic. And humor rarely mixes well with theology.

The Book Against God is static and talky and only mildly funny, but never dull. Vivid, credible, engaging characters save the reader from tedium-that, and Mr. Wood’s willfully lively descriptive flourishes.

Jane, his wife, and Peter, his father, are the most important people in Thomas Bunting’s world-not least because Peter drops dead and Jane walks out. Ferociously self-disciplined and appealingly quirky, Jane is a pianist and a few years older than Thomas. Peter is a beloved parish priest, a former professor of theology, a smart, sane and gentle being, and just as complicated as he is good. Both wife and father are unquestionably adult, which is more than can be said for Thomas, whose inability to tell the truth is symptomatic of an extended adolescent rebellion against both his father and Our Heavenly Father. (The lies began when he was a teenager, Thomas tells us, with his instinct to hide from his parents his nascent skepticism.) Before the twin crises of death and marital collapse, Thomas moped all day in his Islington apartment; instead of finishing his dissertation or finding an honest job, he accumulated debt, lied about it to his wife and scribbled in his “Book Against God.” Whenever he was about to get down to work, blasphemy beckoned: “I found myself drawn to some crucial novelty in my BAG, and the day would disappear into theology and antitheology.”

The scene is split between London and Sundershall, the village near Durham, in the North of England, where Thomas grew up. Country walks are as inevitable, up north, as the wet weather: “The rain ceaselessly fell, a million little surrenders of water, and the hills and fields surged green.” In Durham, “the ladies of the town emerge wearing curious transparent plastic head-scarves, as if they are cultivating their hair in little hothouses.” In London, there are pubs (“The filthy blocked urinal displayed my bubbling piss for me”) and parties in the evening and the press of people (“crowds were shuffling along the pavements as if they were chained together at the ankles”). Waiting for lunch at a window table, looking out at the street, Thomas sees that “a traffic warden was going from car to car, pen in hand, like the waiters inside the restaurant soliciting orders.” It’s all very English, both the settings and the tidy, artful observations.

“Really, I’m quite addicted to theological discussion,” says Thomas, confessing the obvious two-thirds of the way through the novel. The “argumentative wrestle over God” in these pages is serious stuff-lively, intelligent conversation, literate and significant-but neither dramatic nor suspenseful. The reader knows all along that Thomas’ secularist agitation conceals a damped, subterranean faith. When he asserts that God doesn’t exist for him, a friend patiently points out, “Except that He palpably does exist for you … because you can’t stop talking about ‘God.’” And as Thomas’ father wisely explains (few things are more irritating to an adolescent son than his father’s wisdom), “belief and unbelief are not absolutes, and not absolute opposites.” Perhaps the most interesting remarks come from Jane, who finds God in her music. “A note,” she once told Thomas, “is an extraordinary thing. It wasn’t created by humans. Humans reproduce it; they borrow it and lend it to each other, by using instruments.” When Thomas taunts her with the old question-”what does this … musical God look like?”-she answers simply, “He doesn’t look like anything. He sounds, He-She sounds like music.”

In this novel about thwarted love, the best moments come when the crimp eases, when whatever angry or guilty twist that blocks the flow of Thomas’ feeling relaxes to let a few drops of his ardor trickle through. Here he watches with a tender eye as his wife, sitting at the piano, puts up her hair before playing: “[S]he reached behind her head, her elbows pointing towards us as if she were surrendering them, and I saw the ring slide on and suddenly she had harvested that hair into a single feathered sheaf, twisting her face as she did so, a gesture I loved since it added a suggested strenuousness to a silky and weightless activity.”

Caressing with words a tiny, much-loved gesture, Thomas hints at a grand passion he mostly smothers. My guess is that as a writer, James Wood is similarly constrained. He has allowed his imagination the freedom to decorate a long, narrow scroll of fiddly detail, and to frame several handsome, small-scale portraits. Think of what he might accomplish with a vast canvas, a broad brush and a bold palette.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .