In his first novel, Ron Currie takes Nietzsche’s audacious pronouncement, “God is dead,” and asks what would happen if God really were dead, literally and verifiably dead? How would that fact change the way humans see themselves and treat each other? The imaginative daring of such a premise is only the beginning of many surprises that fill the pages of God Is Dead.
God comes to earth disguised as a Dinka woman, implores Colin Powell to help find her brother, is killed in the Darfur desert, and then eaten by the wild dogs who follow in the wake of the genocidal Janjaweed. Such a scenario, at once absurd but not entirely implausible, invites readers to make an imaginative leap, to suspend their disbelief and enter into a world of strange possibilities and nightmare consequences. One group of young men, fearing starvation and madness, decide to kill themselves ritualistically; another group insists that God still exists; and parents with no god left to worship bestow a divine status on their children. One might assume that that the religious violence that is now erupting around the world would disappear if there were no god to justify the carnage, but in Currie’s novel, humans simply find other ideologies worth killing for.
The human capacity for foolishness, self-delusion, and violence are on full display in God Is Dead. Some people decide that the dogs who ate God’s body have become gods themselves and decide to worship them, a situation that any honest observer of human nature would find frighteningly plausible and that reveals Currie’s sly, satirical wit. “God” is, after all, “dog” spelled backwards.
Satire is, indeed, the dominant intention of God Is Dead. Like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Kurt Vonnegut’sSlaughterhouse Five, Currie’s novel takes the absurdities, idiocies, and cruelties that human beings commit and magnifies them just enough for us to see them in all their naked foolishness. This, Currie shows us, is the world we are creating. The book is not written out of contempt for humanity, however, but out of an unflinching vision that encompasses precisely those qualities—compassion, common sense, clear-seeing—that we are so busily engaged in destroying.
Ron Currie, Jr.’s prizewinning fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Sun, Other Voices, and Night Train. He has been short-listed for the Fish International Short Story Award and Swink magazine’s Emerging Writer Award. He lives in Waterville, Maine.
Q. Why did you choose an episodic structure for your novel?
A. It just made sense, given the freewheeling and eclectic topics I wanted to tackle. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to tell both the story of a wild dog with divine omniscience, and the story of a regular guy who works in a paper plate factory, within the confines of a traditional novel. One just does not lead directly to another.
Q. What inspired you to make a living public figure, Colin Powell, into a fictional character in your novel?
A. It’s something that I don’t think can be neatly summed up. All sorts of reasons, starting with the fact that Powell did visit Darfur as secretary of state, which was convenient for the purposes of the book. Other reasons: my disappointment in the Bush administration in general and Powell in particular for doing next to nothing in Darfur (as evidenced by the fact that God Is Dead is still quite topical four years after I started writing it); the excitement and challenge of fictionalizing a real person; the fun of it; and the thrill of feeling like you’re getting away with something you probably shouldn’t.
Q. God Is Dead displays a keen awareness of the absurdities and cruelties of human beliefs and behavior. Do you consider it primarily a satirical work?
A. It’s funny you ask, because my aunt read the book recently and just today told me she didn’t think it was funny. So I’m guessing if you asked her this question, her answer would be no. But yes, there are obviously satirical elements, but I’m hesitant to call God Is Dead satire. This could just be my own inaccurate interpretation of what the word means, or what it means in a literary context, but to me satire has connotations of a certain intellectual coolness, a detachment from one’s subject. And I hope that regardless of what anyone thinks of the book they won’t accuse it of not caring. Because it’s all heart, baby. Seriously.
Q. You poke fun at Postmodernists in God Is Dead, but the novel itself could be classified as a work of postmodern fiction. What is your relation to postmodernism and, for that matter, evolutionary psychology?
A. I’ve been pretty heavily influenced by postmodern approaches to fiction—that is, what I think is the most commonly accepted definition of postmodernism in regard to fiction, which is work that breaks from convention in style, in content, in form, in language. The reason for this is fairly simple: I’m uniquely amused and excited by this sort of experimentation, so long as it’s not gratuitous. God Is Dead ended up being a mishmash of starkly postmodern forms, as in “Interview,” and more conventional forms, as in “The Bridge.” And this odd combination is indicative, I think, of my eclectic but spotty and certainly informal education. Writing-wise I am very much a product of contemporary literature, meaning I’ve read comparatively few books older than, say, fifty years, and even fewer older than one hundred. So guys like Barthelme and Vonnegut have had a lot more opportunity to mold me than, say, Joseph Conrad. I’ve spent a lot more time with Sherman Alexie and George Saunders than Fitzgerald or Hemingway. And so I guess I’m shaped by what I’ve exposed myself to.
Basically with the PoMo Anthropologists and the Evolutionary Psychologists I was trying to find the most ridiculous and unlikely ideologies for people to rally behind, en masse, in a Nazi Germany sort of way. And there is, to my understanding, a very real debate between academics in the postmodern anthropology and evolutionary psychology camps. Apparently it’s quite heated, though I don’t believe anyone’s lost any teeth over it. Tenure, maybe. But not teeth.
Q. It’s startling to read a work of contemporary fiction about an ongoing humanitarian crisis like the one in Darfur. What prompted you to write about the genocide there?
A. It started with my own introduction to the crisis there, which came in the form of an article in The Believer magazine about one of the famous Lost Boys of Sudan. It’s horrifying, of course, but the horror of the situation wasn’t what prompted me to write about it. As I read about the hundreds of thousands murdered and the millions displaced and starving, I thought about, years before, visiting Dachau and seeing the sculpture in front of the museum there, a wrought-iron piece depicting the bodies of concentration camp victims lying together in death, intertwined. I thought specifically of the inscription on the sculpture, the same words in half a dozen languages: NEVER AGAIN. And then I thought about Cambodia and Rwanda and now Sudan, and I got mad, because nothing pisses me off like hypocrisy and empty gestures, even though I myself am guilty of both. But that was when I was inspired to get to work. I find anger to be a great motivator.
Q. To what extent does the novel reflect your own views of religious and secular ideologies?
A. It’s pretty much a laundry list of complaints I have regarding theologies and secular ideologies. It could be considered a protest against groupthink of any kind. We’re stupid when we gather in groups. This is hardly news, and yet it bears repeating. We stop thinking for ourselves. We demonize those who don’t subscribe to our way of not-thinking. We believe fairy tales. We defer to the judgment of idiots with silver tongues. We approve of, vote for, and even engage directly in horrid behavior we would never otherwise consider.
We need to get the hell away from one another, put some space between ourselves and our neighbors, so we can breathe and use our heads. Yet here we are, gathering in the world’s urban centers in ever-increasing, ever more dense numbers. Of course, keep in mind these are the rants of a country boy who has an instinctive allergic reaction to large crowds.
Q. Many writers today go through MFA programs and aspire to teach in universities. Does that path interest you? Do you think MFA programs are a good way for young writers to learn their art?
A. Well I couldn’t say, because I haven’t been to one. I think, based on what I’ve read and heard, that MFA programs provide students with one thing of tremendous value, especially to an apprentice writer, and that’s two solid years to write uninterrupted. There is, of course, the super-tired debate about whether or not MFA programs are churning out cookie-cutter writers. My instinct is that that’s not true, that no matter what path you take you’ll either reach a point where you’re writing good, original, entertaining stuff, or you won’t. And that it has more to do with how much and how widely you read, and whether or not you arrange your life with writing as your first priority, than with whether or not you got into Iowa.
Q. What writers have been most influential for you? What young writers would you recommend to your readers?
A. Influences come from pretty much every creative discipline, from pop music to pottery (okay, maybe not pottery), so it’s tough and sort of unproductive to single out a handful.
I would recommend any book that readers won’t swap out for the TV remote after two pages. Not that I have anything against TV. I love TV.
Q. This is your first novel. Where do you see your work heading next?
A. It’s already headed there. My next novel—which, not surprisingly, is also about the end of the world—is nearly finished and should see the light of day sometime in the next couple years. This time, the end of the world comes in the form of a comet and the novel’s main character knows about the impending apocalypse thirty years in advance through somewhat inexplicable circumstances that may or may not be divine in nature.