Before we get to God Is Dead, Ron Currie, Jr.’s first book, I’d like to mention a few authors and their work for some historical context. Think of the following: Dostoevsky and his character Ivan Karamazov, who might or might not have suggested that God’s disappearance would create a moral universe that permitted anything; Nietzsche and his madman, who announced God’s death in The Gay Science; Sartre and his criminally thick Being and Nothingness; and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, who recently wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
We’re fascinated with the whether or not of God’s existence; it is a question that everyone seems to consider at one point or another, and no matter how one answers that question, consequences arise, both good and bad. But in God Is Dead, Currie doesn’t concern himself with the question. He just assumes that God is dead and writes of consequences, the imaginative scenarios they create, and the deep sense of loss from which we seem to suffer now more than ever. As a result, his collection is a moving, intelligent work of fiction that gives us a refreshing, if dismal, perspective on our modern plight.
When Currie sat down to write “False Idols,” a short story in which adults religiously worship their children, he didn’t expect to publish a book. In a guest post on Ron Hogan’s lit-blog, Beatrice, Currie said, “I ran into what was for me an unexpected problem. . . . Why exactly did people start worshipping their kids in the first place? What the hell was the catalyst here? And then the solution occurred to me instantly: It’s a transference of the innate human need to worship something. God died, so kids took His place. Simple. Easy.” The innate human need to worship something; seven words, and Currie defines existential dread. If only it were that easy to solve.
When Currie wrote this first story, it naturally generated plenty of other concerns: How did God die? How might believers react upon hearing the news? Over what will humans wage war in this Godless era? Does suicide cease to be a sin? What happens if animals chew upon his divine corpse? Such a series of tough questions might’ve proven too much had Currie been working in the philosophical discipline, but as fictional devices they provided inspiration for the nine loosely related stories in this book.
God Is Dead reads like a modern apocalyptic work; God dies during the opening pages, thus depriving the world of an ancient revelatory source. This void causes a panicked humanity to act out some profane sort of revelation; Currie’s characters must lift their own veils. Disaster ensues. Not surprisingly, Currie’s post-God world looks a lot like the God-filled one described by John the Apostle, with the biggest difference being the source of suffering: in the Book of Revelation God causes all the mayhem, but in God Is Dead, humans do. If we take Currie’s statement about our need to worship something and combine it with an apocalyptic sensibility, then we can read the stories in this book as minor revelations of loss. They are stories about how humans cope with the sudden emptiness loss creates.
The first story here, the titular “God Is Dead,” bears the weight of being first and succeeding in a number of ways: it orients the reader to the universal laws of the book; it sets up the basic premise; it introduces the guiding themes of loss and transference. Although all of this is important, this story’s most important job is to lay the groundwork for the integrity of the entire work. If the reader cannot accept the world Currie has created then this book is finished.
Currie confidently solves the problem in the opening sentences of the book by redefining our concept of God. He writes, “Disguised as a young Dinka woman, God came at dusk to a refugee camp in the North Darfur region of Sudan. He wore a flimsy green cotton dress, battered leather sandals, hoop earrings, and a length of black-and-white beads around his neck.” Next we learn that God has manifested a wound in his right calf. “The purpose of the wound was twofold. First it enabled him to blend in with the residents of the camp, many of whom bore injuries from the slashing machetes of Janjaweed raiding parties.” Why would God have to do such a thing? He is God, after all. “The intense burning ache helped to mitigate the guilt he felt at the lot of the refugees, over which he was, due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, completely powerless.” Now we understand how desperate God’s situation has become; Currie’s confident narrative voice first grounds us in the reality of God’s plight before stripping away God’s power.
And then God dies. He travels to the refugee camp in order to find a boy named Thomas Mawien, to whom He must apologize, but when Thomas cannot be located, God, we come to understand, suffers a tremendous loss, the loss of His ability to seek forgiveness and cleanse Himself of guilt. God receives a second chance, though; in an epiphanic moment, He transfers His apology to another boy. “He realized with sudden certainty that this boy, or any of the people in the camp—the men suddenly alone in their old age, the young women with disappeared husbands and hungry children—were as deserving as Thomas of his apology, would serve just as well as the altar for him to confess his sins of omission and beg forgiveness.” When shortly after God falls to His knees to ask forgiveness, planes bomb the refugee camp and Janjaweed horsemen murder the injured survivors, thus killing God and setting in motion a series of apocalyptic events.
The remaining stories in this book further explore the consequences of God’s absence and tell how certain characters react to this alarming new world. These stories vary in their degree of formal inventiveness: the collection has its share of realistic tales, including “The Bridge,” a story told from the close, third-person point of view of a high school graduate who witnesses a priest jump to his death. In “Indian Summer” a group of teenagers act out the violent nightmare of a suicide pact—instead of worshipping their futures, which have disappeared with the collapse of modern society, the boys worship the never-ending now of death.
The collection also includes representatives of the more experimental, satirical modes, such as “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God’s Corpse,” in which an enlightened feral dog struggles with its loss of innocence. In this story, the playfulness of Currie’s imagination adds another delightful element, making this one of the strongest pieces in the book. The skillfully evoked feral dog stands out against the overwritten character of Colin Powell (from “God is Dead”), with whom I felt that Currie was having too much fun.
Currie’s writing seems most successful when the inventiveness supports the emotional currents of the work. In the final story, “Retreat,” a soldier flees down a road choked with dead bodies, his army having lost the final battle of Armageddon, and all he can think of is returning home to his mother, who is dying of dementia. But sadly, the soldier has forgotten what she looks like. Currie writes, “It was exhausting work, scaling corpses. To distract himself from the fatigue, the thirst and hunger, the sharp flare of pain that occurred each time he moved his leg, Arnold thought of his mother. First he tried, with the usual lack of success, to picture her in his mind’s eye. Then he concentrated on willing her lucid, so that when he arrived home she would be who she always had been, not some bewildered stranger who merely looked like his mother, and she would hear what he had to say.” Despite the unfamiliarity of the world that Currie has created, we feel the emotional weight of this moment in Arnold’s life; in a way, it seems to be a connection with our own, as we too fumble to remember the faces of our family, the voices of our friends.
Ultimately, these connections give this book its sad charm. We understand the connections easily enough, because in some way they exist for all of us whether or not we believe in God: the terrible reality of genocide, the pleasant sense of anticipation we feel before seeing a loved one, the hope we carry for better times in the coming years. And these connections hide away in the depths of Currie’s revelation text and wait for us to discover them, to take them up as our own, thus transferring our need to worship something, anything, either pleasant or painful, across the entirety of our lives.
Ryan Call’s fiction appears in recent issues of Barrelhouse, Hobart, and Avery.
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