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Henry told Carson about Marleen.
Carson wanted to know if he got into her pants.
Henry told him no, but that he probably would before long.
“What? You probably will?”
“I don’t know. I’ve changed my ideas about a lot of things.”
“I started reading the Bible.”
Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It’s top. Like many bookish teenagers I suspect I first sought it out because it is quoted so liberally in poorly written sf dystopias. See also for Yeat’s The Second Coming. This is what the apocalypse was for me – an entertaining mythological fantasy. It’s got monsters and vast armies and cataclyms. Great stuff.
Of course the Bible on the whole, as observed by both Douglas Rushkoff and Alex Droog, is filled with fantastical creatures and horrific violence. Not quite the stern moral text familiar to us from childhood religion classes.
This novel touches on the ambiguity of the Bible itself as an analogy for the seeming innocence of its principle character, Henry Dampier, a young Bible-salesman. Henry is picked up by Preston Clearwater, a professional car-thief and con-man on the look out for a gullible mark to help him rip off a number of cars. With his polite Baptist manners and folksy stories about his family, the criminal believes he has hit the jackpot.
He tells Henry that he is an undercover FBI operative, on the trail of a car-theft ring, operating between North Carolina and Georgia. The young man swallows the lie whole and excitedly promises not to reveal to anyone Preston’s secret. Together they scope out likely targets, steal cars and divide the proceeds – all, Preston assures his young ward, in the aid of preserving their cover.
What he does not realize is that Henry is actually quite a deep thinker. For one thing, he’s been reading his Bible and begun to notice a number of inconsistencies. His whole moral compass has become thrown out of skew. When he meets the charming Marleen Green, a girl working at a fruit-stall by the side of the road, he figures if sex outside of marriage is good enough for Abraham, it’s good enough for him.
I really enjoy how this book plays with stereotypes of the naieve young man with devout beliefs and then turns them on their head. Henry is introduced to us as this simple-minded Bible salesman, but slowly as he comes to question the word of God, we learn more about his past and his complicated family history. His Baptist background, once again, is assumed to be dominated by religion, but he is encouraged by his Uncle Jack, for one, to notice how people who identify religious curiousity as blasphemy generally don’t know the answer to the question.
Cleverly the judgement call made by Preston Clearwater is linked to the reader’s initial perception of poor Henry. By challenging this, Clyde Edgerton transforms a seemingly simple yarn about a con-artist and his dupe into something more thoughtful.
Personally it called to mind my own adolescent hero-worship of Bill Hicks, born in Georgia, fiercely intelligent and fond of claiming that he was not just a comedian, but a modern-day preacher. When he died at age 32 he had single-handedly created a critical ethos that transformed contemporary political satire.
The book is written with a dry sense of humour, with several comical moments notably involving cats. The character of Mrs Albright enjoys ventriloquism and throws her voice so that her many cats, named after the apostles, seem capable of speech. There is also a hysterical burial scene, which gives an early hint at Henry’s powers of improvisation.
However, at times the narrative is too dry, the plot progression too sedate. I never really felt Henry was in any danger. Everything just resolves itself quite nicely, as if in a easy-going Biblical parable set in the American South. What starts as ostensibly a two-man story about Henry and Preston quickly comes to concern the former almost entirely, with the con-man shoved to the narrative margins.
To my mind this creates an imbalance in the story and I found myself wondering what Patricia Highsmith would have made of similar material. Something more poisonous no doubt, but wickedly funny.
All in all this is a pleasant and diverting satire, with a wise young hero whose inquisitiveness introduces much of the humour. Good fun.
When I was a teenager looking for weird and interesting facts to talk about during lunch at school, Richard Metzger‘s Disinfo show fit the bill perfectly. At times seeming like a more media-literate, cyberpunk version of Fortean Times, it delivered a mixture of social commentary and conspiracy theory. It also introduced me to Grant Morrison‘s The Invisibles.
In fact, as far as I can recall, the more buoyant and fun US-set issues of The Invisibles were supposedly inspired by a meeting between Morrison and Metzger himself. The other writer I first discovered through the show was Douglas Rushkoff. Still active as a media commentator (just have a gander at this piece on the ‘demise of Facebook‘) Rushkoff is notable for his ability to recognize the potential in open source projects and online culture.
In fact with this book he proposes that the Bible, and the Torah that preceded it, was one of the earliest open source works in our culture. It just so happens that he has chosen the medium of comics to elucidate his theories.
Rushkoff chooses to draw parallels between the Biblical accounts of Abraham and Lot, and near-future events in a technocratic fascist America. Jake Stern’s father is heavily involved in a military project designed to implant chips in American citizens, ostensibly to track the locations of soldiers during wartime. The draft has been reintroduced and the US is involved in at least six wars simultaneously. Jake has friends involved in an underground movement that believes the chips can be used to control people’s minds, create instant perfect soldiers. Caught between his father and his political sympathies for his friends, he tries not to get involved in the rising tensions between activists and the government.
Jake’s father is trapped in the same test of loyalty to his ‘God’, or his family as was Abraham, with his employer urging him to ‘sacrifice’, his son by implanting a chip in him. Jake is equated with Lot, attempting to save his friends from the disaster he knows is coming, even as his Biblical counterpoint was singled out following the search of Sodom for innocent souls.
Just as these stories repeat themselves throughout history, the same forces who were involved in the events described by the Bible, the agents of Yahweh and the pagan gods arrayed against Him (identified here as Astarte and Moloch) are present in Jake’s time. In fact, from their point of view, these events are all occuring simultaneously. The Jewish god Yahweh is involved in constant battles with His rivals for the souls of the ‘chosen people’. Jake and his underground pals are merely acting out yet another iteration of this conflict against a monolithic evil force.
Rushkoff takes full advantage of the comic-book medium to present his argument, using split-panels to draw out the comparisons between his two chosen narratives, as well recurring associations of select phrases and images. At one point he even appears in the book as a college lecturer explaining the concept behind the comic-book, arguing that our contemporary stories are achetypal echoes of ancient myths. As he says this, a slide depicting the reincarnated Egyptian superhero Hawkman is presented in a neat piece of visual shorthand.
While I admire the audacity of the concept, the material is overly familiar, having quite a few points of similarity to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In its favour though, Rushkoff’s take on the material is far less obscure. The Morrison comparison’s continue as Liam Sharp artwork resembles frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. However, I fear I am doing Testament a disservice by saying that, as Rushkoff’s intent is quite brilliant. Liberate the Biblical myths from the dry, neutered interpretations we have grown up with and forge them into an exciting conceptual thriller. Moloch and Astarte are personified as very literal forces of violence and sex, with Yahweh a god of revolutions, a liberator from these baser instincts.
Testament excites in its scale of ambition and association of ideas. On that basis I would recommend it for those who like their comics to do something quite different.