Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Andrew Ladd, the book reviews editor for the Ploughshares blog. His first novel, What Ends, won the AWP Prize in the Novel and is available now from New Issues Press.
For many years, I had an instant answer when people asked me about my favorite book. For many more since, I’ve mostly stopped giving it.
I fully admit that there are some silly, superficial reasons for my reticence. Like: a college friend whose literary chops I admire greatly read the book, on my recommendation, and was underwhelmed. Or: it’s generally shelved under Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and though I actually disagree with that classification, my years in an MFA program have made me wary of copping to this sort of thing. (Admit it: when I mentioned the dreaded genre you almost stopped reading.)
A slightly less silly reason for my reticence, perhaps, is that the book, James Morrow’s Blameless in Abaddon, doesn’t lend itself well to brief summary. In it, the comatose body of God is the main attraction of a Baptist-run Florida theme park, until a small-town justice of the peace named Martin Candle—distraught by a cancer diagnosis and the untimely death of his wife—decides to put the deity on trial, in the Hague, for crimes against humanity. What ensues is a satirical theology in which the prosecution’s discovery takes places on a riverboat inside God’s brain, and monks take the stand to discuss the difference between doughnuts and Heaven—among other things.
So yes, it sounds kind of hokey, rife with opportunities for clumsy didacticism. It sounds, to paraphrase someone I once described it to, like the sort of thing you would give to high school kids to get them interested in religion. And certainly, there’s a lot of exposition in it that, if I were in an MFA workshop and feeling less charitable, I would probably cut.
Yet considering the book in terms of its major plot points and/or theological content does it as much a disservice as dismissing it for being Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Better, I think, to call it Vonnegutesque, or better still to forgo such characterization altogether and appreciate more comprehensively all that James Morrow accomplishes, here and in his other books, as an author of good fiction. Because so many of those cliché things that happen to people when they really, truly, love a book? They happened to me for the first time—and in some cases the only time, even fifteen years later—when I read Blameless in Abaddon.
I re-read it, for one thing, which I never did. The only other book I can remember re-reading before that was a Hardy Boys mystery, and that was just because I was on holiday in Italy and hadn’t brought any others. Equally unusual for me, when I first read it, visiting my uncle’s house during my spring vacation, was the way I would wait impatiently for my cousin to come home from school, just so that I could re-read him whole passages, pages at a time, because I thought they were that good. And yet in grad school, by comparison, when it was basically my job to find noteworthy passages in books to share with my peers, I struggled to do so or to even see the merit in the exercise. Blameless just got to me in a way few others have.
More than anything, though, the book sticks with me because it was the first one to make me cry. Up until then, I think, I had always looked at books as light entertainment—witness The Hardy Boys. Reading about Martin Candle, though, a man so consumed with grief and rage, so desperately in search of a reason for his suffering that he ignores the real sources of solace in his life and instead hooks all his hopes, delusional, on a grand scheme that any rational person can see will end in disappointment: I was moved to tears. (And by the way, stripped away of all the Sci-Fi/Fantasy particulars, how’s that for a literary fiction plot?)
Nowadays, of course, Blameless is no longer the only book I’ve quoted or re-read; I returned to Invisible Man and Crying of Lot 49, and I know I pushed passages of Franzen on unsuspecting bystanders; I recommended The Corrections to so many people it became a running joke among my friends. I got a little choked up at The Moonflower Vine, too, even if I’ve never actually cried at another book since. And these are all reasons, too—good reasons, actually—why I’m no longer so quick to tell people Blameless is my favorite book. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve found the things I loved about it elsewhere.
But your first time is always your most memorable, right? So let me say it once more, for nostalgia’s sake: Trust me. You just have to read this book.
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