Of Noah and the Worm : A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10 1/2 CHAPTERS <i> by Julian Bonds (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 309 pp.) </i>
Are there as many worlds as there are people? Something like 4 billion? You wouldn’t say so riding a New York subway or oozing tectonically along the Ventura Freeway. You would say there was only one world, and much too small.
But for the soul and the imagination, it is another matter. In some part of ourselves, we are all solipsists caught in the rush hour.
In his 10 tales and a sermon--a sermon is worth not more than half a story, I suppose; thus, the title--the English novelist Julian Barnes seeks not so much to present the world as to suggest it by samples.
Do they, in Barnes’ skittering, inspired and sometimes silly selection, constitute the world? From his beach, he comes back with an assortment of shells, holes, sea-drift and viscous bits, and says: Out of these I reconstruct a planet. It may be hard to see what joins them. The sensibility, of course. Also, the woodworm and Noah’s Ark.
I like the woodworm and his irascible account, as a stowaway, of what really went on aboard Noah’s flotilla. It furnishes the introductory tale, and one of the best in the collection. But most of the others, in their genially varied styles, subjects and time periods, tuck away a Noah allusion or a woodworm here and there.
Throughout, these are the longitude and latitude of Barnes’ atlas. Noah and his motley company are the projects and aspirations of the human race: vast, prophetic, petty and crooked at the same time. The woodworm is the fly in all our ointments: the perversity of chance, the revenge of nature upon its improvers, the notion that cockroaches, for instance, are likely to be around long after humanity shuffles away.
There is a steady theological pulse in the assorted antics of Barnes’ antic assortment. He tells us stories about a popular TV lecturer hijacked by Arab terrorists, an astronaut who thinks he hears God talking to him on the moon, a Victorian woman who pursues a lifelong argument with her atheist father by undertaking an expedition to Mt. Ararat--Noah’s landing-spot--to pray for him, and a hedonist’s comical experience of heaven.
This last turns disquieting. The narrator enjoys continual breakfast in bed featuring perfect grapefruit all the time, a golf score of 18, unlimited credit at the supermarket, splendid sex, and confidential chats with Socrates, John F. Kennedy and his favorite soccer stars. And, predictably, heaven goes flat; in a place where everyone has every wish granted, everyone eventually wishes to die.
Barnes does this well, though there is nothing particularly new about using a perfect and perfectly boring heaven to suggest the shallowness of our dreams. There can be a touch of unctuousness when the play of his imagination flags; a clerical cut to his jumpsuit. His meditation on love--this is the sermon or half-chapter-sags
Please Turn to Page 14 ‘A History of the World’
Continued From Third Page from aphorism into sententiousness.
There is also, to get the criticisms out of the way, a crudeness of execution in some of the stories; even where the concept is fresh and provocative. “Project Ararat” has an ordinary Carolina boy, an astronaut trained to follow his heavily supervised career and reap its benefits, suddenly, as his exasperated wife puts it, “Fall off the boxcar of the gravy train.”
Walking on the moon, he hears a voice in his earphones commanding: “Find Noah.” Back on Earth, he quits the space program, raises money, and sets off for Mt. Ararat. Sure enough, he finds bones, but they turn out to be those of the Victorian woman in a previous story. Here, as elsewhere, Barnes achieves a splendid mix of human loftiness and pretention. The fabric suffers, though, from the author’s failing, just, to catch the flavor of American speech and American cliche.
At his best, though, Barnes is a dazzler. The woodworm in the first story is a comic; but if one could imagine our planet talking back to the human schemes that have abused it, its voice would sound just about that way. The Ark was really eight ships, woodworm tells us. Half were lost at sea, meaning that there are serious gaps in our fauna.
Sheer greed accounts for other gaps. Noah and his family ate not a few of the specimens during the five years at sea. Thus we lack the basilisk, the gryphon, the unicorn. We also lack the behemoth, which should have been enough for the entire trip except that the Noahs got bored. “There was a lot of salted behemoth left over at the end of the journey,” woodworm tells us.
Not that we are to trust him entirely. Only seven woodworms sneaked on board, he insists. But why did those four other ships sink? They were made of wood, and it is not only mankind that is greedy. . . .
The woodworm turns up elsewhere, notably as the defendant in a medieval trial at Besancon. An infested chair collapsed in a village church during the visit of the bishop, who was grievously injured in the fall. Basing himself on historical cases, Barnes writes of the arguments advanced for excommunication of the culprits, and the defense offered by a court-appointed Advocate of the Insects.
As for Noah, he reappears directly or indirectly in other stories, many of them set at sea. Barnes retells the story of the “St. Louis,” a German passenger liner carrying Jewish refugees from Hitler in 1939. Cuba refused landing rights; so did the United States and several other countries. Eventually, the passengers were divided up among England, Belgium, Holland and France.
It is a dark variation on the Noah theme. Humanity flees the deluge to find--in the case of those who went to the Continent--not deliverance, but, with the Nazi invasions coming shortly after, a new destruction.
There are other variations. The most moving is “The Survivor.” A young woman in Australia who has tracked the spread of nuclear contaminations since childhood takes her husband’s boat and puts out to sea with two cats. The story is like a hallucination. She is, perhaps, rescued; or perhaps she lands on an island, a Pacific Ararat. There, not humanity but the two cats propagate and make a new beginning of the race.
“The Survivor” is Barnes at his most successful: an anarchic, entirely original whirlwind of the real and the visionary. We are tumbled amid the writer’s humor, anger, irony, homely invention and a large lament for the cycle of human endeavor that dreams, corrupts what it dreams of, and dreams again.
DR, JEFF KAUFMAN