James Morrow uses the novel form to tackle the heavy, philosophical question of human suffering in Blameless in Abaddon. In Blameless… a widowed, cancer-stricken Pennsylvanian named Martin Candle, along with his fellow “Jobians,” makes a legal case against God for centuries of pointless moral, natural, and existential evils.
For a novel labeled as “fantasy” (“A funny, ferocious fantasy.” – Philadelphia Inquirer), the book is surprisingly fact-heavy, with references to hundreds of historical examples of seemingly senseless suffering (plagues, fires, famines, earthquakes, genocides, civilian causalities). It also draws very heavily on the teachings of St. Augustine, as well as the many theologians noted on the book’s Acknowledgements page. Morrow does a fine job of using fantasy/sci-fi tropes (e.g. expeditions through God’s cerebrum*, talking dinosaurs, facsimiles of famous Bible figures) in an effort to address a serious topic in a way that doesn’t weigh the reader down.
Morrow’s prose, I thought, was consistently lively, and often breathtaking. Touring God’s mind, the team of “neuronauts” come upon a series of floating archetypes; God’s Ideas of things concrete (a paper clip) and abstract (freedom):
The concept of photosynthesis drifted past, enacted by masses of eternally transmogrifying ectoplasm. The notion of a feather followed. Pollination next. Homeostasis. Fission and fusion. Wheel and wedge. Pi and Pie. The self-healing intelligence of wounds. The pleasures of a successfully scratched itch. Bad ideas inhabited the laboratory as well – fleas, greed, monarchy – but despite such lapses this was clearly the workshop of a genius (146).
Structurally, the novel is divided into three books: Necessary Evils, Spelunking the Infinite, and God In The Dock. Each has moments of brilliance, and each is loaded with humor both highbrow and low. Necessary Evils is the least fantastic, but sets up the story’s main conflict (Martin Candle et. al v. God) very well. This first section does a good job of grounding Martin’s character, and his suffering, in reality, before the book takes turns into stranger, more surreal territory.
Book Two, for example, follows Martin’s first foray into his Creator’s mind, filled with, among infinite others, the aforementioned archetypes, as well as a perversely funny facsimile of St. Augustine. It’s in the Corpus Dei that Martin forms his counter-attacks on the five main defenses of suffering: disciplinary, hidden harmony, eschatological, ontological and liberum arbitrium (free will). Only the latter two give him serious trouble, a struggle he spends the entire book failing to fully overcome.
Book Three follows the month-long court proceedings of the case against God. It, like the books before it, is a fascinating, funny, and insightful read. Most interesting was the account of expert witness for the defense Brother Sebastian Cranach. As a dear friend recounts in an academic paper on Morrow’s book:
Martin challenges Cranach on the nature of heaven. Cranach answers that heaven and earth are completely ontologically separate. Heaven is more of an emanation from God, rather than a created reality. As such, it does not need to contain any earthly flaws. When Martin attempts to use Jesus’ identity to counter the free will defense, Cranach reminds the prosecution of Jesus’ unique dual nature. This exchange reveals the weakness of Martin’s strategy, which emphasizes heart-wrenching personal testimony over intense theological reasoning (Sternlof 4).
When, in the book’s final pages, it’s proposed that the true reason for suffering is God’s duality (good/evil, Christ/Antichrist, “Dr. Jehovah”/”Mr.Hyde”), the reader’s reminded of Cranach’s observation about Christ’s duality. Pages after this proposition/revelation, Martin awakes and “meets himself,” or “the Idea of Martin Candle,” (393) and the reader is once again fed an image of duality. The search for a concrete answer to the question of human suffering (as well as the questions posed by Candle’s math/science-minded colleagues in Book Two), it seems, is like, to borrow Morrow’s theme of duality, holding a mirror up to another mirror; an endless, and, possibly, empty enterprise.
Morrow writes like a wiser, headier, and angrier Christopher Moore. I’m still wrapping my head around some aspects of the book, such as the post-verdict riot led by the Jobians, which reminded me of the riotous ending of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, in the sense that both tumults had serious moral implications. Also, I’m beginning to read parallels between Martin Candle and The Christ Story. The Devil (Jonathan Sarkos) at one point even sketches a “Passion of Martin Candle.” And also, I’m finding paradoxes in the defense’s arguments; e.g. the ontological defense’s claim that we currently reside in the “best of all possible worlds” contradicts the defense’s many witnesses who say that they accept their temporal suffering as a means of getting to an infinitely better and fairer world (Heaven).
Blameless… got me thinking, critically, about human suffering, a topic I’ve always been enamored with (see: LOST, Infinite Jest, Brian Wilson, etc. etc.), but haven’t given enough serious thought to. I’m grateful to Morrow for making me question, and for fleshing out concepts (theological defenses of suffering, types of evil) that I otherwise would have had only limited knowledge of.