A good God is hard to find
- Only Human: A Divine Comedy by Jenny Diski
Virago, 215 pp, £15.99, October 2000, ISBN 1 86049 839 6
Was God created by a woman, a writer who dreamed up the early stories in the Bible? Differences in vocabulary and style suggest that the Old Testament is a composite of various sources. The oldest sections – parts of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers – are more than three thousand years old and there are commentators who believe that they may have been written by a woman, a highly placed figure in the court of King Solomon. Jenny Diski’s latest novel is a third-person account of misadventure in Genesis: Only Human rattles through the lives of Adam, Cain and Noah and retells the story of Abraham and Sarah. But the omniscient third-person narrative is interrupted; the novel’s central character is God and Diski lets her deity have a point of view. In extended monologues, God looks down on the world, judging the ‘happy, human family’: ‘What sensitivity. What development. What drivel.’ When God talks about himself in the Bible, his sex is ambiguous: metaphors compare him to a mother and a father, a husband and a wife. In Only Human, God is more revealing; by turns patronising, chippy, complacent and withdrawn – God is a man.
There are difficulties with comic novels that draw on the Bible. Joseph Heller’s God Knows sets itself up as the memoir of the ageing David – ‘warrior king, the sweet psalmist of Israel’ – and plays off its contemporary idiom against an ancient story for cheap laughs. David reminisces without ever losing a sense of his audience; with a wink to the reader he recalls his achievements: ‘I’ve led a full, long life haven’t I? You can look it up. Samuel I and II. Kings.’ He gloats about his rise to the top from humble beginnings as a shepherd boy in Bethlehem – ‘I honestly think I’ve got the best story in the Bible’ – and is eagerto rubbish his Old Testament competition: ‘Genesis? The cosmology is for kids . . . an old wives’ tale, a fey fantasy.’ Heller’s novel shuttles back and forth in time, relying on wild anachronism; David snubs Michelangelo’s statue – ‘doesn’t look like me at all’ – and carps about God’s covenant: ‘some Promised Land . . . To people in California, God gives a magnificent coastline, a movie industry and Beverly Hills. To us He gives sand.’ David is small-minded and scabrous, confident that much of the Bible is mumbo-jumbo.
Heller’s attempt to contrast register and subject-matter seems forced, however, new wine in an old bottle, and the shocks have so little to do with plot or character that the irreverence feels like a stunt. David’s complaint that God gave Gentiles bacon, pork and prime ribs of beef while the Jews ended up with pastrami is an old gag; his narrative is crammed with one-liners that sound like they’re from a stand-up routine or a hit-and-miss sitcom. And so his beautiful Hittite wife Bathsheba is praised for her Waspy good looks: ‘she was not stocky, not the least bit Eastern European. Her nose was small, precise and straight and a trifle retroussé.’ Bathsheba wants to see David’s crown passed down to Solomon, her son, and is determined not to be silenced like so many other women in the Old Testament: ‘I want to be in the Bible someday,’ she tells David, ‘even your mother isn’t in the Bible by name.’ As it happens, her wish comes true. David lets slip that he plagiarised everything his wife wrote – ‘“The Lord is my shepherd,” a fortuitous turn of phrase, I can confess now . . . was haphazardly tossed off by my Bathsheba’ – and hoodwinked future scholars by passing off her psalms as his own.