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The Eternal Footman (1999)

von James Morrow

Reihen: Godhead trilogy (3)

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281574,456 (3.63)9
A satirical fantasy in which God is dead, his skull orbiting the earth as a second moon. Plague is rampant on earth and the absence of hope turns people into nihilists.
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In he closing book of James Morrow's Godhead Trilogy, God's desiccated corpse disintegrates itself in the English Channel while his empty skull rockets upward to hover over the Western world in geosynchronous orbit. And then things start to get bad. The monotheistic West faces an existential crisis when presented with such obvious proof of God's demise, and soon being called "levelers" or "fetches" flood the planet. Identical in appearance to their victims, these living personifications of an individual's mortality inhabit and, usually, kill their earthbound twins. As millions die, a former English teacher from the wrong side of Cambridge, Massachusetts and her bright, spirited son, a would-be magician, navigate a ruined continent in search of a cure while Gerard Korty, a religious icon-maker who has lost both his faith and his creative direction, is hired by a semi-Freudian psychologist who has a plan to rescue humanity from the plague with a newly minted religion that attempts to defeat the army of levelers by imbuing its followers with a renewed erotic drive.

"The Eternal Footman" is hardly a lean read. Morrow's plot takes the long way around, detouring through an itinerant stage production of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the misuse of religious hierarchies before getting to the real meat of his argument. This won't be to everyone's taste, but I'm a fan of both his sense of humor and his admirably lithe prose style, so I enjoyed the trip. He takes it easy on the specifics of the post-apocalyptic world, which is just as well, since we're fairly drowning in ruined worlds these days. His fetches are one part personal executioner, one part bad standup comedian, and Morrow feels comfortable enough with his subject to include both their terrible puns and a lot of genuinely witty description. Morrow argues hard for kindness as a basic virtue, against a benevolent God, and for the products of the human imagination. This shouldn't quite be mistaken for humanism, and borrows a bit, I think, from the so-called Death of God movement, he reminds his readers that God poses a challenge to humanity even in his absence. Novels this funny aren't usually this deep.

But the best part of "The Eternal Footman", however, might be its main characters. Nora Burkhardt, erudite, determined, both fiercely loyal and quietly alluring, and her son Kevin, a magician-in-training who's just beginning to bloom, would be memorable to readers of any genre. Morrow articulates the tight, loving bond between this widow and her only child beautifully, which only makes it seem sadder when you see death closing in around both of them. While a significant number of its characters don't make it to the last page, "The Eternal Footman" isn't mere misery porn. Morrow seems to be showing his readers how hard it really is to live in both the literal and figurative absence of God. Human relationships become more and more significant, small acts of kindness are magnified, and betrayals too. Morrow, even at most oblique and distracted, also seems to be arguing that myths, Babylonian, Christian, Freudian, or otherwise, become critical to human beings as they face the inevitable void. Laughter, it seems, helps too. A fine, surprisingly emotive closer to this really rather remarkable narrative. Recommended. ( )
2 abstimmen TheAmpersand | Aug 20, 2018 |
This book is the third of James Morrow's Corpus Dei trilogy, following Towing Jehovah and Blameless in Abbadon. I might have enjoyed it the best of the three, although I think the second stands out in terms of its literary interest and philosophical coherence. More than the second, this third book presumes an orientation to the other volumes of the series. It could probably be read on its own with enjoyment, but it reintroduces characters from Towing Jehovah in key supporting roles.

The conceit of this book is that in the final stage of the dissolution of the deceased Abrahamic God's monstrous body, His bare skull flies up and assumes a geostationary orbit over the Western Hemisphere, from which its baleful influence instigates a strange metaphysical plague. The disease, called abulia ("will-lessness") centers on the victim's interaction with his own personal genius, represented as the malign personification of his death, also called a "fetch," or a "leveler." These entities begin by introducing themselves personally to the victims, who subsequently vomit black "fear syrup," become catatonic, develop horrific skin conditions, and die. The process can be rapid or very slow.

The plague causes the general collapse of civilized society in the Western world, and much of the story follows the odyssey of an English-teacher-cum-florist's-deliverywoman in her efforts to find a cure for her teenage son, who was the first to contract abulia, although a slow-moving case that has lingered while millions of others have died from it. A complementary story arc, eventually joining with the first, is the tale of the religious sculptor Korty, who is enlisted to create idols in a new religion intended to provide a cure to the plague.

There are a number of inspired sub-plots that widen the satirical scope of the novel. But what interested me most (in retrospect, at least) was the nature of abulia itself. The fetches all have supernatural powers and praeternatural intelligence, particularly with respect to the humans to whom they are attached. Their own motivations are unexplored, but their aims and effects do not seem to be consistent. In some cases, they seem to be a positive force for both the individual and humanity. In Thelemic magick the individual's interaction with the personal genius is understood to furnish "occult puberty" and to be "the central and essential work of the Magicians." The Eternal Footman seems to raise the objection that most people (in the modern West, leastwise) are not cut out for such metaphysical adulthood, and would receive "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel" principally as a death sentence.

On the other hand, perhaps what has happened in the story is that the climate of the divine skull has sickened these genii, who are ordinarily both more benign and less conspicuous. That would fit with the general suppositions of Thelemic occultism, as well as the overarching narrative of Morrow's Corpus Dei.
3 abstimmen paradoxosalpha | Jan 9, 2015 |
Now that God is really truly dead, with his skull in synchronistic orbit with the Western hemisphere as undeniable proof, the world falls into despair. But God, even when dead, can do nothing by halves; the despair isn't just psychological but manifests itself physically as a rampant plague.

So the narrative really poses the questions that atheists hear from time to time: how can we find hope or meaning in life in God's absence? A metaphysical re-evaluation is a tall order, especially for a society already demoralized by the plague. Two mindsets emerge: either one continues to search for the overarching and "magical" solutions, or clings to the "little myths," the everyday occurrences of discovery and compassion and art. But is either really enough to cure humanity's plague?

This is an amazing and thoughtful book, and a fitting conclusion to the Godhead trilogy. James Morrow never ceases to amaze me, that he can begin with a concept that could be so gimmicky, and it turns out to be this thoughtful and compelling commentary. He may be taking the wind out of religion's sails; but a re-interpretation, a "temple of decency," is offered in return for our conception of spirituality. ( )
2 abstimmen the_awesome_opossum | May 19, 2009 |
An interesting treatment of Western cultures views on religion. A slightly warped view of the question I've heard some ask "How can you live if you don't believe in God?" This book instead deals with the issue of how western society/religion deals with the knowledge that God is dead. This story contains a dark humor and sometimes takes a less than pleasant look at human behavior. If found it to be an enjoyable combination of satire and science fiction. It is the 3rd in a series- but can stand on its own. I read the previous books several years ago and my less than clear memory of the details of the previous books did not mar my enjoyment of this book. ( )
  Tisala | Apr 16, 2008 |
(Amy) The skull of God now grins down at the Earth like a spare moon, though advertisers have begun selling space on it and projecting images onto its surface. A plague of death, in a disturbingly corporeal sense, is loose upon the world. And it's entirely possible that the "bowels of Christ" may be more literal than anyone had previously imagined.
  libraryofus | Nov 9, 2005 |
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A satirical fantasy in which God is dead, his skull orbiting the earth as a second moon. Plague is rampant on earth and the absence of hope turns people into nihilists.

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