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The Book Against God: A Novel

The Book Against God: A Novel

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by James Wood

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A Passionate, Profoundly Funny First Novel from "the Best Literary Critic of His Generation" (Adam Begley, Financial Times)

Thomas Bunting, the charming, chaotic, and deeply untruthful narrator of James Wood's wonderful first novel, is in despair. His marriage is disintegrating and his academic career is in ruins: instead of completing his


A Passionate, Profoundly Funny First Novel from "the Best Literary Critic of His Generation" (Adam Begley, Financial Times)

Thomas Bunting, the charming, chaotic, and deeply untruthful narrator of James Wood's wonderful first novel, is in despair. His marriage is disintegrating and his academic career is in ruins: instead of completing his philosophy Ph.D. (still unfinished after seven years), he is secretly writing what he hopes will be his masterwork, a vast atheistic project he has privately entitled "The Book Against God."

But when his father suddenly falls ill, Thomas returns to the tiny village in the north of England where he grew up and where his father still works as a parish priest. There, Thomas hopes, he may finally be able to communicate honestly with his father, a brilliant and formidable Christian example, and sort out his own wayward life. But Thomas is a chronic liar as well as an atheist, and he finds, instead, that once at home he soon reverts to the evasive patterns of his childhood years—with disastrous results.

The story of a husband and wife, a father and son, faith and disbelief, and a hero who couldn't tell the truth if his life depended on it, The Book Against God is at once hilarious and poignant; it introduces an original comic voice—edgy, elegiac, lyrical, and indignant—and, in the irrepressible Thomas Bunting, one of the strangest philosophers in contemporary fiction.

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Book Against God

A Novel

By James Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2004 James Wood
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3212-7

  The Book Against God
1I DENIED MY FATHER THREE TIMES, twice before he died, once afterwards.The obituaries editor of The Times was responsible for my first denial. That was almost two years ago. I was still living with my wife, Jane Sheridan, but we were constantly arguing. At University College, where I was teaching philosophy, I had become one of those figures whom students romanticize and sometimes even pity. I didn’t have the proper qualifications, and the classes I gave were printed on the curriculum brochure—grudgingly, I felt—in a different coloured ink from the main lectures. Insultingly, the university paid me by the hour! The faculty was beginning to look at me as if I were dead, the students as if I were somewhat grotesquely alive, but it amounted to the same thing.We were in debt, and my childhood friend Max Thurlow offered to help. He is now a successful, what you might call intellectually deluxe columnist at The Times—the type who mentions Tacitus or Mill every other week—and knew that the newspaper prepared its major obituaries in advance of the subjects’ deaths, and that most of them were written by freelance contributors. So Max proposed my name to the appropriate editor, Ralph Hegley, and said that I could write obituaries of philosophers and intellectuals. And Hegley asked to have lunch with me. We met at a restaurant in Covent Garden—expensive Italian, snowy tablecloths, steam room hush, Pompeian ruins of cheese on a silent trolley—and sat at a window table. On the street, where the cars were parked in convoy, a traffic warden was going from car to car, pen in hand, like the waiters inside the restaurant soliciting orders. Hegley had a huge head, was middle-aged, sickly lugubrious, pale. He was dressed in a double-breasted suit as thick as a straitjacket, and a rich silk tie plaited in a fat junction. But he wore oddly childish shoes—they seemed as soft and rubbery as slippers. “I have bad feet,” he explained, when he caught me looking down.“I’ll order for you if you don’t mind,” he said. “There are certain do’s and don’t’s at this restaurant. It takes years to acquaint yourself with this little civilization.” As he said this, he looked around with a strange contempt on his face.Hegley explained that freelancers wrote advance obituaries of selected “candidates.” He was especially interested in philosophers who were known to be unwell, or rapidly declining with age. He became impatient, and irritably coaxed the keys in his trouser pocket as he put names to me.“How’s Althusser? He’s the killer, right? Maybe his number’s up now. And that other chap in Paris, the Romanian, Cioran. I hear he’s not too well, it’s the Romanian genes. Any Americans? We tend to miss ’em, then we have to do a rush job once they’ve gone. I don’t like rush jobs. That is for other papers, all right? Oh, and we need someone to update our Popper piece, pep it up a bit. I’ve heard he’s a wee bit poorly.”Catching on, and knowing nothing about the apparently welcome illnesses of various world philosophers, I invented several ailments.“I’m told,” I said, “by various colleagues at UCL, that Gadamer is not very well.”“Jolly good. Add him to the list.” As usual when lying, I felt warm, light-headed.“And Derrida has never had tremendously good health. That’s well known.”“Isit? Right, let’s snatch him before he … self-deconstructs—isn’t that his word?”I left lunch with four commissions—Cioran, Popper, Derrida, and Gadamer—each paying £200.But I never wrote one of those obituaries. Other things got in the way. Look, I have been trying to finish my Ph.D. thesis for seven years, and I seem to have a distaste for finishing things. Recently, I have been neglecting the Ph.D. for a private project which I call the “Book Against God” (I think of it now as the BAG). In it I copy out apposite religious and antireligious quotations, and develop arguments of my own about theological and philosophical matters. It has swelled to four large notebooks. It has really become my life’s work, as far as I am concerned. And whenever I was about to begin one of those damned obituaries, I found myself drawn to some crucial novelty in my BAG, and the day would disappear into theology and antitheology.Eventually Hegley got tired of waiting, sent me an irritable letter. It had been three months, he complained, and he had received nothing. Should he still consider me the writer of the proposed obituaries? I don’t cope well with pressure. I was keen to stay on Hegley’s order form, and suddenly I realized that the most decisive way both to explain my tardiness and to appeal for sympathy would be to tell him that I had been lately dealing with my own rather more proximate obituary: I told Hegley that my father had died a month ago, and that I had not had an ungrieving minute to deal with the work in hand. Hegley wrote back with his condolences. Of course I should take as much time as I wanted.This worked so well that I told a similar lie a month later, after I received a letter from the Inland Revenue about outstanding taxes payable on various part-time jobs I had had over the years. Usually I ignore these kinds of communications, but this one had an imperious glower and for some reason my name was printed in bold capitals: THOMAS BUNTING. I opened it to find myself summoned to attend a “hearing” in Wembley. There I would be “assessed” by government auditors. If there were any extenuating circumstances, any good reason for the tardiness of my payments, I should explain myself in writing, and at the hearing this letter would be read out in my defence.That was how I found myself three weeks later sitting at an unnatural table—that caramel-municipal sheen found in so many offices—opposite four men in suits, one of whom was reading out my letter. It explained that due to the recent death of my father, and the heavy business related to the tidying up of his estate, I had fallen behind in the paying of my taxes. I was truly sorry to have found myself in this position but the last three months had been a period of grief and shock as well as distraction, and might I presume on the leniency and compassion (this word underlined) of the assessors to grant me another six months to get my taxes in order? This was read out in a flat, bored voice so that, if one closed one’s eyes, one would swear that the reader—a terribly thin man—was simultaneously doing something else. I kept my eyes down and strove to appear slumped in grief.The stay of execution was granted. Of course, my father was alive then. I had calculated that an extreme measure would work. I would not have written those letters had I known that my father would be dead within a year of my writing them.But we can’t schedule the consequences of our lies.The third of these “denials” took place after my father’s death, and was not a lie, but by then it felt like one. When I recently told Jimmy Madeiros, the manager of the underground porter-packer division at Harrods, where I worked this summer, that my father had just died, and that therefore I couldn’t continue with the job, I was telling the truth. But it seemed like a lie, because I saw at once that he didn’t really believe me. So I felt cheated. When I’m not lying I think I should almost get credit for it; it is like that wise saying in the Talmud—“The thief who lacks an opportunity to steal feels like an honest man.”Copyright © 2003 by James Wood

Excerpted from Book Against God by James Wood. Copyright © 2004 James Wood. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author

James Wood was chief literary critic of The Guardian (London) and is senior editor at The New Republic. His first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, was published in 1999. He lives in Washington, D.C.

James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. He is the author of How Fiction Works, as well as two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God.

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Book Against God 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I agree with the previous reviewer. I loved this book. What a shame that it will no doubt go unnoticed while other much less worth books will be lauded. I picked this up in the bargain section in my local store. It's clever, funny, thoughful and smart. Highly recommended
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a true gem!!! Rarely does a book weave such cerebral elements and thoughts into a razor-sharp and ultimately well-crafted story. This is a book that should be read by many people, but not all; for it lacks what one would find on the pages of most of the current best-sellers...this is a book for thinkers. 'The Book Against God' is a book of ideas that marks a clever balance that leaves neither believers or non-believers offended or un-satisfied. One of the best books of the year and will most likely will end up as one of the most sadly unrecognized.