on the subject of The Book of Strange New Things

I really need to stop picking up books that have gushing blurbs by David Mitchell, because this is twice they’ve looked like they should be in my wheelhouse but have turned out to be disappointing (the first was Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller which I really really wanted to like).

They have at least been interestingly disappointing. They’ve not been terrible, I’ve not wanted to throw them across the room, I don’t even think that they’ve broken my mental author-reader contract in my head; they have just not worked for me. It’s weird, The Book of Strange New Things is completely readable, stylistically, and I had absolutely no problem picking it up and whizzing through it. I also had absolutely no probelm putting it down. The book, as a whole, just felt like it wanted to keep me at arm’s length from it. I’m a fairly intellectual reader, but, honestly, intellect on its own does not do it for me in a book: it needs to have a heart. This didn’t feel like it did. Or maybe it did, it was just left on earth with the character of Bea, or got sloshed away in Grainger’s drinking.

I’ve also not really thought about it since finishing it, but I want to send the book to the charity shop now, so I’m trying to write about one of the aspects of the book that bothered/intrigued me while I was reading it (other than the question of whether aliens need a mission – I’m not sure that the book answers that question, I’m so confused, I can’t work out what the aliens’ fascination with Christianity was or how they thought it was something that was right for their lives…). Anyway, the thing that intrigued me most, was Faber’s portrayal of Peter, the missionary to the aliens, because Peter is essentially an incredibly bland and reactive character with approximately no sense of direction. And this characterisation is one of the things that kept me at a distance from the book – but I’m still trying to work out why.

Is it (a) becuase Peter in his simple, uncomplicated faith, with its mind almost completely decoupled from its body and its mission entirely focused on the soul not the whole of life is one that makes my eyelid twitch. (At one stage Peter refers to ’those Lutheran-flavoured fundamentalists who believed that Christians would one day be resurrected into their old bodies…’ I didn’t realise that believing the carbon-based physicality of humanity matters, existentially, marked me as a Lutheran-flavoured fundamentalist!) Additionally, I just flat out struggle with the kind of life of faith he lives – which is basically trustandobeyanddontquestion on repeat, because it is so very alien to my whole experience. As a representation of a Christian in literature, Peter’s wife Bea is just much more interesting to me, and I suspect much more representative, but she’s barely there a lot of the time.

Is it because (b) Michel Faber – who grew up in the church but now claims no faith – has a particular experience and understanding of Christianity that leads him to present Peter in this way? Does he just think Christians are bland and a bit dim, and so write them that way?

I don’t think so, really. I’m not inclined to think he has a completely uniform view of faith, or uniform assumptions of what Christians are like – Bea’s faith is distinct from Peter’s, but, there is a sense that in the good times, she too is fairly uncomplicated about her faith. Regardless of their characters (and Peter being an addict is absolutely relevant to the way he believes, as Faber makes clear) Peter and Bea seem ill-equipped by the church that has discipled them to ask questions about God and faith and these things interact with a world that is hard and messy when hard and messy hits them once for what seems to be the first time since their conversions. It is not a flattering portrayal of Christianity, and it is one that is both true (sadly), and not true. At its best the Christian faith and theology engages with the world in a way that encompasses all the complexities, and that can bring a richness to life that is deeper than the ’buzz’ Peter describes it as when he’s trying to explain that Christianity is more than just ‘forgiveness’. Faber’s portrayal of Christianity feels a little one-sided, and ignores its potential and times when it is more than Peter and Bea can enunciate.

Is it unfair to demand that an author give a better-rounded portrayal of Christianity? Pretty much. Faber has a story to tell, and it seems to demand this kind of portrayal. But we’re not getting a lot of representations of Christianity that are well-rounded or sympathetic, so I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that this is not all that Christianity is.

However, I suspect really the answer is (c), Michel Faber has a story to tell about society and how the characters of the people in society matter to the kind of society you get. In this, it matters that Peter is bland because his blandness is what makes him considered suitable for the mission on Oasis. It is a plot point – and it’s an interesting consideration of society and what it looks like to improve society. However if it’s a plot point, and a character’s blandness is so bland that it becomes hard to invest in and enage with the character, then the plot has to make up for it. And in The Book of Strange New Things, the plot promises much but ultimately fizzles out.

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