Fifty years ago the Cambridge student magazine Granta published an in-your-face poem that began: “Let God get up, he’s lying in bed / With a dirty old sock wrapped round his head. . . .” This silly effusion not only produced shock (which was the idea) but actually got author and publisher, to their surprise, prosecuted for blasphemy. The episode came back to me while reading James Morrow’s “The Eternal Footman,” in which God turns up as a decidedly physical corpse, two miles long, floating off the coast of Africa. Frozen by the Vatican, then bought by the American Baptist Confederation for $80 million, the Corpus Dei explodes while being towed, showering bits of divine anatomy into the sky. Its skull, after vomiting out its own brain, goes into geosynchronous orbit. Things have changed indeed in half a century. Morrow not only isn’t prosecuted but gets lavish praise as a great satirist.
By a kind of internalizing Manichaeism, he assigns to God all the evils of the world as well as the creative virtues, so that Jehovah and Satan are neatly rolled into one. This device makes explaining plagues and other scourges of the virtuous an easy matter: It’s just heavenly Hyde taking over from divine Jekyll. The special plague imposed on the West by this expiring deity (the action’s set in the first years of the Third Millennium) is an invasion of individual personalities by a legion of wraithlike yet solid doppelgangers or “fetches.” These, apart from a uniformly bloodless pallor, exactly resemble their hosts, into whose bodies they melt like some physical virus. The victims cough up black matter (“fear syrup”), develop paralysis, boils, pocks. The symptoms are similar to those of bubonic plague, except that they’re generated by nihilism in the psyche. Learn to embrace death, say the fetches cheerfully. For obvious reasons, they don’t even bother trying their tricks on Buddhists or Hindus.
The impact of this apparently irresistible assault on (mainly American) humankind produces a swift collapse of all productive and civic functioning in Western civilization. Material services come to a full stop. The United States reverts to primitivist shambles in which Jews and Christians fight each other to the death in the North-East corridor. Gasoline is virtually unobtainable. Dr. Adrian Lucido, bogus psychotherapist, sets up a clinic in Mexico with the promise of curing the plague (now called “abulia”) and in effect exorcising its demons. To this end he creates a whole new materialist religion, Somaticism, complete with idols and fancy rituals. New, however, is old: To get rid of patients’ fetches, he ends up like the Olmecs, ripping out their hearts, with promises of glory in the hereafter.
To give some kind of narrative coherence to this futurist extravaganza, Morrow interweaves the stories of two characters. Nora Burkhart embarks on a desperate quest across the States to find a cure for her adolescent son Kevin, accompanied by Kevin’s fetch, who provides a running commentary of really awful black jokes. En route Nora joins an itinerant theater group, the Great Sumerian Traveling Circus, that is playing a dramatized version of, guess what, the “Epic of Gilgamish.” Ah yes, the quest for eternal life, heavy symbolism there. Her adventures are countered with those of a sculptor, Gerard Korty, who, with his wife Fiona, is lured back from isolation in Indonesia by a lucrative offer from the Vatican: God’s bones have finally come back to Rome, and the church authorities, impressed by Korty’s famous Madonna, want him to design a fitting reliquary for them.
Korty’s design is, predictably, frowned on by the papal authorities and replaced with one of their own. We’re meant to cheer for Korty, but his original creation in fact sounds just as awful. The main idea seems to be that with God dead, man can grow to maturity. Unfortunately, “The Eternal Footman” remains mired (like that Cambridge poem) in snook-cocking adolescence. Despite smart allusions to Hegel and Nietzsche and scraps of dialogue between Martin Luther and Erasmus, Morrow’s text reads like a first-year student’s apocalyptic blow-off after struggling through Theology 101. His horrors make no coherent sense and thus become cumulatively ridiculous rather than tragic. “Eat your heart out, Salman Rushdie!” one critic gushes. But “The Satanic Verses” went lethally to the heart of the matter: It’s easy to see why that fatwa was pronounced. “The Eternal Footman,” on the other hand, is just plain silly and thus, in the last resort, not worth getting riled up about. “Death is a lousy philosopher,” says one of its characters. So, I fear, is the author.