Saturday, 1 May 2004

Joseph Heller: God Knows (1984)

Edition: Black Swan, 1985
Review number: 1235

Even for the most dedicated Heller fan, and the impact of Catch 22 created vast numbers of them, his second and third novels are frequently heavy going. But then eventually (over twenty years into his career, for he was never a particularly prolific novelist) came God Knows - immediately accessible, hilariously funny and wickedly subversive.

The idea behind God Knows is simple. David, King of Israel, author of the psalms, recounts his life while on his deathbed, in the voice of a twentieth century American Jewish patriarch. To work, this has to be done extremely well, as is it no easy thing to write a narration that convincingly comes across as being from the mind of a man recognised as one of the greatest poets in history.

Apart from the difficulty in matching up to his literary merit, David is an excellent choice for this type of novel. He has quite a lot of space devoted to him in the Bible, which records many fascinating events in his life but which also leaves room for Heller to expand on the characterisation of him and those around him (Heller's portrayal of Solomon is particularly amusing). The picture painted of him is neither black nor white in 2 Samuel in particular is neither black nor white morally, making him a more interesting subject for a novel than (say) the prophet Daniel. And there is his importance as an influence on history and an icon for Jewish culture - it is no accident that the star of David was made the symbol of the Zionist movement and now appears on the flag of the state of Israel. (As he asks out at one point, "Does Moses have a star?".)

A lot of the humour in God Knows stems from the use of anachronism in a way that reminds me of Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon. An example of the type of joke used is when David tells his generals to "send a wire", only to be reminded that telegrams haven't been invented yet (the joke being not only that they don't exist, but also that every one knows what they are). This kind of humour is one which quickly becomes wearing, so it's good that Heller doesn't use it to excess; it would have been easy to put jokes along these lines into every paragraph, and that would have killed the novel stone dead. He also makes most of its uses more subtle than the example I've given. Much more pervasive is the use of anachronism in a more indirect form, as Heller gives characters stereotypical Jewish roles from twentieth century America; this also introduces an element of satire.

David's life inclded a fair amount of personal unhappiness, so God Knows is not a sunny novel, even if the humour in it is not as bleak as that in Heller's earlier novels. It is part of the Jewish father stereotype to complain about his children, but David really had a lot of grief from his - the death of Bathsheba's first child, slain by God as punishment for David's sin in sleeping with another man's wife and sending her husband to his death; the rape of his daughter Tamar by his son Amnon; the rebellion of his son Absalom. (And Heller adds the stupidity and humourlessness of his son Solomon - "Schlomo, that schmuck".) However, to Heller, David's relationship with God was the most significant in his life, and though he makes David make light of it, it is clear that the character regrets the withdrawal of God's voice of guidance more than anything else (this was another consequence of his adultery with Bathsheba).

From a literary point of view, God Knows is one of the least significant of Heller's novels. On the other hand, it is among his most accessible and enjoyable - and it will make you laugh out loud.

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