The Testament of Gideon Mack
When Gideon Mack falls into a ravine while rescuing a fellow minister’s dog, he begins a journey that will take him, figuratively and literally, out of this world. Swallowed up in the roaring rapids of the legendary Black Jaws, he is assumed dead by one and all, and when he is spit out three days later, somehow alive, the outrageous story he tells of how he survived is met with disbelief and derision. Gideon claims it was the Devil who saved him, that the Devil healed his broken leg, engaged him in personal and philosophical discussion, and stole his shoes.
Gideon Mack is a man riddled with paradox: a minister who does not believe in God but comes face-to-face with the Devil, a pillar of the community who is widely admired while living a lie but denounced as insane when he tells the truth, a man who has repressed his passions all his life but has an affair with his best friend’s wife. In James Robertson’s skillful hands, these paradoxes not only make Gideon a fascinatingly complex and continually surprising character but suggest the larger issues that underlie his story. The Testament of Gideon Mack takes a multifaceted look at how religious belief manifests in our particular historical and cultural moment. From Gideon’s own coldly angry father, for whom the Bible is the only book worth reading, and the self-righteously puffed-up Peter Macmurray to the contemptuously agnostic Miss Craigie and Gideon’s own brand of practical hypocrisy, the religious views expressed in the novel cover a wide spectrum. The Devil himself feels sorry for God, given the fickle nature of human faith and the horrors committed in his name. The novel also poses questions about the reliability of human perception and indeed about the nature of belief itself. People, the novel seems to suggest, believe what they want to believe. Gideon claims to find a standing stone on a path he has run for years. One day it is suddenly and inexplicably there. Or is it? No one else sees it, and when Gideon photographs it—using old film—it doesn’t show up. But he touches it, embraces it, pounds his fist against it, and it is entirely real to him. But then so is the Devil. Readers must decide for themselves—Robertson is careful not to tip his hand—whether or not Gideon is lying or delusional or, if he is being truthful and accurate about his experience of the supernatural, what that implies about the nature of reality and the relationship of belief to perception.
But The Testament of Gideon Mack is much more than an epistemological investigation or a critique of religious belief. It is a fast-moving, beautifully written, often funny and always engaging story of one man’s inner life and outer experience as he comes to know the truth of himself. Robertson artfully frames the narrative Gideon spent his final days writing with the skeptical voice of a publisher weighing the potential sales of a scandalous memoir against the likelihood of lawsuits. But what is at stake in the story itself—for “those who have eyes to see,” as Gideon writes—far surpasses mundane considerations of profit and loss.
James Robertson is the author of two previous novels published in the UK, The Fanatic and Joseph Knight, which won the Scottish Book of the Year Award and the Saltire Prize. He lives in Angus, Scotland.
A. It’s certainly true that Scottish weather is often less than wonderful, although its sheer variety (all four seasons in the space of half a day, for example) can be exhilarating, and when sunshine breaks out we really appreciate it! Of course the Devil’s sweeping statement is no more accurate than any other sweeping statement: yes, Scotland has its share of violence and misery, and Scottish people do very often have a fatalistic attitude to life—summed up in the well-worn proverb “What’s for ye will no go by ye”—but there are plenty of happy, peaceful, go-getting Scots around too. The real point the Devil is making here is that in the last forty years or so Scotland has gone from being an apparently very religious society to being an incredibly secular one. Forty years ago only a few corner shops opened on a Sunday. Most pubs, cinemas, and other places of entertainment—including play parks, where the swings and roundabouts were often chained up—remained firmly closed. Now, Sundays are pretty much like every other day of the week, church membership and attendance has fallen massively and so has the authority of ministers and priests and the respect in which these figures are held. The Devil obviously likes this new state of affairs. My interest in this change was to ask the question Does it matter? And if so, why? Does it mean that Scotland is less Scottish or a better or worse place? Gideon himself, although a minister in the Church of Scotland, is very ambivalent about what the answers to these questions are.
Q. Much of the novel forces readers to examine their beliefs about the supernatural. Does the stone Gideon finds really exist? Does he really meet the Devil?, etc. Do you pose these questions for purely literary purposes, do they reflect a deeper interest in the supernatural, or is it the very undecidedness of these issues that you wanted to communicate?
A. The questions are there because I think they are questions we should all ask ourselves. No matter how rational one is, it seems to me to be very hard to imagine oneself simply not existing. From this strange human characteristic—imagination—many of our ideas about religion and life after death—the supernatural—derive. But even if one accepts the idea that God and other supernatural entities and the worlds they inhabit are merely inventions of the human imagination, the question remains: Why have we needed to invent them? Even the most convinced atheist must try to understand his or her place in the universe. What relationship do we, as individuals, have with the rest of creation, and not just with the world in which we live, but with times past and future?
If they were purely literary devices, I think the appearance of the mysterious standing stone and the Devil would be hard to sustain; the reader would simply be bored, thinking, “This guy Robertson is just playing word games here, so why should I care?” By having Gideon recount these things in what is otherwise a largely credible narrative of his life and times, I suppose I’m testing the reader, asking him or her to decide at what point they draw the line and refuse to accept what Gideon is saying. Because it turns out that Gideon is not entirely reliable about other things. Who is telling the truth, for example, about his drinking—him or Bill Winnyford? Who is telling the truth about their affair—him or Elsie? In understanding what life is about, we all build up a story of our own existence, past and present, we all have our own version of events. This creates conflict and contradiction and undermines the very idea of truth. When it comes to these big issues, I suppose, rightly or wrongly, I am in a place where I know only one thing for a certainty, and that is that nothing is certain. Gideon is in that place too. It is a very human locale and a very awkward one for a minister of religion.
Q. Why did you decide to end the novel with Harry Caithness’s interviews with the characters who knew Gideon?
A. Partly this is because the structure of the book is modeled on a classic of Scottish literature, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, written by James Hogg and published in 1824. In that book, Hogg tells the story of a young man who is led to believe that no matter what he does, he will be all right because he is one of God’s elect, predestined to go to paradise when he dies. He is convinced of this by a mysterious person who befriends him, who might be the personification of the Devil, or might be his own doppelgänger, or might be a figment of his increasingly demented imagination. Under the influence of this malign being, he commits murder and other crimes, and eventually wanders off into the hills and takes his own life. Hogg presents this story in three parts: an editor’s introduction, explaining the outline of the story, then the sinner’s own narrative—his Confessions—and then the editor’s epilogue, describing the circumstances that led to the discovery of the sinner’s grave and the manuscript of his memoirs. There are all kinds of conflicts of evidence between the editor’s version of events and the sinner’s, and even within the sinner’s own narrative. So The Testament of Gideon Mack is very closely modeled on the structure of Hogg’s novel: an editor’s introduction in which he describes how Gideon’s manuscript was found in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands after the minister went missing for several months, and how his body was discovered in the hills, then Gideon’s own Testament, which is really the story of his life and in particular his description of how he discovered the stone in the woods and subsequently met the Devil, and then the editor again, this time with a report sent to him by a journalist who goes to visit Monimaskit, Gideon’s home town, to try to piece together the story and interrogate some of the key players. So the structure of my book is very like that of Hogg’s, and in fact there are a few phrases lifted from Hogg that appear in the book, but I didn’t want to be enslaved to Hogg’s text. In a way, Gideon is the sinner in reverse. Gideon doesn’t believe in God and wants to do good; then he has a crisis of what you might call unfaith and realizes that maybe there is another world beyond, or above, or below, or all around, the visible world. That’s another Hogg connection: There are lots of references to the legends of Scottish folklore—fairies and the Devil and, through the stone, linking back to the legends surrounding ancient people like the Picts.
But over and above all that, the reason for ending the book with Harry Caithness’s interviews is because they subvert the text that the reader has just finished reading. Not only do they cast doubts on the veracity of Gideon’s Testament, but they demonstrate the unreliability of the other characters in the book. Even the down-to-earth hard-bitten journalist Harry turns out to be a bit soft-hearted, and also susceptible to “seeing things” when he looks into the Black Jaws. Can we even trust what Harry is telling us? Who can we trust? Judging from Gideon’s story, we can’t even trust the evidence of our own senses.
I think some readers may find this intensely frustrating. In a novel, all the loose ends are supposed to be tied up, everything resolved, everything explained. But reality isn’t like that. I’ve been asked, “So, did he really meet the Devil? Was the stone really there? Who was telling the truth, Gideon or Elsie?” And the answer to all these questions, I’m sorry to have to admit, is “I don’t know.”
Q. The nature of belief as it plays out in the tensions between myth and truth, dishonesty and honesty, illusion and reality is one of the novel’s central concerns. What is it about belief that interests you?
A. I guess from the answers to the previous questions you may have an idea why I’m interested in belief. It’s something I’ve looked at in my previous novels and I’m sure it will continue to bother me. Belief rests on an assumption that one particular way of understanding or perceiving things is the only correct way. But everybody believes different things, and some of us believe nothing. Sometimes we actually need to believe something in order to survive. Other times it’s essential to discredit belief, to demonstrate, as it were, that the earth is not flat. Hope (to which belief is closely related) and skepticism are two of the greatest human virtues, but they are often mutually exclusive and humans are constantly caught between them.
Q.Did you do a lot of research for The Testament of Gideon Mack? Is Gideon based on a real person or purely an imagined character?
A. I researched the workings of the Church of Scotland fairly thoroughly, although I had a head start as that was the faith I grew up in. I’d now describe myself as an agnostic, but a Presbyterian one! Gideon is totally invented, but inevitably there are bits of me in him and bits of other people I have known in some of the other characters. I hope readers who know me can resist the temptation to identify my fictional characters as real living people. The whole point about writing fiction is to explore ideas through invention. Wherever characters in a novel originate, they invariably take on their own personalities and traits and end up like nobody except themselves.
Q. In what ways does your own experience show up in the novel? Did you grow up in a particularly religious environment?
A. I grew up in a middle-class household living opposite an old-fashioned manse in a village in central Scotland; this is not unlike Ochtermill, the village Gideon grows up in in the 1960s. The aged minister was of the evangelical school, but he was a kindly man and nothing remotely like the fierce, dour figure of Gideon’s father. I now live in Angus in the northeast of Scotland, roughly where the town of Monimaskit is located. As a child, I went to church regularly and knew my Bible, but my family was not rigidly religious. However, the school I attended, between the ages of six and thirteen, was run on a very Presbyterian ethos, and I imbibed most of my religious faith there. The headmaster had some of the characteristics of Gideon’s father. My faith didn’t last long, however. By the time I was fourteen I don’t think I seriously believed in God anymore, although I also suspect one never entirely shakes off that kind of indoctrination. What I still have, and greatly value, is the philosophical structure of that education and religious upbringing. In a sense, it was religion that gave me my skepticism and my fascination with the really big questions about human existence.
Q. Much has been written recently about the destructive role of religion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion being two prominent examples. What is your own view on the influence of religion today?
A. There’s no question that religion has been enormously destructive. But it has also been hugely constructive. Look at the slave trade: Religion was used both to justify slavery and to condemn it. I know many people within the established churches and of no particular faith who are believers and also thoroughly good people whose belief results in their doing things that make the world a better place. Equally, I know there are hypocrites and maniacs whose religious convictions and resultant behavior are repulsive. Exactly the same is true of the many atheists and agnostics I know.
Religion does exert a huge and often unhealthy power over millions of people, many of whom respond to its demands hysterically and without due consideration. But the same has been true of nonreligious beliefs in the twentieth century, and no doubt will continue to be true in the twenty-first. It’s not good enough to say that we should all have done with religion and forget it—unless or until we have found other ways of exploring essential philosophical and epistemological issues that address all the aspects of “life, death and the universe,” we will not be able to do without religion, or at least spirituality of some kind. Science and logic do not have all the answers. Nor can you simply abolish something that is responding to a deep-seated human need. The antireligious fascists who insist that all religion is bunk and must be eradicated are no better, and no cleverer in my estimation, than religious fundamentalists of whatever calling who insist that theirs is the only truth.
Q. The emotional power of Astrid and Veronika’s friendship leaves a lasting impression with readers. They are from different generations and have led very different lives, yet the bond of being women seems to override all else. Do you agree? Do you think that women have different, or deeper, friendships than men? Could this book have been about two men? In what ways would it have been different?
A. I would like to think that it could just as well have been a story of two men. I have had many interesting responses from male readers, proving that they have reacted deeply and emotionally to the story. If it is true that women have more, and more intense friendships than men, then I think that is due to social roles and behaviors that have been imposed on us more than anything else. I think that more interesting than the gender issue, though, is that of age. In modern Western societies contact between the generations has diminished. There are a number of reasons for this, but sadly it is further encouraged by segregated living and age related categorization. Personally, I find it much easier to relate to young people now than I did when I was in my thirties or forties. Also, it has been a privilege for me to go back to university as a student and find that my fellow students in their early twenties have no issues with my age, while in many other parts of society I am foremost a woman of a certain age.
Q. What differences—if any—do you predict between the reactions of Scottish and American readers of your novel?
A. I suspect some of the subtler nuances of the book may not be picked up by American readers; there are some dry, sly jokes that perhaps will make Scottish readers laugh a little louder. On the other hand I think it is not hard to shift the location of the story from Scotland to somewhere like New England—some of the same virtues and vices of small communities are doubtless easily recognized. I hope that once people have found their way into the book, they are absorbed into the Scottish landscape and kind of forget that that’s where they are. The issues the book deals with are not exclusive to Scotland, and the characters, communities, and institutions are not so very different from those in other societies.
Q. What writers have most influenced you?
A. There are numerous references in Gideon Mack to classic Scottish writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and James Hogg. All of these have been important to me. So has the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, not just for his poetry but also for his political and linguistic ideas. But I’ve been equally influenced, at different times, by writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, George Eliot, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, John Buchan, Don DeLillo, and Flann O’Brien. I don’t think I write like any of these writers, but I’m sure all of them have left their mark on me in some way.
Q. What other Scottish writers would you recommend to American readers?
A. Ali Smith is a wonderful writer of short stories whose third novel, The Accidental, is also well worth reading. She always has interesting things to say. A first novel by John Aberdein, Amande’s Bed, set in the city of Aberdeen in the 1950s, is also a great read. Bernard MacLaverty, originally from Ireland but long resident in Scotland, writes superb short stories and novels. Others whose names should be better known in the USA than perhaps they are include Liz Lochhead, Brian McCabe, Dilys Rose, Susie Maguire, and James Kelman. And these are just a few of our contemporary writers; in the twentieth century we produced many great writers, from MacDiarmid to Muriel Spark. To select just two: probably our best known and most influential poet, Edwin Morgan, is now in his eighties but still producing wonderful work, and Robin Jenkins, who died a couple of years ago, left more than thirty novels behind him, simple and direct stories about ordinary people grappling with big moral dilemmas. Scottish literature used to be seen as a mere adjunct, a kind of minor footnote, to the glories of English literature. But increasingly it is being recognized as having a tradition and themes of its own, quite apart from the distinctive characteristics of the Gaelic and Scots languages, that make it quite unique and special. In my view literature is the jewel of Scottish culture, and there’s plenty of it, past and present, for readers from elsewhere to explore and enjoy.