But for the kindness of my friend Meryl Zagarek (http://www.mzpr.com), it’s quite likely that I would have missed the release of Frank Turner Hollon’s latest novel, The Book of Neil (Publisher: MacAdam/Cage; On Sale: Nov. 16, 2012 ; Cost: $20.00). As a bit of reference, Mr. Hollon is a prolific author of children’s books and short stories, but one who also boasts two novels that have been turned into films (Barry Munday; and Blood and Circumstances, which is currently in production). I think it’s safe to say that Hollon’s novel will not be remembered for its prose, which is at times repetitive and understated. But the novel’s staying power is its exploration of a complex theological question, using an extremely minimalist writing style.
The theme of Hollon’s novel centers on the proposition of Christ’s return to earth in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Here’s how the press release describes Mr. Hollon’s work:
In The Book of Neil we are asked to consider what would happen if Jesus returned to earth in 2012, at a time when people are driven by consumption, self-indulgence, and a preoccupation with social media. Are we so cynical that Jesus would be dismissed as just another mentally ill street-preacher?
The idea is striking because the return of Jesus to Earth is one of the few aspects of Christian theology that mainstream Christianity tends not to debate. These days, our theological and moral disputes tend to include issues like determinism, theodicy, Biblical inerrancy, literalism, gay marriage, abortion and once upon a time questions about stem cell research and the like. But these issues are more on the periphery and clearly not central to the tenants of Christian faith itself (viz., Christ’s return to Earth).
So, what would it look like if Jesus came back to Earth, say, today? How would the event unfold? What would the reaction of believers be as opposed to the reaction of non-believers? Hollon’s novel offers readers his interpretation of the answer.
What’s obvious from the first page is that the work is no typical novel. Hollon’s writing style is minimalist to the point of distraction (more on this later). His characters are sketches of what characters should be. The details Hollon provides are sparse. Days bleed into one another without paying heed to the logical progression of time. In this way, Hollon’s work is not a cheap knock off from Joyce, focusing on the minutia of the day to day. Instead Hollon’s style keeps the focus on life’s panorama of the forest. The big picture accented by big themes.
The first theme readers encounter is Hollon’s embrace of absurdism, which not only provides the justification for Hollon’s experiment but also paves the way for some of the other ideas explored in the work. Absurdism suggests that human efforts to divine meaning are absurd on their face because the exercise is impossible and doomed to fail. Absurdism’s implausibility of truth justifies the minimalist introduction to the work beginning on page 1 of the novel. There, Neil casually meets Jesus on the 14th hole of the local country club. After exchanging pleasantries, Jesus notes, “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.” Without waiting for an answer, Jesus replies:
“I’m playing golf,” He said. “A frustrating game. I don’t really have the patience for it, but I enjoy playing anyway.” p.11.
Aside from being a bit presumptuous, Jesus’ opening line in the work is rife with absurdity because of how mundane the introduction actually is. It’s a bit like an off-Broadway production of Seinfeld, a scene about nothing using next to nothing to make the point. Hollon’s early pages make the search for meaning futile because they take place on the blandest of all locales to which the Son of God could possibly return. To make the point even more pronounced, Hollon fills the mouth of God Incarnate with the same, tired clichés about golf uttered by every other hack with a set of clubs.
This absurdist framework creates a justification for everything that follows. Specifically, Hollon can continue his experiment because it is not a search for meaning. Rather it is an exercise in potentiality, an experiment illustrating what could be. There is no deeper truth to Hollon’s work because it is a hypothetical, and searching for the Truth in a hypothetical is folly because hypotheticals are by definition works of fiction.
Of course, the book would be relatively short and uninteresting if page after page of the work recounted the folly of man’s search for meaning set amid scenarios and scenes that have never happened. Almost of necessity, Hollon’s embrace of the absurd requires him to explore the implications of his premise which is by far the more interesting exercise of the novel. This analysis begins with the simple observation that a world void of meaning presents a rather large opening for individuals (and ultimately society) to descend into nihilism.
The book’s eponymous anti-hero Neil describes the matter as follows:
It’s the never ending balance. On one side is the absolute knowledge that nothing whatsoever matters. There’s nothing any of us can do, nothing, that makes any difference at all. The world will continue to spin, time will continue to run, and each of us, every single one of us, will die, go back into the earth one way or another, and be forgotten in the blink of an eye.
On the other side, we wake up every morning and convince ourselves how important it is to provide for our children, bring the dog inside when it’s cold, mow the grass, pay the electric bill. And we ignore the irreconcilable differences between the two, the dichotomy. How can we not? Utter hopelessness is only a thought away, and the dogs are at the door. p.123
If we grant Hollon his absurdist introduction, then Neil’s summary of the matter is the natural result. Throughout the novel, various characters struggle to make sense of Jesus’ return, and invariably this forces them to evaluate the mundane and traumatic in their lives vis-à-vis the hope that life itself is not absurd and void of meaning. Much like he does in the New Testament, the figure of Jesus brings hope to individuals that takes them beyond the nihilistic conclusions of absurdism, and beyond the empty existentialism of crafting a subjective meaning from life’s routine.
Hollon uses this otherness of Jesus to advance the majority of his novel’s plot. Readers see stories of individuals demonstrating the effects of Jesus’ return on the micro-level. As the scenarios play out in the characters’ lives, this has the effect of rescuing hope from the clutches of the absurd in the novel. Some of the characters find hope and inspiration through Jesus’ return. Others are forced to confront whether they believe in an alternative to nihilism and the existential routine of truth as subjectivity.
While the novel is rich in major themes and presents nearly all of them in a sophisticated manner, the emphasis on big picture has the effect of diminishing Hollon’s prose. This is not a novel to read if you long for the descriptions of Tolstoy or the punch of Hemingway. Hollon does not pretend to be anything other than what he is: a thoughtful writer, intrigued by the ideas of his work. But as a result some of his prose suffers. Portions of the novel are repetitive. Phrases, jokes, witticisms all make more appearances than necessary. And to be fair, most of the characters lack depth. We learn little of their backgrounds, aspirations, and even motivations in some instances. But this is deliberate. Prose, character development, and style are all sacrificed for Hollon’s experiment with big concepts. The novel is bold in this regard even though this quality could easily be off-putting to the casual reader.
Still, it is Hollon’s boldness that makes the work a success. For all of its faults stylistically, Hollon’s insistence upon exploring big ideas more than makes up for the novel’s ultra-minimalist style. The question going forward will be whether Hollon’s hard work and focus on the forest will find success in a culture and readership that is increasingly more interested in the trees.