Thursday, July 23, 2009
I have been reading The Shack, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 60 weeks. It was privately published and its initial success was based on internet word of mouth. This has sent shivers through publishing houses. They have glimpsed a possible future in which they are entirely unnecessary. It's a better novel than I expected. William P. Young organises his material well, a bit too well in fact. Reading it is such an effortless experience that, after a few pages, I was barely paying attention to passing detail. The hero loses his daughter to a kidnapper and then gets a note from God asking for a meeting. This takes places in the shack where his daughter's bloody dress was found. God is in the form of the Trinity - a black woman as father, a Jewish carpenter as son and an Asian girl as Holy Ghost. In the midst of their discussions - about half way through the book - I stalled, feeling I really ought to be reading something a little more substantial. Americans like the idea of chatting to God - see Bruce Almighty etc - or some equivalent - see the encounter with the Oracle in The Matrix. Or, at the top end of the scale, there's Frank O'Hara's marvellous A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island. The common theme is that the supreme being isn't what you expect him/her to be and doesn't say what you expect him/her to say. In The Shack she's a laid back mama with a nice line in happy banter and relaxed theology. This, I suppose, underwrites American down home individualism - she is emphatically not like the grand figures of mainstream churches - and the urge to believe that ultimate truth is straightforward, straight-talking and friendly. The novel is a fine example of consolation literature, a distinct American genre. We have no such genre - unless you count chick or mis lit, which, I suppose, you could. But the big point is that The Shack works as popular theology, as a story that reconciles its readers to life's vicissitudes. Reading it, one wonders what on earth the boneheaded atheist militants think they are doing. Trying to ban stories? No, boneheadedness is its own consolation.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:34 am