« Knowing the Times | Main | Book Report: Rising Steam »

Book Report: Galapagos Regained

I like James Morrow’s books, and I liked Galápagos Regained. So there’s that.

The thing about James Morrow’s books, though, is that even when I like them, I never find them quite satisfying, if you know what I mean. The experience of reading them isn’t complete. That’s probably deliberate on the part of the author, who presumably wants the readers to keep thinking about the stuff after the book is over. It’s not intended to be absorbing as such, but provoking, which means that I am less invested in the characters’ happiness than in the author’s illustrated arguments, and am correspondingly less satisfied when the plot is wrapped up. Chloe Bathurst, our Protagonist, is pleasant enough, but seeing her end up happily married and careered is of only minor interest.

Although I suppose that’s also a problem with the picaresque in general: one thing after another happens, sometimes at Chloe’s instigation and sometimes against her will, and when it stops happening, it’s not so much a conclusion as a petering out. Mr. Morrow also tends to like to play with his Protagonists’ goals, such that (as in this case) the goal is either accomplished by other agencies or made superfluous by unrelated circumstances. Chloe wants to win the prize money to bail out her father from the poorhouse, but her father’s salvation comes from elsewhere, and the contest is canceled with the prize unrewarded. In fact, she has lost interest in the prize (as has everyone else) by the last third of the book or so. Now, the prize being a MacGuffin is a fine choice, backed by all sorts of precedent and whatnot, but it does make the conclusion of the book less, well, satisfying.

Of course, the fundamental thing about the book is that it is a paean to atheism, and I’m a Believer. That doesn’t usually bother me about Mr. Morrow’s book, I have to say, because both he and I are fascinated with religion, with Scriptures and rituals and beliefs. He, of course, from the outside, and me from the inside. The central theme of Galápagos Regained, though, is that belief and unbelief are fundamentally unarguable. You can’t persuade a Believer that there is no Creator by logic and reason; you can’t lead a skeptic to the Divine by evidence and argument. I think that’s largely true. I have said, in the past, that I believe in a Divine Creator simply because I like to: it makes me happier than atheism did, and inspires me, I hope, toward my better self, if often somewhat ineffectively. I view it as a matter of personal taste, though, and wouldn’t suggest that you would be happier or better with Belief (or Disbelief) than you are right now. Any more, I should say, that I think you would be happier if you liked the taste of lamb.

Within the book, it is not so much a matter of choice as epiphany—Chloe has a Vision and becomes a Believer, and then has another and rejects the first—but still, the effort to convince somebody of belief or disbelief is a fool’s errand. Which rings true to me and my experience. But at the same time, it makes the arguments, presented in a variety of ways throughout the book, a bit of a letdown. And then, of course, all the sympathetic characters are atheists (eventually, anyway) which makes the book a little less enjoyable for me, too. I don’t think that’s just sulking at being lumped in with losers and dupes, tho’ that doesn’t really help. No, I think it hurts the book that James Morrow, despite his fascination with religion, can’t quite wrap his head around it. He wants to, but in the end, he can’t sympathize, quite, with those for whom belief in a Creator or a Scripture is beneficial, not detrimental.

Well, and I’ve gotten to the end of the note without talking about Mr. Morrow’s language, which is wonderful and delightful in itself. You won’t find naturalistic dialogue or painterly descriptions, you’ll find a tricky combination of dry wit and exuberant excess. I love that. A quick excerpt from the first chapter:

“Yes, child, your eyes do not deceive you,” said Phineas. “I’m living at Her Majesty’s expense in Holborn Workhouse—a place no sane person would enter of his own free will. Thus does our nation hold down the high cost of poverty.”

If that sort of thing irritates you, best to give this one a pass.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.