Published by London Wall Publishing as an ebook, hardback and paperback
Gerald Weaver’s debut novel is centred on the mutability of words – specifically, the Word, as revealed to a narrator named Christian by an alluring and snappily dressed female Christ-figure in his cell in Manchester Minimum Security Prison in Kentucky.
The ‘preface’ to the novel, we are told, is written by Christian’s lawyer, who informs us that the book we are about to read has already been previewed and read, translated and mistranslated, appropriated and interpreted by a host of followers in a seemingly endless cycle of hermeneutical exegesis and editorial transformation. A unique claim of the narrative of Gospel Prism is that it is a book that has anticipated, foreseen and incorporated into itself the world it has already altered. It has subsumed many other books and inspired congregations of believers and movements for social change across the globe. We must thus infer it is a divinely inspired holy book, a scripture – a text that is in the world but not of it, in any conventional sense. It is a book that resists ownership, including that of its putative author.
Christian is told he will be the recipient of twelve revelations, which turn out to be interdependent and difficult to disentangle, and often hard to understand or even formulate. Each chapter provides a new revelation in a separate literary incarnation, from Cervantes to Proust and assorted canonical points in between. Christian’s pilgrimage to enlightenment leads us through a metafictional thicket of words and experiences, inside and outside his cell, replete with intertextuality and a knowing self-reflexiveness. Revelation, we are reminded, never simply arrives, fixed and finished; instead, we must seek to understand it with more and more words, as we attempt to sidle closer to the truth: the Bible has its multitude of commentaries; the Torah has its Midrash; the Quran its Hadith and its Tafsir. Gospel Prism has its ‘preface’ and ‘afterword’. Revelation never ends.
Gospel Prism is a serious book and is seriously daunting. It’s a brave book to write as one’s first novel, as it makes few concessions to conventional expectations: is it really a novel? Or is it a collection of interlinked short stories, or a religio-philosophical treatise, or an exercise in literary criticism? It has been rapturously received by many reviewers for its subtlety and wisdom, its humour and its pathos, and its insights into prison life and literature. Try as I might, however, I have to confess that, while I admire some of the book’s scope and ambition, I have found such merits elusive and cannot summon quite the same enthusiasm. Here’s why.
Somewhat typically for a diegetic text of religious revelation, Gospel Prism is predominantly male and culturally nostalgic. As one might expect, the prison is populated by men to whom power and privilege, violence and hierarchy are central preoccupations. The inmates are familiar types, especially the wise guys and goodfellas whose argot and codes of conduct have infiltrated popular culture. These characters – less inclined than others to conceal themselves behind a curtain of split infinitives and inelegant constructions – are the most successful in the novel.
Apart from the female Christ-figure (‘an unidentifiable mix of the races’ [sic]), women are marginal figures in Gospel Prism. In at least two cases, they are the passive recipients of male strategies for seduction. Appropriately, in the Proustian chapter entitled ‘Celeste’, which is about the great love of Christian’s life, the heavenly Celeste herself is kept at one remove, focused through the lens of male subjectivity. Possibly as a consequence, one does not find subtleties of characterization or a nuanced appreciation of women’s lives here.
For instance, ‘Properly read,’ we are told later in a heteronormative aside that follows a brief sketch of Elizabeth Bennet’s virtues in Pride and Prejudice, ‘Austen should be a form of pornography for the morally and spiritually discriminating man.’ Really? And what should she be for the morally and spiritually discriminating woman? Or the rest of suffering humanity? Is this an attempt at ironic humour or is it meant to be serious criticism? (For what it’s worth, the above quotation has already been posted on a shayari website.) Either way, so much for the later ‘revelation’ that ‘Reading deeply of the great books is your best opportunity to find the divine’ (an extraordinarily blinkered and exclusionary claim).
The female-gendered Christ-figure provides no explanation for her particular incarnation, yet she is the central figure around whom revelation, literature and personal subjectivity pivot. A fascinating aspect of white, western, male psychology relates to the idea of a lost or merely glimpsed idealized first love. One finds it throughout western art and literature, and a man can often find it in himself if he looks deep enough. It recurs here, too, in a nicely evocative image that ties together past and present, revelation and memory. That last connection is crucial in Gospel Prism – we arrive at our truths via a process of memorial reconstruction. In that sense, we are the authors of our own revelation; happily for us, the divine is inside ourselves. Whether or not it is also outside ourselves – and whether or not that matters – is unclear. It is here that Gospel Prism drifts dangerously close to the Shirley MacLaine school of theology.
The chapter inspired by Dante’s Inferno in which Christian tours the circles of Hell takes some easy and sometimes curious shots: reality TV is a form of punishment, and almost the entire population of Canada is packed into the home of Charles I (mostly, it seems, to make matters worse for him). One wonders what Canadians are meant to infer from their wholesale instrumentalization and condemnation, reminiscent of the God of the Old Testament. Presumably Dante’s first readers needed little or no help to recognize who was in his densely populated Inferno, whereas the modern reader requires a vast textual apparatus of biographical notes and glosses. Our unmediated appreciation of the somewhat anodyne Hell in Gospel Prism perhaps approximates to that early experience of Dante, yet its mix of fictional and real people trapped in a variety of pop-cultural remixes often suggests an intellectual’s pet peeve far removed from the moral seriousness of The Divine Comedy.
Frustratingly (or tantalizingly, depending on your viewpoint), the revelations experienced by Christian do not actually reveal a great deal, and many of these divine disclosures are derivations of the kind of aesthetics espoused by the Romantics and their sundry successors. The inspirations afforded by Nature; the wisdom and guidance contained in ‘great literature’; the need for scepticism so as not to impose our faith and beliefs on others; the holiness within us all; grasping the world in a species of pantheistic plenitude – possibly worthy but certainly venerable, unexceptionable beliefs that were popular with (white, male, western) writers and thinkers at least as far back as the late eighteenth century. Gospel Prism may partly be ‘about’ mostly pre-twentieth-century examples of mainstream Euro-American literature, but its exemplars are presented as Platonic Forms unmoved by the enormous critical, cultural and ecological transformations that have taken place since they were written.
As these revelations accrue, one gains the impression that there is another unexamined assumption at work. It is as if they are calling us back to a particular conception of civilized values that pre-date the onset of late modernity, corralling our sensibilities into a virtuous defensive circle in order to protect ourselves from pesky multicultural dissensus and the evils of religious ideologies wedded to violence and oppression. The masked terrorist toting a kalashnikov in one hand and a holy book in the other haunts these pages – unmoved, I suspect, by the charms of syncretistic appeals to embrace his or her uncertainties.
Gospel Prism provides genuine pleasure for lovers of literary allusion (and exposes the gaps in one’s reading). Proust’s infamous cobblestone is transformed into the texture of gravel against Christian’s skin (‘skin’ – its colour and other properties – is a curiously important concern in Gospel Prism), and there are other references to The Charterhouse of Parma, Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov, Shakespeare, Hardy, Emily Brontë, Borges, Forster, Shelley, Kafka, Eliot and Whitman (a list, we must note, that is mostly male, mostly white and mostly dead). I should admit I will never get round to reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, from which, of course, Gospel Prism takes major inspiration. Do these intertextual elements add up to a deconstruction of literature or otherwise illuminate literary fiction, as has been claimed? In my opinion they do not (not least because of their extremely narrow focus), but neither do they need to in order for us to enjoy them.
It is a genuine compliment to expend so much ink in criticism of a book like Gospel Prism. A novel of its ambition demands the serious engagement of its readers. It asks a great deal of us and we expect a great deal of it in return. Even while I take issue with the majority of its sweeping assumptions and exclusions, and its pervasive underdetermination, I welcome its intellectual seriousness, its thought-provoking ambiguity, and what I take to be its good intentions. As a critical outlier far removed from the consensus of reviews I have read thus far, I can only urge you to make up your own mind about Gospel Prism. You may find it entertaining and fascinating, and you may find things in it that I have completely missed.
After all, the truth is revealed only to those with eyes to see.