Thomas Bunting while neglecting his philosophy Ph.D., still unfinished after seven years, is secretly writing what he hopes will be his masterworka vast atheistic project to be titled The Book Against God. In despair over his failed academic career and failing marriage, Bunting is also enraged to the point of near lunacy by his parents' religiousness. When his father, a beloved parish priest, suddenly falls ill, Bunting returns to the Northern village of his childhood. Bunting's hopes that this visit might enable him to finally talk honestly with his parents and sort out his wayward life, are soon destroyed.
Comic, edgy, lyrical, and indignant Bunting gives the term unreliable narrator a new twist with his irrepressible incapacity to tell the truth.
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About 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 Boston, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
Book Against God
By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2004 James Wood
All rights reserved.
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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Reading Group Guide
1. The novel is narrated by Thomas Bunting, an admitted liar. Though he lies to those around him, exactly how unreliable a narrator is he? Do you trust his narration of his story?
2. Discuss how Tom's intellect gets in the way of his relationship to others? Could his father be considered an intellectual, and if so, how does he manage what his son his unable to do?
3. When referring to his father's death, Tom says that "we can't schedule the consequences of our lies." (p. 7) Do you think this implies that he feels responsible for his father's passing?
Furthermore, how is Guilt a motivating force in the novel?
4. At one point, Tom seems to imply that if there is a god, he should feel guilt; at other points, he seems to imply that the pain and guilt of religious experience are somehow connected "Pain was not an argument against but for God." p. 55; "…the beautiful words from Revelation, my favourite in the Bible: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be pain; for the former things are passed away.'" How much of Tom's own personal guilt and pain influences his beliefs about religion?
5. What is "artificial" and what is "real" in The Book Against God? How is this connected to the way the novel connects atheism to Christianity?
6. If the novel describes a religious journey for Tom, where does this journey begin for him and where does it end? Where does his faith lie by the book's close?
7. What similarities does Tom journey share with other literary religious quests, such as Paradise
Lost, Pilgrim's Progress, Beowulf, The Odyssey, or St. Augustine's Confessions?
8. What does Tom believe in? See in particular Tom's conversations with Timothy Biffen (p.
167) and Tom's father (p. 220)
9. What is meant by "the ordinary celebrity of being alive," mentioned on p. 238?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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
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.
Quite good. Wood is a critic, and you can kind of tell because, in the first half of the book at least, every sentence seems to have hidden meanings, to be dripping with significance. It doesn't give his prose room to breathe. It gets better, though. It gives a complex picture of faith, without giving any solutions, which I liked.