Tag Archives: disappointment

Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

I remember the hype around this when it came out, as the first major work from Pullman after His Dark Materials and promising a similarly inflammatory reading of religion. It was available in two simple-but-beautiful editions from Canongate, suggesting a choosing of sides or an aligning of allegiance (I’d be interested to know which sold better, the black or the white. My money’s on the black).

The Good Man Jesusand the Scoundrel Christ

Anyway, when I finally settled down to read it, it was in a much less imaginatively designed paperback and on loan from a theology graduate friend who described it as ‘really disappointing’, but who also acknowledged that she has a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than your average reader and thought she might have been giving Pullman a bit of a hard time.

Not so, theology friend! For somebody who had obviously done his homework on religious literature for The Amber Spyglass, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredibly simplistic retelling, and I say this as somebody with a pretty limited Sunday School grasp of the Biblical stories, plus whatever you pick up in English Lit class along the way. I wasn’t offended by it in a religious sense, but I really thought it smacked of a kind of adolescent storytelling – ‘Wouldn’t it blow everybody’s minds if Jesus wasn’t one person….BUT TWO?!’. There used to be an old drunk guy who would regularly get on my bus and tell everybody ‘IF YOU SPELL LIVED BACKWARDS, YOU GET DEVIL’ and then stare at you like he’d proved an infallible conspiracy about the universe. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but he definitely wasn’t as clever as he thought, either, smelling of Special Brew on the 143. And I feel like he and Philip Pullman have been to one too many Tennants-flavoured theology seminars.

The novel is written in a pared down style which I guess is supposed to be redolent of Biblical writing, although why people insist on suggesting that people 2,000 years ago all narrated their own inner monologues in this sparse way I have no idea. Christ is the black sheep of the family, intelligent, sensitive to moral ambiguity, and distinctly non-miraculous whereas Jesus is all impassioned earnestness and miracles. Christ becomes Jesus’s history writer, and inevitably starts to edit some of the occurrences for the sake of posterity, neatly bringing in a debate about the difference between History and Truth (and often helpfully telling you that’s what it’s doing at the same time. Just so, y’know, you don’t miss the significance). The man who encourages Christ in his endeavours is a shadowy figure (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe he’s the devil) who seems to be preparing the way for the church (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe the church is bad) – an institution that Jesus himself is against (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: doesn’t that just blow your mind, man?). We all know how the story is going to end, and surprise surprise, Judas and Christ are in cahoots, only it’s Christ that gets the 30 pieces of silver (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: exhausted).

It isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, and for fans of Pullman it’s another bit of writing to gobble up by him. But where His Dark Materials offered some really challenging ideas with a bit of Milton thrown in, I found this to be a bit facile in comparison, and without the gimmick of the religious retelling, not a very compelling novel in its own right. I kept thinking about one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita, which contains a retelling of Jesus’ story through the eyes of Pontius Pilate in a much more nuanced, interesting, beautiful way. This just didn’t compete.

In a tweet: Sunday school’s out for summer.

Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis

I tried really hard to like this book. Really hard. Like an underperforming child or the cat that pees on the carpet, I made a LOT of excuses for it. Robin Jarvis was one of my all-time favourite authors as a child. I devoured the Deptford Mice and Deptford Histories and felt genuinely bereft when they were finished and there wasn’t more to come. The man can definitely spin a yarn. I have a sneaking suspicion that his novel, Thomas may have in small way changed my life as a child. And discovering that this was about a fantasy book that possesses people, like some YA-King-Gaiman mashup, I nearly peed all over the carpet along with the cat.

It is a premise full of promise (to enter into the spirit of irritating and nonsensical wordplay). Jarvis writes exceptionally thrilling narratives that do keep you gripped, so when he starts to write about the dangers of an equally addictive book, Dancing Jacks, that is found in a creepy old house filled with eerily sentient mould, it has the potential to be a real spine-tingler. He turns the traditional idea of reading being a virtue, making you into a hero (as in, for example, that classic about escapist kids’ literature, The Neverending Story) by making it the very thing that poses the greatest threat. Book burning becomes a necessity for survival, rather than an easy Hitlerish metaphor for evil. It all gets a bit meta, and a bit dark. Great stuff.

Except it’s like reading this excellent premise through the dual lens of a) a terrible fantasy novel and b) an angry Daily Mail article.

Let’s start with a).

Every paragraph starts with an excerpt from Dancing Jacks. It’s a kind of Grimm Fairytale world based loosely around playing cards, but it’s written like your worst nightmare of a fantasy novel. ‘So mote it be’? Eugh. Even though it’s been written by a satanist who is presumably better at arcane arts than he is at literacy, the idea of an addictive book is kind of undermined by its sheer shonkiness. Martin, the harrowed Maths teacher who I guess is our hero (although the narrative flits between lots of important characters, including his stepson, Paul), actually seems to provide a kind of get-out clause – seemingly immune to the novel’s effects, he muses that he can’t see the appeal – ‘it was stodgy, repetitive and obvious and in places quite impenetrable’. Is this actually a get out clause written into your own novel?

To be fair, the more I think about this, the more I think about whether he’s making a point about escapism — plenty of fantasy and sci fi is ridden with cliche but the appeal of another world is stronger than people’s aversion to bad writing, and maybe he’s exploring how deep your desire to escape your own life will go. But then, plenty of fantasy and sci fi is really good. Including other work by Robin Jarvis. So I’m not convinced.

b) Fine, if you want to make a point about how the world has gone to hell already thanks to our shallow lives following footballers and talent shows. But don’t…don’t actually write your own diatribes into every single character’s speech in the novel! The demonic Ismus towards the end of the novel reveals why the time is now ripe for the dark book to take hold.

There are no children in this world any more. You dress and treat them as mini-adults. You let little girls play with dolls that look like Berlin prostitutes. The morality and hypocrisy I used to find so stomach-churning no longer exists. You foist on to your young people role models whose brains are never as active as their underwear, and whose talents and achievements extend only as far as the bedroom door and the ability to blurt every detail of what happens behind it. You give your precious offspring access to a lightning-fast network of corruption and danger. You immerse them in computer games far more violent than the most savage and dirty war, and target prepubescents with inappropriate music and imagery – giving them a vocabulary that would have revolted sailors back in my day. There are not stigmas, no taboos, no boundaries, no respect and certainly no innocence left. To be pregnant at thirteen is no longer an everlasting shame, merely a career choice.

This is the culmination of other asides about the state of the nation made by one of the other main characters. Supposedly a nerdy but loveable maths teacher, Martin still describes most of his pupils as ‘scum’ and tells Emma, admittedly a pretty irritating and mouthy student, that she’ll never amount to anything. Education at its finest. Even when Jarvis follows Emma, suggesting that in her story at least she might develop some redeeming features, she remains a 2D straw figure ripe for bashing – just as Martin all-too-readily assumes, she’s really only interested in getting wasted on ‘Breezers’ and being famous. Phew. Thank goodness our assumptions aren’t being challenged in any way, then.

This also brings me onto another issue, which is the slang. Writing in dialect, particularly when it’s young people, is fraught with danger but that’s not to say you should never do it – sometimes it makes for a fully immersive novel where you get a real flavour of the times that you wouldn’t with a more standardized lexicon. Not here. I’ve never been to Felixstowe, so maybe everybody does talk like an old man pretending to be ‘down with the kidz’ but I doubt it. So when some wannabe gangster kid (fair enough, we’ve all met enough of those) refuses to pull his trousers up because ‘It’s my identity, innit. I’m doing it to support my brothers. I won’t yank up my saggys…You is well bullying me, Sir,’ this isn’t the voice of a teenager but of a middle-aged man who knows enough to parody kids, but not enough to sound like them. It would work if it was Martin doing the impression, but not in a supposedly real-life scene. Similarly, the references to Facebook, Lady Gaga, I’m a Celebrity and X Factor are so exhaustive as to be, well, exhausting. A year after publication, it’s already starting to feel dated, and you can’t help wonder whether the ‘x’ in the title is similarly borne of a sense that that’s what people do to make things current, when in fact that stopped working about a decade ago.

Also, fans of 90s UK children’s programmes, does this have a familiar ring to it?

The Demon Headmaster

Ultimately, I feel like this novel skirts round the big issues it tries to raise. There are many more insidious dangers to children from modernity than the ones that Jarvis choses to focus on, and although the story gets gripping towards the end, it also never stopped annoying the hell out of me.

In a tweet: Would’ve been better with mice.