Their Faces Were Shining
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
Text Publishing, $30.00,
These days, Second Coming websites glean enough donations to post video ads on music sites, so even if you don’t interpret global disasters as evidence of Jesus’s “soon return”, you may find yourself watching a “non-fictional account of events prophesied to happen any day”. This illogical statement prefaces a mash-up comprising outtakes from apocalyptic block-busters, Word Art text floating around the screen, misty photos of white-robed trumpeters, and the like. It seems that the producers of such videos believe that the impending end of time relieves them from any requirement to conform to our conventional ideas about how time works.
Of course, physicists have told us those conventional, intuitive ideas are illusions, and that time is not a constant. Both former physics teacher Bernard Beckett in August, and Tim Wilson in Their Faces Were Shining, productively play around with ideas of time and of how humans believe God uses it. Along with billions of others across the world, Wilson’s protagonist Hope Paterson hears God’s final farewell on her cellphone: “Goodbye History”. The fate of Beckett’s Tristan is held in the balance while we explore intriguing arguments around free will and predestination. The question of time is at the heart of August’s discussions.
Hope, a dedicated Presbyterian and Official Office Christian, is left behind when, as predicted in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, those who are “in Christ” are gathered up, their faces glowing as if gently aflame, to meet Jesus in the air. In his funny and moving debut novel Wilson avoids the obvious thread of having Hope angst at length about why she didn’t make the cut. She turns out to be a much stronger and more complex character than that.
However, in the opening chapters it’s the strength of Wilson’s observations and the crackling, action-packed narrative that pulls us through rather than sympathy for Hope. Over-anxious, self-pitying, self-despising and judgemental, she’s hard to like even when you know she’s grieving for a lost son and the love that’s leaked away from her marriage. “To Hope, with Love and Martyrdom, Love Hope”, she writes on a card accompanying a birthday present to herself. It’s a relief when, soon after the Rapture, she drops any pretence at continual piety and behaves more spiritedly.
Wilson sidesteps banal theological suggestions. Depending on your inclinations, the novel’s God may be insubstantial and contradictory or satisfyingly difficult to pin down. He “takes up” a multi-faith, cross-denominational array of believers including gay clergy, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, the Dalai Lama and a teenager recently convicted of murdering his parents, but leaves behind Hope’s daughter Rachel who, the previous night, refused to “repent” when accused by her boyfriend’s mother of fornication. The boyfriend, who repented tearfully on his knees, has vanished along with his literalist parents. The novel’s sympathies lie with those who hammer out a flawed, true life. Of her refusal to repent, Rachel explains to Hope: “I couldn’t, Mom. I love him. If I go back on that, it’s like nothing happened between us.”
It’s perhaps fitting that the narrative is strongly anchored in the physical world. Wilson brilliantly satirises post-Rapture society. “Ash-head” Tribulationists clash with flagellants. Climate change accelerates, and a comedian has to retract a joke about Micronesia being renamed Nanonesia – but later is awarded his own TV show. Hope’s eye darts about, and Wilson piles up sentences that flick between sharply outlined observations, descriptions of action, reflections on the past, dialogue, remembered voices, imagined contributions from her family and her seemingly unmediated, instant reactions to all of the above. It’s tempting to speculate that his style is influenced by his experience as a TV news reporter. He’s both highly descriptive and economical, rarely lingering unless a scene’s emotional weight demands it.
This is not one of those first-person narratives where the writer pretends that the protagonist just happens to be a wonderful stylist. Hope can be annoyingly cutesy – “Inside, the cluttered kitchen counter-top waved ‘Hi!’” – and she isn’t shy about using double exclamation marks. What makes it work is that Wilson has so thoroughly imagined Hope and writes with intelligence and compassion. About halfway through, one of the novel’s driving questions gets abruptly answered. In the chapters that follow one may wonder whether the plot is losing steam, but the conviction and momentum in Hope’s voice brings energy to the eventful third act.
Beckett’s August starts with a promising premise: a couple driving at night go over a cliff and are trapped, injured, in their upturned car. The beauty and discipline of the sentences in the opening chapter alert us that this work will deliver rewards to the attentive reader that go far beyond sensationalist action. Within a few paragraphs, we have not only a vivid, slow-motion picture of what’s occurring, but also a growing sense of Tristan’s character and his preoccupation with physics (“collisions vibrated through him, dissolving the border between feeling and sound”), and intimations of the novel’s themes: “Instinct fought the wheel, but the future drew them in.” At first the characters are nameless, underscoring the darkness and terror.
Beckett is a much-published author, and a master at telling readers just enough. There are early indications of mystery and withheld knowledge. Tristan has a secret, and as we read on we discover that it’s many-layered, many-tentacled and endlessly surprising.
In order to remain conscious while they wait for daylight and hope of rescue, the couple tell each other their stories. Tristan’s tale begins with the second chapter, and is told in the third person with immediacy and evocative detail, describing the male-dominated culture within the walled holy city where he has spent his impoverished childhood and his adolescence. Thirty-five years after a war provoked by climate change and the painful descent from peak oil, the city’s religious rulers adhere to medieval principles and revere equally Saint Augustine, Jesus and Plato. Tristan begins to witness the cruelties and harsh punishments meted out by those who believe they are the rightful conduits of God’s judgement.
In this second chapter, Beckett is giving us what we need to know so that we’ll understand what’s to come. To do this, he occasionally resorts to summary (“Tristan loved his father, but he did not wish to become like him”), and some of the key figures in Tristan’s early life such as his father are by necessity given little space. However, readers who may be not fully hooked by Tristan and who feel distanced by the narrative, or are disappointed by the disappearance of the opening chapter’s urgent and reflective tone, should persist. August is a novel that makes you think, and left this reader with pleasingly nagging questions. It would be an excellent choice for book groups which like impassioned discussion.
Tristan’s circumstances change, and he takes part in Socratic discourse aimed at developing his understanding of God’s will and the inherent impossibility of true free will (“What does it mean, in a world of God’s creation, that man is free to choose between the paths of good and evil?”). Later, he becomes a subject in a psychological experiment that threatens his sanity. Throughout the book, there’s a strong flavour of quantum physics, and philosophical questions are pursued in detail and demand attentive reading. Yet in both Tristan’s story and Grace’s (the occupier of the passenger seat), the narrative remains grounded in the sensory, physical world and is driven by a compelling storyline. Other characters are brought forward with telling detail. Periodically returning to the teetering car, we begin to understand that the story is not only leading us towards the reason Tristan and Grace are there together, but also the relevance of the experiment to their current situation and to the possibility of their survival. The story belongs to Tristan and Grace rather than to intellectual arguments, which strengthens our understanding of those arguments and makes them memorable.
Susan Pearce is the author of Acts of Love and blogs about reading at Swimming With Books.