Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell The Sparrow (1996)
I had this friend called Nellie, a Turkish woman who worked at Royal Mail. One night she was involved in a terrible car accident, or would have been had the Lord Jesus Christ not levitated her beloved Mini across the crash barrier at the crucial moment thus saving her life. She later offered this as proof of his divine glory, and yes I am aware of my not having capitalised the personal pronoun.

'It must have been Jesus,' she explained. 'How else would me car have ended up in the other lane, on the other side of that metal fing?'

Nellie, for all her likeable qualities, was essentially mad; and mad as in requiring serious medication in order to function within the community as opposed to just being a bit kooky. I'm not sure if her madness derived from nature or nurture but I'm inclined to blame the latter. Firstly, being lesbian, she already had a tough road to travel, born to a traditional Turkish family which viewed male children as beloved of God and which viewed a daughter as something by which one might procure a hard-working son-in-law. I'm not sure whether she was beaten as a child, although I recall darkly hinted mumblings along those lines, and I know her father sometimes left her locked inside a cupboard for up to six hours.

Eventually she found a job, a combination of pills which took the edge off the more extravagant gymnastics of her brain, and Jesus, who I would like to think helped in some way; but she was not generally speaking a happy bunny. She laughed, and was often very funny. She was a long way from being stupid or in any sense an unpleasant person, but always I had the impression of her being broken beyond repair; and she died of cancer in her forties, which was tremendously shit really.

I tended to nod, smile, and wait for it to pass when Nellie got onto the topic of himself upstairs, my reasoning being that if it was something which helped her through the day, then it wasn't really for me to point out how it was probably bollocks and in any case I wasn't interested. On one such occasion we were walking in Dulwich Park when I saw a jay, quite a rare sight in that part of London.

'Look,' I said, excited and pointing. 'A jay!'

Nellie shrugged. 'It's just some bird, innit?'

This made me sad. Colourful birds are not so common in England, and her comment struck me as typical of the attitude of a certain religious mindset which is seemingly unable to appreciate the wonder of almost anything unless viewed through its own specifically theological lens, like the moron who stands before Niagara Falls only able to consider its splendour in terms of something God did. Whilst religious themes might work as painting, particularly landscape painting, or music - forms of expression which, done right, can still communicate regardless of theological context, the written word seems more problematic, at least where The Sparrow is concerned.

I could be wrong but I get the impression Mary Doria Russell views love as the most powerful force in the universe. I myself suspect it's probably something like gravity or what you get when you smash a couple of atoms together. Her debut novel places a bunch of Jesuits in the position of being the first humans to travel to another planet and make first contact with an alien species for the purpose of learning to love them as they love all God's creations. For what it's worth, it's plausibly and intelligently done with nothing to upset Isaac Asimov in terms of the mechanics of such a voyage. The problem is that for me at least, The Sparrow lives up to few of the claims made by those glowing reviews quoted in the introductory pages, and once you get past the setting and the furniture of Christians in space or amongst the natives of the planet Rakhat, the rest is some bloke looking at Niagara Falls and thinking about Jesus a whole lot. The landing, for example, starts well before getting bogged down with ruminations upon one of the characters reconciling his Christianity with being a gay Texan through the infinite love of him upstairs. I realise this may seem a little harsh, but to paraphrase Burroughs, you cannot take bullshit into space.

Rarely is there a science-fiction novel that some bloke from some Seattle rag can recommend to his literate SF-challenged friends, it says here amongst similar accolades promising something more cerebral than the usual robots and spacecraft bollocks, the sort of mind-stretcher one expects from Margaret Attwood and her peers, the sort of sophisticated shit you can enjoy whilst sipping on some real fancy wine and that. The humour, highlighted by at least a few of the reviews, is at the level of smart comments made by characters from an episode of Friends, mostly followed by descriptions of how hard everyone laughed in response, I presume so as to show us how these are cool Christians rather than the stern, disapproving types. This actually constitutes reportage of wit rather than wit in its own right, I would argue; and these characters are neither especially memorable nor even easily distinguished from one another, not even our main man, the Priest Emilio Sandoz who just comes across as a bit of a cock. It probably didn't help that he is described as being madly in love with God, which for me places it all on the same level as Nellie's Mini Cooper miraculously levitated to safety by Jesus. I'm sure it communicates to those who are already there, but to the rest of us it suggests a lack of perspective.

On the other hand, the writing is okay, certainly readable if a little formulaic and overly reliant upon the attempted characterisation of a group of people for whom it is sadly difficult to care - a competently completed exercise submitted as part of some novel writing correspondence course.

I'm not averse to religiously themed fiction and, if anything, probably prefer it to the other tub-thumping extreme of droning atheism, but there's a way to do this stuff which communicates beyond those already converted - Philip K. Dick and Clifford D. Simak being two that spring to mind - and then there's Christian science-fiction just as there's Christian heavy metal, forms which, if they were really that bothered about engaging with the rest of us, might like to spend a bit more time on the means by which they communicate their message.

The message, or specifically the dialogue of The Sparrow is a response to the question of how a loving God can allow a universe of rape, murder, torture, and small Turkish girls locked in cupboards without food or water for six hours at a time. The subject, when at last it shows up, is handled extremely well and is presumably what has inspired those comments quoted on the opening pages. However, it's immensely aggravating that all of this good stuff should be concentrated in the concluding fifty pages with Russell finally getting serious and living up to the promise of the reviews; and it comes as so much of a contrast as to feel like the work of a different author. Following on from 450 pages with all the philosophical depth of a John Lennon motivational poster, all the supposedly spiritual shite that actually isn't anywhere near so profound as even Life of Brian, it's wonderful but still too little too late.

Onel Mehmet
 Rest in Peace
Hope you found what you were looking for, girl...

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