THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON.<i> By Norman Mailer</i> .<i> Random House: 242 pp., $22</i>
Some years ago, I attempted to write a work of nonfiction that reconstructed the life of the historical Jesus. I knew that it was an impossible task and, for that reason, worth attempting, since human curiosity can never satisfy itself about the identity and character of a man whose destiny was to be hailed, three centuries after His birth, as Light of Light, God of God, very God of very God.
Discussing the purely technical problem of how such a book could ever be written, the British novelist Peter Ackroyd asked me why I did not make my book a work of fiction. As the discussion wore on during a long evening, we decided that it would make a better novel if the traditional claims of theology, from virginal conception to resurrection, with all the miracles between, turned out to be true. Then, with a great deal of laughter, we recollected that four such books had already been written, attributed to the writers known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Norman Mailer has now made the attempt. Fortuitously, he has followed the plan that Ackroyd and I considered, namely writing a book that accepts the traditional story of Jesus Christ that we were told in our Sunday schools. This is no “The Last Temptation of Christ.” There are no troubling scenes of lust with Mary Magdalene nor, as in a notorious poem that was condemned for blasphemy in England some years ago, with the Roman soldiery.
The only new difficulty that Mailer has made for himself in “The Gospel According to the Son” is that he has decided to tell the story in the first person. This is the autobiography of Jesus, written we know not where, but in some eternal realm where He has been dwelling since His ascension. Like a Chekhovian character, frustrated by His own redundancy and by an unexplained absence of sympathy with His closest relation, Jesus records, “My Father . . . does not often speak to me. Nonetheless, I honor him. He sends forth as much love as he can offer, but his love is not without limit.”
At the beginning of the book, it would seem as if Jesus / Mailer, like Mikhail Bulgakov in “The Master and Margarita,” was going to make witty play of the evangelists’ incomprehension of His message. But in spite of telling us that the Gospel of Luke is highly unreliable, Jesus accepts the basic evangelical accounts of His life, death and teaching. It is obvious that in the heavenly places, He has not had access to any of the modern works of scholarship that have urged caution on those who accept too readily the Gospel accounts of his trial.
Jesus’ claims to have been an Essene, one of that strict Jewish sect whose puritanical customs and views of life have been the delight of modern fantasists to reconstruct. Like the Gospel writers, Jesus almost exonerates Pontius Pilate from any guilt in His death. He either has not read or disbelieves modern scholars who believe that, far from being an enemy of the Pharisees, the historical Jesus was likely to have been their ally, if not a Pharisee himself. Pilate, who was in real life so cruel that the Roman authorities had to remove him from the procuratorship of Judea, is, in Jesus’ account of things, the detached Gentile observer who believes that the “King of the Jews” has done no wrong and should be released. (The real Pilate crucified 2,000 Pharisees in a single day.) Here, in Jesus’ account, we read of the Pharisees improbably collaborating with the Romans and urging them to kill Jesus. It remains the Jews, in the accounts of Jesus / Mailer, who remain guilty of crucifying the innocent Galilean prophet, a fiction that has had an incomparably damaging historical effect and that is both the origin and the supposed justification of European anti-Semitism.
But this Jesus has strange memory lapses. He was told as a child, for instance, about the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to His virgin mother, but then He forgot about it until he was 30, concentrating instead on the carpentry details that form the least arresting part of His narrative.
Reading these pages, one can see why Jesus has never chosen to write a book before, since whenever He adds to the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, the results are less than happy. John’s Pilate epigrammatically offers the cynical question, “What is truth?” Jesus’ Pilate is a windbag who adds, “Where there is truth, there will be no peace. Where peace abides, you will find no truth.” (What does this mean? If Jesus had ever read the uneventful lives of men like Immanuel Kant or Ludwig Wittgenstein, He might have decided that peace was a precondition for the pursuit of truth.)
But then, the sad evidence presented by these pages is that Jesus is not merely rather stupid but also a very bad writer. “They drove a spike into each of my wrists and another spike through each of my feet. I did not cry out. But I saw the heavens divide. Within my skull, light glared at me until I knew the colors of the rainbow; my soul was luminous with pain.” Perhaps it sounds better in the Aramaic in which Jesus originally wrote it, but one can’t help fearing that when He sees his words in print, He will think He sounds like a sadomasochist on acid.
His story ends rather lamely, for One who has been through so much. “There are many churches in my name and in the name of my apostles. The greatest and holiest is named after Peter; it is a place of great splendor in Rome. Nowhere can be found more gold.” Again, Jesus should have employed a researcher to tell Him that, although the Vatican is not short of gold, it can hardly rival the Federal Reserve. Jesus is more wistful than angry at the continued success of the devil, but He modestly hopes that He is still of some use to the poor old human race. “It is even by way of my blessing that the Lord sends what love he can muster down to that creature who is man and that other creature who is woman, and I try to remain the source of that love that is tender.”
If only there were creative writing schools in heaven or, failing that, editors, we could hope that Jesus would learn how to improve on awful sentences like that. No doubt He will do better in his next book. Perhaps the most surprising revelations are left to the end when, in a passage of acknowledgments, Jesus reveals that He has a wife called Norris and a literary agent called Andrew Wylie. Maybe He should get some publisher to sign Him up to write the life of Norman Mailer.