Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Prose and Perils of a Christian Nation (#bookreview)

Something a little bit different this morning - a dual review, looking at Frederic C. Rich's debut novel from two very different perspectives . . .

When I first read the synopsis for Christian Nation, I was excited. It sounded like a fantastic alternate history/future dystopian novel, built around a premise far more plausibly terrifying than aliens, zombies, or vampire plagues. What I found in its pages is really two books, both of which are deeply flawed, but which combine to provide a whole that's more fascinating than the sum of its parts.

As a novel, as a narrative work of fiction, this is a rather weak tale. It's told as a series of personal recollections, framed by the act of writing a forbidden memoir. While that kind of framework has its uses, and has certainly been done successfully before, Rich makes a mistake (in my mind) of never straying far from the physical detachment of memoir. There's very little action or excitement, no insights into the thoughts or emotions of those populating the tale, and a distinct lack of urgency. It's a very clinical telling, and one that does little to endear readers to the narrator/protagonist, making it difficult to become emotionally invested in the tale.

It bothered me that so much of the story depended upon coincidences and well-time accidents, but it bothered me even more that government sanctioned murder was required to enable significant turning points in history. Those murders really strained the credibility of "it could really happen here." At the same time, I had an issue with the the narrow-minded focus on the evils of homosexual sin, especially in a world where it's a second 9/11 type terrorist attack that polarizes the average citizen into supporting the establishment of a theocratic government. Similarly, the complete lack of interest in foreign affairs is troubling, not so much in their lack of interference, but in following through on Palin's platform of retribution against the Islamic terrorists.

As a borderline sci-fi novel, there are some really interesting concepts in Christian Nation, but I'm not sure if they're flawed, or just not fully developed. For instance, the Purity Web certainly has the potential to be more horrifying that Big Brother, and should leave you second-guessing yourself every time you go online. It has the potential to be awe-inspiring, menacing on an unprecedented level, but it ends up being downplayed. That, for me, is one of the story's biggest failings. Even if you can't make the reader care for your characters, you should be able to make them fear for themselves.

Finally, it must be said that this is also a rather linear tale, one with a ending that's never in doubt, which makes it impossible to generate any sort of suspense. The cast of main characters is small, and none of them are every really defined beyond their faith, their politics, and their career. It's almost as if they are merely props with which to explore a philosophical idea - which, of course, is precisely what they are.

As a philosophical treatise, this is a somewhat narrow-minded, but well-intentioned tale . . . but I promised to let Sally review that aspect of it.

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Like Bob, I was intensely curious about Christian Nation from the moment he first brought it to my attention. I do like a enjoy a good alternate "what if?" history novel, but I was far more interested in this as a book of ideas. As a reader who is apparently destined to be persecuted on multiple fronts in Rich's theocratic state, I was interested to see how he would develop his ideas and justify his conclusions.

Oh my gosh. I mean no offense to my friends south of the border, but this is a quintessentially American novel - full of arrogance, self-importance, and return to thoughts of manifest destiny. The political and religious leaders of Rich's novel not only believe that the establishment of America as a pure Christian Nation is required for the second-coming, but that they were granted the land by God for that sole purpose. There is some lip service provided to the idea of supporting a Jewish state in Israel but, for the most part, the new rulers of America don't give a damn about anybody outside their borders. The Bible may not have been written by them but, by God, it sure as sin was written for them.

Along the same lines, the new rulers are not content to merely accept the will of God and rule their country according to the literal dictates of the Bible. The 10 commandments are a great inspiration, but in America you go big or you go home, and it takes 50 new commandments , in the form of The Blessing, to get things done. I really don't know whether Rich was being satirical in so wholeheartedly embracing the worst stereotypes outsiders have of America, but he plays just about every card in the deck. The Blessing has to be the ickiest part of the novel, several pages of racist, sexist, homophobic that just makes you queasy to think of anybody buying into.

It's not just American stereotypes at work here, however, but misogynistic religious ones as well. In the new Christian Nation, it's homosexual men who are the enemy, and sodomy that is the world's greatest sin. Islamic terrorists loading rocket launchers around airports are bad, but Rich's theocratic leaders would run right past them to stop two young men from loading something far smaller, and far less lethal, into one another. His is a world where single men over a certain age are legally assumed to be homosexual, and where gay sex is grounds for execution. Lesbians, however, merely have to be watched (I guess some things never change), and women merely have to be pleasant and obey their husbands - who can, of course, demand any sort of kinkiness they desire. I do have to give Rich credit for making a lovely, charismatic gay man one of his protagonists, though, even if he never gets kissed, much less sodomized, anywhere on the page.

Whew. Could it really happen the way Rich suggests? Could a theocracy take root in America, rise to absolute power, and then gleefully abuse that power until everything that made the country America is gone? I sure as hell hope not but, then again, he makes it clear the world felt the same way about Nazi Germany once upon a time. As a cautionary tale and a philosophical exploration of what happens when the lines between church and state are erased, this is a fascinating read. It's very dry, and full of long passages that I'm sure even lawyers and university professors will be tempted to skim, but it is interesting to see how easily we can be convinced to give our freedoms away.

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Ultimately, Christian Nation is an intriguing read, and possibly even (to borrow an overused term) an important one. It's not a great work of fiction, but it is a good work of speculative fiction in that it makes you think, ponder, and really consider the possibilities. I think I enjoyed it a bit more than Sally, but I also think she found it a bit more disturbing than I did.


Expected publication: July 1st 2013 by W. W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 352 pages

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