Tuesday, April 9, 2013
H. A. Goodman - Breaking the Devil's Heart
After reading and reviewing enough books, most reviewers, I think, start to have a general idea of how novels fail. Generally, the problem is not gaping flaws. Most of the time, it’s just that they don’t do much at all. Most mediocre books are perfectly competent but provide no reason to bother with them. Breaking the Devil’s Heart is nothing like that. Goodman has great ideas. Alas, those ideas are frequently let down by a kind of clumsy yet pedantic over-eagerness.
Stewart is an Observer, a man between Heaven and Hell that has given his (after)life to attempting to destroy Satan. His life before death prepared him well for all this. Working for the CIA, he was tasked to Find the root of evil and learn ways to destroy this impulse within mankind (p. 10). Already, you can likely see many of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. Goodman is not a boring or easily contended writer. He finds the biggest issues that he can, levels his lance at them, and charges. Best of all, he actually has some interesting things to say about them.
But those issues are so large that he also has to squash them to fit, and his campaign against them frequently becomes so optimistic and (morally) good that it loses all believability. The CIA deciding to eradicate evil so that America’s enemies won’t be so depraved as to attack it is, for instance, a bit like a high school student setting out to cure cancer to improve his college application. Solving all of humanity’s problems in order to protect America’s borders is nice on a few levels, but it seems to be swapping about what really matters.
The novel operates at the midway point between a thriller and a philosophical exploration of evil. Bizarrely enough, the contrast works. Stewart and his love interest, Layla, bluff their way onto a tour through hell and explore Heaven too, seeing throughout different scenes from Earth that explain or get at different facets of evil. The general ballsiness of the whole venture keeps the different example-type scenes interesting and actually manages to build a fair bit of narrative momentum. Goodman also does look at a pretty admirable slice of history in his work.
Looking at the scenes and discussions of morality themselves, though, problems begin to appear. First, Stewart is a white American guy and approaches problems accordingly. Now, I am not the most Social Justice-conscious review out there. For the most part, I don’t feel particularly qualified to delve into such issues and back off unless they are particularly egregious. But Goodman has set his sights on exactly this kind of stuff, so not engaging with him on it would feel like shying away from problems that are in the book’s core.
Americans are the angels. I mean that figuratively and literally. To a greater and lesser extent, Goodman does too. Both Stewart and Layla are from the US, and Stewart’s go to comparison for Heaven’s struggle with Hell is how America fought the Soviets. When demons refer to the angels as you Americans (p. 64), it is true that Steward and Layla are Americans. But every other angel we meet is from the States as well. It’s only the force of hell that don’t all come from the Atlantic’s western shore.
The choice of moral examples and exemplars reflect this to an uncomfortable degree. The first scene of evil that we are shown is an Islamic honor killing. Far later, we do turn to America. But we only partially do so to find Horrors. Stewart goes to see the Freedom Riders as they are beaten in order to witness the heroism needed to stand up to oppressive systems. This leaves us with a historic example of American evil – and the heroes that stood up to it and, at least within the novel’s confines, abolished it. Foreign evils, alas, are still going on and don’t seem to have the necessary heroes to stop them without Stewart’s intervention. To add the discomforting cherry on top, the Freedom Rider that Stewart chooses as his hero to emulate is white.
The broader problem with Stewart’s quest to eradicate evil is that evil is rather built into Earth. Goodman realizes this and, every once in a while, his characters brush up against the limits of their quest. Before long, they have admitted that Hell is not responsible for all the evil in the world (which seems to leave Satan as sort of superfluous, but okay). But setting out to destroy something within humanity has some ethical considerations that go along with it. One of Goodman’s snazzier ideas is that God is just as allusive in the afterlife as in reality. Addressing that, Stewart says: I longed for some eternal referee to come down and actually fix things instead of standing behind the notion of free will as if it were a concrete barrier blocking him from reality (p. 344). That comes in the third to last paragraph, and it is only then that Stewart admits that he is butting up against free will and arguably the core of humanity in his quest. Alas, his moral exploration ends there, before he can start to question just what removing free will for goodness’ sake would mean.
But what do we mean by goodness? If Stewart is going to add an extra dose of conscience to humanity, cut back on this whole free will thing, and set us on the path of righteousness, it seems like we should have a path of righteousness planned out. But we don’t seem to. For a book that spends so much time exploring evil, Breaking the Devil’s Heart leaves good remarkably untouched, as if it were an obvious matter that we all agreed on long ago.
This can be seen in Heaven where, in the absence of good, we are told that fundementalists of all faiths have taken matters into their own hands. In their own words: Our heaven is based on holy books, every single holy book ever written (p. 303). Now, mind you, we are in heaven. Everyone living under this fundamentalist regime is already good in the sense that they have not, say, murdered anyone. Which means that the new Heavenly order the fundamentalists are imposing has to do not with the few universal religious diktats but with the more peripheral stuff. Only, all of that peripheral stuff seems like it would be an area of some disagreement. How have Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. fundamentalists agreed on the Sabbath’s particulars, again? From the brief glimpse that we get, it seems like the answer is that they became the US Bible Belt.
That brings us back to the broader question of good. If all of mankind is going to be made good, it seems dangerously possible, given the aforementioned USA! traits of Stewart, that the world will be made into America. The Islamic honor killing that I described a while back is described as the consequence of tribalism and cultural norms (p. 27), a description that is not inaccurate but does seem to place us in the strange place where cultural norms can lead to violence – except in America, where we have all of that solved. Referring to positive consequences of culture, Stewart says: There aren’t many unintended consequences from a Thanksgiving Dinner or opening presents on Christmas Eve (p. 112). Negative cultures are found in the Middle East and lead to murder. Benevolent cultures like America’s have nice holidays – at least one of which is amusingly enough intricately tied to the whole genocide-through-disease founding of the nation.
Nonetheless, the darker side of Stewart’s morality was not my main problem with Breaking the Devil’s Heart. Stewart often expresses his views in debates, and his demonic opponents do get to smack him down a fair few refreshing times. Odds are, those demons are not the characters closest to Goodman’s heart. Still, their retorts are included and are often not only cutting but certainly more insightful than Stewart’s own arguments, at least in this reviewer’s opinion.
No, Goodman’s real problem is prose. At his best, his writing fades into the background or elicits a chuckle or two. But sentences so shambling that calling them clunkers seems merciful abound: Upon hearing the Boss’s surprising evaluation of his personality, the bitterness within Ted was so palpable that I pulled Layla back several feet for fear of him venting his fury in some violent manner (p. 100). First, it’s interesting that Layla, a badass Observer in her own right, would not be capable of stepping backwards on her own if the need arose. But more pertinently here, there is not a single clause in there that could not be more concisely stated. In moments like this, Goodman manages to both exclusively tell rather than show and to also be extremely vague. Besides which, grammatically, it was “the bitterness within Ted” that was doing the listening, not Stewart.
Let’s look at another: Too often, men and women experience the world, as well as each other, in disparate ways because of societal norms and other aspects of human life (p. 71). The first half – people experience things differently – is a truism. The second half, which seems poised to expand upon it, starts off fine by going into “societal norms” (an area that, as we’ve seen, Goodman continually approaches but then shies away from) but then ventures off into territory so bland and nonspecific as to be utterly meaningless. “Other aspects of human life” could include, quite literally, anything at all.
At other times, the prose is not so much bad as it is simply strange. In case the reader is utterly unfamiliar with human interaction, Goodman defines what “thanks” means: “Thanks, babe,” I [said], wanting her to know I appreciated her gesture immensely (p. 146). Elsewhere, Goodman uses allusions. Most of these actually work quite well, such as a description of Hell as “Dante’s Inferno meets Boiler Room” (p. 98). After having a character quote Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” though, Goodman helpfully outlines the purpose of an allusion, just in case someone in the back row had thought such quotations might be chosen entirely at random: The beauty of using this stanza of Poe’s “The Raven” was that it actually described our current precarious circumstance (p. 159). And it’s not only the reader that is assumed to be dumber than a brick. At one point, Stewart explains to Layla that “We’ve been in a serious, committed relationship for several years now,” (p. 75) something that you would really hope she would be capable of remembering on her own.
You could describe Breaking the Devil’s Heart as a novel that bit off more than it could chew. That’s not quite accurate, though. Goodman’s philosophy is problematic but also large and daring enough to be engaged with. That could sound like damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it that way. Goodman advances into territory that few dare to, and the demons’ comments give me hope that he has enough self-awareness to correct (most of) his problems in future novels in the setting. The prose does not seem as easily correctable. The novel’s ideas are not flawless but are still impressive, but the writing proves a barrier that ends up casting the whole venture into doubt.