The Book Against God

A Novel

James Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 
The Book Against God
1
I DENIED MY FATHER THREE TIMES, twice before he died, once afterwards.
The obituaries editor of The Times was responsible for my first denial. That was almost two years ago. I was still living with my wife, Jane Sheridan, but we were constantly arguing. At University College, where I was teaching philosophy, I had become one of those figures whom students romanticize and sometimes even pity. I didn’t have the proper qualifications, and the classes I gave were printed on the curriculum brochure—grudgingly, I felt—in a different coloured ink from the main lectures. Insultingly, the university paid me by the hour! The faculty was beginning to look at me as if I were dead, the students as if I were somewhat grotesquely alive, but it amounted to the same thing.
We were in debt, and my childhood friend Max Thurlow offered to help. He is now a successful, what you might call intellectually deluxe columnist at The Times—the type who mentions Tacitus or Mill every other week—and knew that the newspaper prepared its major obituaries in advance of the subjects’ deaths, and that most of them were written by freelance contributors. So Max proposed my name to the appropriate editor, Ralph Hegley, and said that I could write obituaries of philosophers and intellectuals. And Hegley asked to have lunch with me. We met at a restaurant in Covent Garden—expensive Italian, snowy tablecloths, steam room hush, Pompeian ruins of cheese on a silent trolley—and sat at a window table. On the street, where the cars were parked in convoy, a traffic warden was going from car to car, pen in hand, like the waiters inside the restaurant soliciting orders. Hegley had a huge head, was middle-aged, sickly lugubrious, pale. He was dressed in a double-breasted suit as thick as a straitjacket, and a rich silk tie plaited in a fat junction. But he wore oddly childish shoes—they seemed as soft and rubbery as slippers. “I have bad feet,” he explained, when he caught me looking down.
“I’ll order for you if you don’t mind,” he said. “There are certain do’s and don’t’s at this restaurant. It takes years to acquaint yourself with this little civilization.” As he said this, he looked around with a strange contempt on his face.
Hegley explained that freelancers wrote advance obituaries of selected “candidates.” He was especially interested in philosophers who were known to be unwell, or rapidly declining with age. He became impatient, and irritably coaxed the keys in his trouser pocket as he put names to me.
“How’s Althusser? He’s the killer, right? Maybe his number’s up now. And that other chap in Paris, the Romanian, Cioran. I hear he’s not too well, it’s the Romanian genes. Any Americans? We tend to miss ’em, then we have to do a rush job once they’ve gone. I don’t like rush jobs. That is for other papers, all right? Oh, and we need someone to update our Popper piece, pep it up a bit. I’ve heard he’s a wee bit poorly.”
Catching on, and knowing nothing about the apparently welcome illnesses of various world philosophers, I invented several ailments.
“I’m told,” I said, “by various colleagues at UCL, that Gadamer is not very well.”
“Jolly good. Add him to the list.” As usual when lying, I felt warm, light-headed.
“And Derrida has never had tremendously good health. That’s well known.”
Is it? Right, let’s snatch him before he … self-deconstructs—isn’t that his word?”
I left lunch with four commissions—Cioran, Popper, Derrida, and Gadamer—each paying £200.
But I never wrote one of those obituaries. Other things got in the way. Look, I have been trying to finish my Ph.D. thesis for seven years, and I seem to have a distaste for finishing things. Recently, I have been neglecting the Ph.D. for a private project which I call the “Book Against God” (I think of it now as the BAG). In it I copy out apposite religious and antireligious quotations, and develop arguments of my own about theological and philosophical matters. It has swelled to four large notebooks. It has really become my life’s work, as far as I am concerned. And whenever I was about to begin one of those damned obituaries, I found myself drawn to some crucial novelty in my BAG, and the day would disappear into theology and antitheology.
Eventually Hegley got tired of waiting, sent me an irritable letter. It had been three months, he complained, and he had received nothing. Should he still consider me the writer of the proposed obituaries? I don’t cope well with pressure. I was keen to stay on Hegley’s order form, and suddenly I realized that the most decisive way both to explain my tardiness and to appeal for sympathy would be to tell him that I had been lately dealing with my own rather more proximate obituary: I told Hegley that my father had died a month ago, and that I had not had an ungrieving minute to deal with the work in hand. Hegley wrote back with his condolences. Of course I should take as much time as I wanted.
This worked so well that I told a similar lie a month later, after I received a letter from the Inland Revenue about outstanding taxes payable on various part-time jobs I had had over the years. Usually I ignore these kinds of communications, but this one had an imperious glower and for some reason my name was printed in bold capitals: THOMAS BUNTING. I opened it to find myself summoned to attend a “hearing” in Wembley. There I would be “assessed” by government auditors. If there were any extenuating circumstances, any good reason for the tardiness of my payments, I should explain myself in writing, and at the hearing this letter would be read out in my defence.
That was how I found myself three weeks later sitting at an unnatural table—that caramel-municipal sheen found in so many offices—opposite four men in suits, one of whom was reading out my letter. It explained that due to the recent death of my father, and the heavy business related to the tidying up of his estate, I had fallen behind in the paying of my taxes. I was truly sorry to have found myself in this position but the last three months had been a period of grief and shock as well as distraction, and might I presume on the leniency and compassion (this word underlined) of the assessors to grant me another six months to get my taxes in order? This was read out in a flat, bored voice so that, if one closed one’s eyes, one would swear that the reader—a terribly thin man—was simultaneously doing something else. I kept my eyes down and strove to appear slumped in grief.
The stay of execution was granted. Of course, my father was alive then. I had calculated that an extreme measure would work. I would not have written those letters had I known that my father would be dead within a year of my writing them.
But we can’t schedule the consequences of our lies.
The third of these “denials” took place after my father’s death, and was not a lie, but by then it felt like one. When I recently told Jimmy Madeiros, the manager of the underground porter-packer division at Harrods, where I worked this summer, that my father had just died, and that therefore I couldn’t continue with the job, I was telling the truth. But it seemed like a lie, because I saw at once that he didn’t really believe me. So I felt cheated. When I’m not lying I think I should almost get credit for it; it is like that wise saying in the Talmud—“The thief who lacks an opportunity to steal feels like an honest man.”
Copyright © 2003 by James Wood