Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: The Flood: A Novel by David Maine

Many writers have taken a story from the Bible, layered it with their ideas and interpretations, developed the characters, and fleshed an entire novel from a few lines. Of these Biblical stories, the tale of Noah and the Flood, from Genesis, surely is one that has be told and retold many times before. Julian Barnes, for one, did a wonderfully irreverent account of the story through the eyes of a stowaway woodworm in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

David Maine, in his debut novel, The Flood: A Novel, too tries his hand at retelling the world's best-known disaster story. Unlike Barnes, Maine is not particularly sacrilegious or flippant. He does occasionally poke fun at the story and the characters but largely uses the tale to muse on the nature of faith and god, families, relationships and how people cope with a catastrophe created by a god intent on scrubbing the world clean.

Maine's Noe (as Noah is called in this tale. Some research showed that Maine names his characters from the Douay-Rheims Bible which was translated in English from Latin) is a 600-year-old paterfamilias who is introduced to us while he is peeing. A cantankerous and churlish Yahweh talks to Noe whenever he needs to express displeasure with his creations. A few pages into the book, when Noe hears Yahweh outline his plans to cleanse the world — that humanity is to be destroyed in a flood, Noe pees himself. This, along with the blurbs, prime the reader to expect that the author is out to have some fun with his source material. That expectation is however soon belied. While Maine does occasionally have some fun with his story and his characters, we soon realize that he is not treading that path. Maine is rather looking to flesh this Biblical episode in a way that allows him to raise questions on the role of God and faith in human lives, the nature and stuff of relationships, and (often) the role of women in this story. He achieves this by rarely departing much from the original tale. Rather he explores the psychological detail that such a story offers.

When the Yahweh tells (orders) Noe to build the ark, he pisses himself, then weeps, and then calls his family together and orders them to start building. Noe may be 600 years old, but hurries with the project of building and readying the ark believing "great age was not an obstacle to great deeds." His family lets out a collective groan, privately think he's nuts — his wife remarks "So when Himself starts with the visions and the holy labors and the boat full of critters, what am I supposed to do? Talk Sense?" — but don't dare disobey him. Noe, anyways, can't tell them much, except that the boys have to build a colossal boat, and that the girls (the wives of his boys) have to travel to their respective homelands, gather, and bring back every species of animal they can find. 

So the sons start on the boat. Cham designs and oversees the building of the ark with Sem to assist him. Jahpeth goofs off. Sem's wife, Bera, travels south and finds a menagerie in her savage father's kingdom. Cham's wife, Ilya, goes to the north and returns with bears and wolves. Jahpeth's wife, Mirn, looks for insects and other critters under rocks and in the soil. People gather around to watch and to jeer – "It's not every day you see a ship growing in the desert." Some offer to buy room on the ark. Noe refuses, explaining that one can board the ark only "with a pure heart." As the clouds gather and build in the sky, Noe's family debates about how the animals ought to be packed in.

Eventually the rain starts and the waters rise and the world becomes a waterscape. Unlike the Bible, Maine does justice to the enormity of the catastrophe. In Genesis, the story of Noah's ark and the wiping away of all life save that is safe on the boat, is narrated, if I am right, in about 4-5 verses. Here we watch the community that had gathered around the Ark wash away. The world's population is swept away, and Noe rejoices: "They were unclean in the sight of the Lord. . . Old is this world, a thousand years or more. It had grown heavy with filth and weary with sin. Now it has been scrubbed clean."
Maine also beautifully conveys the humanity of it all — of the characters trying to get a perspective and understand such an event. Ilya reflects "A pang cuts me whenever I remember him, or the matriarchs, or my uncles. All gone now. But I can't give in to grief about them - if I start I'll never stop, there are just too many dead, whole peoples, whole civilizations. I hold their memory off, at arm's length, and concentrate instead on measuring rainfall and striving to understand what is happening. If such a thing can truly be comprehended."

Maine re-tells this catastrophe and the events before and after it, in eight voices — The Flood is divided into succinct chapters told from the perspective of the various characters. While Noe's wife, three sons, and three daughters-in-law  —  tell their own stories in their own voices, a narrator takes over the chapters devoted to Noe. It is an eminently readable and clever narrative allowing the reader for a 360-degree perspective on episode. 

It allows Maine to explore two fundamental ways (within the boundaries of the world depicted in the novel) of looking at the world. One view which believes that god reigns over everything (primarily held by the men in the novel). Another which believes that god rains over everything (primarily held by the women in the novel). And why these perspectives matter — for it is the viewpoint which decides how one tells and how one listens to a story. The book attempts to explore this by often having chapters with these juxtaposed viewpoints follow each other (It is subtle and not as explicit and blatant as I have made it out to be). 

Apart from earnest explorations into theology and faith, this narrative of eight voices comes together, naturally and strongly, to form a marvelous description of a family trying to cope with a crisis of worldwide proportions. Once confined to the boat, and with nowhere to go, they tire of each other, bicker, grow bored, complain about the sameness and the paucity of the food, the stink and try to cope with the irritation of having to put up with each other and the animals and the hopelessness of the situation. The sons have a crisis of faith — in themselves, in Noe, and in Yahweh. The women are altogether more practical and often provide witty and acerbic assessments of the situation and the other characters. It is the three daughters-in-law (who are not named in the Bible) that are the most fascinating characters in the book — practical, focused, clever, crafty and cunning, tough and more capable than any of the male characters. Bera, Ilya, and Mirn (and to an extent Noe's wife) are arguably Maine's most engaging characters and serve to bring in a feminist perspective to this Biblical tale. Their interactions with one another and the other characters in the novel give the book its primary strength — an examination of the dynamics in the interrelationships amongst the characters.

While The Flood questions and probes the tale from Genesis and contemplates and muses on life and relationships (the nature of love) and God and faith, Maine, every now and then (very rarely), seems to remember the immense ironic and comic potential of his source material and sprinkles a few funny episodes (Noe's vision of Yahweh as a testy ant) in the story. This however, to me, is where the book fails. It is as if Maine couldn't decide if his novel was to be a deeply serious affair — with solemn observations on faith, God, and insights into relationships or a totally postmodern, irreverent, and funny take on the flood. In trying to include bits of both he doesn't do enough justice to either.

There is, however, a lot to enjoy in this novel. It is energetic and fluent and easily read in a sitting or two. While it is serious in some parts and irreverent in others, and it may well be confused whether it wants to be more of one or the other, The Flood is never uninteresting and makes for an engrossing read.


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