Wandering

Sarah Perry seems to be a writer who refuses to be pinned down.  Some of us are careful in our fiction to make sure things progress logically, almost factually.  With Perry you’re never quite sure.  Was there a sea monster in The Essex Serpent?  I’m not sure how this played into my decision to read Melmoth.  I knew the title had to have drawn its inspiration from the gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, a book I’ve never read.  (The internet has, in some ways, taken the sport out of wandering used book stores, where the possibility of finding such things was once a part of their charm.)  In any case, I saw Melmoth on the front table of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, and you learn which bookstore front tables to trust.  It was back when bookstores were open and autumn was in the air.

The concept of the wandering Jew (which I address in Holy Horror) is one that has the power to offend.  By emphasizing the atrocity of the Holocaust, Perry parries that here while maintaining the concept.  The wandering Jew committed some ancient crime and is sentenced to roam the earth until, well, usually the end times.  Perry makes Melmoth one of the women at the empty tomb of Jesus who, when asked to confirm the truth of the event, denies what she saw.  Condemned to walk the world on bleeding feet, she finds sinners and invites them to join her.  Not only finds, but watches—she is the one who sees all your transgressions—and insists that you come to her.

Melmoth is, like the original story, a set of nesting dolls.  The frame story contains other documents that shed more and more light on this dark wanderer.  Characters must own up to their shortcomings.  Indeed, confession is a large part of the story.  Although set in modern times, the book is quite biblical, both in sensibility and in some of the plot elements.  It even has several quoted snippets from the Good Book.  This caught my attention partially because a recent article I wrote (there will be notice here when it appears) suggests that the horror genre goes back to the Bible itself.  Those uncomfortable with the darkness may not realize just how much the two have in common.  Not all the strings are tied up neatly by the end, but this novel will perhaps inspire the reader to do a bit of wandering their own. 

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

Serpent Number One

I haven’t read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Yet. My reading list is frighteningly enormous and constantly growing. I just can’t seem to get on top of it. In any case, my wife sent me an NPR interview with Perry that set me to thinking about monsters. (It really doesn’t take much.) One of Perry’s answers in the piece by Ari Shapiro stopped me in my tracks. Perry admits that recent political events have made her question her belief in benevolent humanism. I’d never thought of our current crisis in that way before. This is one example of what happens when it’s—pardon the expression—every man for himself. We’ve stepped away from religion as any kind of public conscience. The religious right doesn’t fit any classification of religion that I know of, so I’m discounting it as a legitimate form of belief. When we look out for number one, a self-appointed number one takes over.

With an insidiousness that can only be called evil, our elected “representatives” tried to sequester away the facts of their healthcare bill that they wanted to ram through in order to give the wealthy serpents tax breaks. The thing about looking out for number one is that you’re only number one to yourself. There can only be one one. Lining one’s pockets with the tax money of others is a trick as old as civilization itself. In ancient times, however, they at least called themselves kings and emperors and made no excuses for what they were doing. We said we were advanced enough to do without the religion that supported these outdated views. We’re back to the days of kings and emperors. Anyone who believes differently is fooling him or herself. There have been snakes in the garden from the beginning. Getting rid of religion won’t clear them from the grounds.

There are many benevolent humanists. There are many more who are suffering under the weight of current political systems. Unhappy people elect dictators. It has happened before—in the current lifetime of many, no less. The warning signs are all there to be ignored. The fruit sure looks nice, hisses our constant companion. Looking out for number two is the first step. Then number three, and twenty, and eight-billion. That’s benevolent humanism. Anything less is, well, a walk down the garden path. We’ve been down that path before. Those who trust serpents must learn to count. To do anything less is less than human.