Author Jim Murdoch contacted me to review the omnibus edition of his two paperbacks, Living with the Truth and Stranger Than Fiction, which he’s released as an eBook, available only via Smashwords. In specific, he was looking for a critique of the story arc across the two books. From that perspective, this is an easy task: They are mirrors of the same life, recalling the biblical passage “through a mirror, darkly” of 1 Corinthians 13, and particularly apt as one is viewed from the living perspective and one the dead. (Ironically, given the several Star Trek references, also sprinkled throughout the books, I suppose it could reference “In a Mirror, Darkly” too.)
From the blurb, then:
Jonathan Payne is a jaded bookseller at the end of a wasted life which has been spent in a dull north England seaside town. He could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He’s both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he has been happy to read about life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. If Death were to knock on his door it wouldn’t trouble him greatly.
The knock comes, only it’s not Death. It’s the truth; literally, the human personification of truth.
Based on this, I was expecting something along the lines of Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality” series, exploring the nature of archetypal expressions in the world. What I got was more like the classic Vivian Mercier review of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which she described as a play which “has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6.). While this parallel may have been intentional, given Murdoch’s avowed adoration of anything Beckett, the existential blues were not really what I wanted to immerse myself in.
It also plays against that review in that this is not a book you can pick up and finish in one sitting. And it took me until well into it to catch on to the regionalisms Murdoch gives voice to–as well as learning to live with his pedantic style. There were so many nods to other great authors throughout the writing that it almost conveyed as an homage to The Book, without giving his characters the understanding that those books can convey:
No, he had his wall packed full of books (and very impressive it was, too) but that was it. He’d always adored those films where they showed the interiors of libraries with the walls covered in leather-bound volumes, particularly those where you needed to ascend a spiral staircase to reach the next level. Lip-smacking stuff. But there was simply no scope for something as ostentatious as that in here. He hadn’t read everything there. That wasn’t the point. A lot of it was for show and nothing more, so that, when he died, the undertakers would be able to lean on his coffin, enjoy a fag, look up at the wall of books and say, “My, ‘e must ‘ave been a clever bugger,” before carting him off down the back stairs.
From the philosophical perspective, we get let in on all the little (and big) secrets Truth can’t help but divulge; and Truth himself grows to appreciate Jonathan’s crotchety ways by the end of the first book–even encouraging the dour man to enjoy a day off, fishing. But reading about someone who “from all accounts … avoided making any of the important decisions in [his] life” behaves as a consistent misanthrope and feel a vague guilt about it… is not particularly entertaining to me.
The life review in reverse, in the second book, then, takes the questions raised about the nature of Life, The Universe, and Everything (intentional Douglas Adams reference, since his name comes up more than a few times in the course of the story) and drives it to its absurd end. God is sick of his immortal helpers’ inability to keep a Macrouniverse going:
Big G’s fed up having to set off big bangs every few billion years. They’re not cheap for starters. So, before we do this one, we’ve got to try and suss out where we went wrong the last four times. Which means we’ve got to go through every one that’s ever existed with a nit comb to make sure why they screwed up and to try and stop it happening again.
The reader is introduced to a few of the other immortals (the brush with Reality was, paradoxically, particularly distorted), and Jonathan is made to feel the embarrassment of his inadequacies all over again. The whole thing wraps up with an existentially nihilistic view: Yeah… we get another do-over, but it still doesn’t matter. Ironic, given that we’re doing it all for God, in the view of the immortals, who are prodding their little guinea pigs through the maze.
Given my own philosophical inclinations, this was a tough pill to swallow. Having let the story sit (and having taken longer than my normal book-in-a-day digestion), I can see Murdoch is noodling on some interesting themes, but I can’t say my appreciation for his pedantic style or nihilistic conclusion has sat with me any better. This one seems best geared to professorial types who enjoy nitpicking a theme into oblivion, but hasn’t encouraged me to go looking for more of the same from this author.