I’ve made a point lately of seeking out signs of religious belief or its lack in the main characters of books I read. More and more I’m noticing signs of characters (and one would think their authors) coming out on the Bright side. At least in the sort of literary novels (and memoirs of literary novelists) I tend to favor.
While I certainly don’t read only books by freethinkers, I do raise a polite cheer for writers who are both imaginative and rational.
Here, then, are three examples of fine books that work their storytelling magic without resorting to actual magic:
1. Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger
Author J.W. Ironmonger, born and raised in East Africa, lives in England. This novel is a fresh take on the issue of chance versus fate.
Here’s the first note I took:
‘I don’t believe any more.’
‘You don’t believe in the work of the mission?’
Luke looked miserable. ‘I don’t believe in God.’
For a third time the African exploded into a great gale of laughter. He pounded his big hand like a paddle on Luke’s back. ‘My friend, my friend, my friend,’ he said in between snorts of hilarity, ‘nobody believes in God any more.’
And then here’s an exchange that takes place 20 years later:
‘Why did you change the place from a mission to a rescue centre?’
‘It seemed like an important thing to do,’ Luke says. He leans back in the chair. ‘Some of the kids coming down from Sudan were Muslims. Some had no religion. It occurred to me one day that we were part of the problem. We were making this into a religious conflict simply by helping to sustain the ridiculous social convention that every child is born with a set of beliefs and that every child has to stay loyal to those beliefs until the day they die. All the missions in Africa – they all share part of the blame.’
‘And was it . . . a religious conflict?’ Thomas asks.
‘In part. One man with a set of mumbo-jumbo beliefs decided that God had spoken to him, so anyone who disagreed could be shot, or have bits of their body hacked off.’
I enjoyed Coincidence so much that I also read Ironmonger’s previous novel, a much odder book, The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder. About a man who shuts himself away for three decades and attempts to record every one of his memories, it’s wonderfully quirky and original.
2. Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart has written three critically acclaimed (and really funny and engaging) novels: Absurdistan, Super Sad True Love Story, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Little Failure is his sweetly revealing memoir. Here is an example of his forthright and vulnerable writing:
I used to be more forthcoming with my father, and, consequently, I used to hate him. Now I know just how much pain I can inflict, and do inflict, with each book I publish that does not extol the State of Israel, with each National Public Radio pronouncement that does not bind me in covenant with his famous God.
My mother, her ambition stifled, channeled away by history and language, has given birth to my own. The only difference is: I have no God, no family myth, to cling to, no mythmaking abilities beyond the lies I tell on the page.
3. You Disappear by Christian Jungersen
Christian Jungersen, a Danish award-winning and bestselling male novelist, writes here from the first person female point of view. The book tackles, with flair, a variety of issues related to free will. Jungersen challenges readers to determine how much change a person must undergo before his spouse notices that he isn’t “himself.” Indeed, how sick do you have to be to be excused from a crime when your orbitofrontal region has been compromised? Do sudden large, but positive, changes in a personality also signal biological brain defects?
Here is the humanistic excerpt I noted:
“Because there exists another form of happiness—when the level of activity in your left frontal lobe exceeds that in your right. This form of happiness doesn’t run dry. On the contrary, you can train it so that it keeps increasing your entire life.”
“So how exactly do you obtain this form of happiness?”
“You get it by doing good deeds, meditating regularly, and dedicating your life to something meaningful. These are all things that neuroscientists have measured and verified.”
“So you meditate and you’re happy.”
“That’s what I do. And I help Ian, and I help my kids. And yes, I’m happy. That’s what’s so brilliant about atheism, I think: it points the way to a worldview that’s infinitely richer and more beautiful than what you’ll find in any religious book. And it points out the most ethical approach to boot.”