So, about five months or so ago I get a message on my blog asking me if I would like to read a novel by a blogger user named “Ara 13.” I message back that I’ll be happy to read it, thinking that it wouldn’t be anything important. Ara, be sure to read this entire post. I think you’ll like it.
Awhile later I received an attractively-printed paperback novel in the mail called Drawers & Booths. The cover contains a humorous description of the author as coming “from a long line of primates” whose “ancestors are directly responsible for the fashioning of the wheel and the discovery of fire.” It further claims that “one of his ancestors was even the first recorded Homo sapien. Therefore the pressure for Ara to succeed is enormous.” Clever humor amuses me, so I began reading the novel with high hopes.
My hopes soon crashed against the walls of a combat novel of military jargon in the 21st Century. The first thirty pages read like a W.E.B. Griffin novel crossed with Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. There’s some characterization, the over-attention to detail that seems ubiquitous in the steady stream of guys writing stories about Iraq (or the fictional Cortinia in this version), the annoyingly jocular conversations between different branches of the service; basically, all the stuff you’d expect. At one point I was so befuddled by the jargon that I didn’t know that the “enemy” was the enemy because “Op4” sounds like some kind of super secret special forces stuff to the ignorant reader.
Then on page 34, something different happens. Right at the moment when our first religious character should appear, he’s even called by name, the narrator breaks into first-person and present-tense narration. In Genettean terms we go from an extra hetero diegetic narrator to an intra homo diegetic one. This will happen several times.
So we then go from the wilds of Cortinia to a pseudo-detective chasing a criminal mastermind behind all of the murders that happen. The police may catch someone red-handed, but this detective thinks that there a head honcho calls the shots. Long about page 50, the rhetoric of the novel has convinced me that there is an ulterior motive to what I’m reading. I get the sneaking suspicion that the Ara 13 who commented on my blog has read my dissertation research and my proclamations of faith and that he is an atheist seeking converts. This feeling is then substantiated when I go back and read the kitschy last paragraph of his Acknowledgement section that I had skipped over when I started. He writes, “And finally, thanks to the all the writers. It is my endeavor to be your peer. I especially thank Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Shermer for the education. How did I do?” For those unfamiliar with these men’s writings, Dawkins claims that belief in god is a delusion. The four of them comprise some of the more vocal and antagonistic atheists on the planet, those who, like their believing counterparts, can’t just leave the other side alone.
For the next fifty or so pages, I admit, I’m reading the novel to get more ammunition to use when I skewer this book in my review. But, then, this guy who I sort of know, and who I talked to about why I was hating this book, pointed out that all my attacks were either ad hominem (e.g. the author is self-absorbed, the author used a vanity press), ones of personal taste (the author's writing is mediocre), or irrelevant to the critique of the thing as a work of art. So, as I fumed over what the novel was saying, how it was saying, and what it was “trying” to say to me, I read more. And then the narrator arrests God and puts him on trial for reckless endangerment. I almost threw it in the trash can…not because I believe in God, but because the idea seems trite and dumb and I get tired of dumb ideas.
At this point, I’m ready to give up, but the desire to shred this piece of crap is too much. And then, shockingly, that’s when the novel got good, as in really good. Ara 13 has a solid command of his words, the English language, the law, and the weapons of his critics. It seemed like every critique I had, the narrator would answer with an aside like when Ara 13, the author, is called to testify in the trial. He makes all the characters say only the word “silly” no matter what they try to do, and even though this meta-fictional self awareness of characters has happened countless times (think Kurt Russel’s Doctor character freaking out that he’s not real in Vanilla Sky). So just about the point where I’m ready to scream that this is derivative drivel, the attorney asks “Ara” the author, on the witness stand, “why are you doing all this?” To which he responds, “Short-term, it makes me laugh. In the long-run, hopefully it will be deemed literarily inventive and launch my writing career.” That’s just one of about twenty instances where he tactically takes the wind out of my sails just as I was about to nail him for being coy, or trite, or sophomoric. He recognizes it himself, and it makes the novel, well, dare I say? Endearing? I don’t have time to list more of them, but you can find no fault with a novel wherein the novelist himself points out why something “sucks.”
He then goes on to give an honest and clear-cut reason for why Ara 13 is an atheist. While not denying that there could be a God, he denies that there is one because he has seen no tangible evidence to the point. I respect that. After reading the novel, I feel that even though I’m wedded to hermeneutical interpretation of literature, I at least think that the Author behind the author respects my choice to believe.
Ara 13 completely understands my theory of the Gnostic Reader, and I commend him for a solid novel that I was wrong to judge so quickly. If you read it, be sure to finish it, because the first part will bore you, the second part will piss you off, the third part will win you over, and the fourth part will probably make you glad you read it.*
I don’t have the time right now, professionally or personally to take the time to write a philosophical critique of the novel. It’s worth a read if you’re into metaphysics and reader response theory (e.g. Jauss or Iser).
Ara, thanks for sending me the novel. I wish you all the best.
*There's no accounting for personal tastes.