In terms of content, the book is a by-the-numbers hatchet job written in sensitive, spare, and poetic diction for the delectation of UK and New York Chattering Classes and dipped in a bath of relentless, willful sadness and bitterness. The basic premise is that it has been 20 years since the crucifixion, and Mary is one nasty hag, sounding for all the world like a nun in iron grey, short-cropped hair and sensible shoes who has seized the microphone in a We Are Church group process breakout session and is now on the third hour of an extended free association monologue, grousing bitterly about the patriarchy.
Bravely facing the applause of the UK and New York media, Tóibín advances the absolutely original thesis that Jesus was totally misunderstood by his corrupt, repressed, knucklehead disciples, who got all het up about him for no particular reason and did the whole “Son of God” schtick after his death. Tóibín’s Mary lives alone in Ephesus, relying on these disciples for her daily bread, marinated in judgmental bitterness, and filled with sullen contempt for everything. This Mary has no belief in her son’s divinity, natch. He is described as something of a charismatic kook, propelled along to his doom by his “misfit” disciples, whom Mary can’t stand. They are a pack of losers in need of a guru who would, today, be living in their moms’ basements, viewing porn on the Internet while scowling at women they pass on the street and muttering, “Slut!” Mary is stuck with them—they are her “guardians,” since she has nothing. She is kept under a sort of cultic, Scientology-esque house arrest while devotees, who inexplicably regard her as a figure of reverence instead of the sullen old crone she is, come to feed her and babble their Moonie encomiums of devotion. Meanwhile, Mary can’t bring herself to say Jesus’ name. At one point we have an exchange in which some dumbbell disciples show up and are told they can’t sit in a chair she deliberately leaves empty for her son (recalling the Jewish tradition of the empty chair for Elijah at Passover). They, of course, resolutely declare that Jesus will return. She bitterly and stubbornly declares he will not, and the interview concludes with Mary pulling a knife on them and threatening to come in the night and murder them as they sleep. The dumbbell disciples are nothing moved by this altercation and go cheerily on their way in blissed-out idiocy. We are to believe that from all this, the cult of Mary—the beautiful saint and consolation of sinners—arose. And they say atheism requires no faith.
She tells various stories familiar to us from the gospels, but covers them all with a sepulchral gloom. So, for instance, we get the story of the raising of Lazarus, but when Lazarus comes back to life, he howls in anguish at the curse of life restored and remains a sort of enfeebled invalid. For this Mary, death is “fullness.” Everything, but everything, is covered in a black pall. Life is a horror, death is a goal, but Jesus’ death is one more occasion of pessimism worthy of a cadaverous 19th-century German philosopher. Tóibín’s Mary is an enemy of almost the entire human race, and she includes herself in the orbit of her contempt because she ditched the crucified Jesus out of fear for her own precious skin. She hates herself, the disciples, and the whole lie of the gospel. Her son’s crucifixion was not “worth it.” The resurrection, we are told, is the fruit of a dream she and Mary Magdalene somehow magically shared, which the pious head-case John took to be a sign that Jesus was somehow still alive. At the end of the book, pious Christian morons show up to repeat, like autistic savants, various passages of scripture or creedal formulations, or to yark at her about her virginal conception of Jesus (another lie, we are assured). They are impervious to her fierce denials.
I heard part of an interview Terry Gross did the other day with Toibin. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:
GROSS: So before I go any further, I want to say you’re really playing with fire in this book, because a lot of people will see it as blasphemous. I mean, you’re saying that Mary didn’t believe her son was the Son of God and she doesn’t really believe his disciples. The disciples who are staying with her to protect her, she kind of thinks what they’re really doing is to protect her against telling her story to other people because her story is inconsistent with their story.
So everything that you’re saying is so contradictory to the gospels and kind of contradictory to, you know, the basic tenets of Christianity.
TOIBIN: Well, I suppose there are two things there. One, the first, is that I’m a novelist. And my job is to imagine and to create character and there’s a long tradition of this. In other words, George Moore, who was an Irish novelist, wrote a novel called “The Brook Kerith” which he published in 1916 in which he deals with the fact – not the fact, the fiction that Jesus survived the crucifixion and ended up in India.
You know, someone like Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist, has written a book called “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” in which Jesus has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. So it’s not as though it has not been done before, but even if it hadn’t been done before I would have felt an absolute right as a novelist to see this character as my invention and as to work with that as truthfully as I could within the terms I had set myself.
And I suppose the second issue is that I’m a citizen of the European Union in which such freedoms are allowed and absolutely accepted by everybody. So that I don’t really see any difficulty there.
GROSS: Has anything surprised you about the reaction you’ve gotten so far?
TOIBIN: I suppose what surprised me about Ireland, the response in Ireland, has been the ease and the mildness of the response. That there has not been any difficulty.
I found that to be a just result, actually. Blaspheming against Christ and His mother — ho-hum! Walker Percy’s remarks in “Signposts In A Strange Land” (“MacBird!” is a Sixties-era play in which LBJ and Lady Bird plot the murder of JFK):
My own suspicion is that many American writers secretly envy writers like Solzhenitsyn, who get sent to the Gulag camps for their writings, keep writing on toilet paper, take on the whole bloody state — and win. The total freedom of writers in this country can be distressing. What a burden to bear, that the government not only allows us complete freedom — even freedom for atrocities like MacBird! — but, like ninety-five percent of Americans, couldn’t care less what we write. Oh, you lucky Dostoevskys, with your firing squads (imagine shooting an American writer!), exiles, prison camps, nuthouses. True, American writers are often regarded as nuts but as harmless ones. So the exile has to be self-imposed — which has its drawbacks. One goes storming off, holes up in Montmartre or Algiers, cursing McCarthyism, racism, TV, shopping centers, consumerism, and no one pays the slightest attention. Months, years, later, one saunters back, hands in pockets, eyes averted — but no one is looking now either.
In 2012, a lapsed gay Irish Catholic writer publishes a novel in which the Virgin Mary is a hag pushed around by her dead son’s disciples, who mistakenly believe he was the Messiah. Ho-hum. Next!
I was e-mailing the other day with a Christian writer friend who asked why it is that the elite publishing industry, and the media who report on them, are so fascinated by religion-related books that trash religious belief — but ordinary people are so hungry for books about faith that give them hope? My friend recommended a Russian Orthodox book called Everyday Saints And Other Stories. It’s a translation of a book by a Russian abbot who tells stories and anecdotes about monks and monk-priests he has known in his years in the monastery. It’s not written in a hagiographic style, or a syrupy-pious way. The prose is clear, and the stories he tells are, well, everyday accounts of flawed but spiritually deep men struggling towards holiness, and succeeding, in spite of themselves. I’m allergic to pious goop, but am really enjoying this book, because it makes me want to pray more, to be more serious about the presence of God among us, to try harder to treat people more mercifully, and, ultimately, to have more hope. Plus, the stories are really interesting, from a world really exotic to modern people, especially Americans. The author, a monk who was a filmmaker before he entered religious life, knows how to tell a story well.
Yet the media don’t even notice books like this. Books like Toibin’s, they get the attention. In the end, I bet Toibin’s book loses money for its publisher. Who wants a feel-bad story about how Mary was really a faithless crone pushed around by men? It’s a mystery. I’m not saying that the media ought to ballyhoo religious kitsch. But it sounds for all the world like Toibin’s book is antireligious kitsch.
You know what would be a book about Mary worth reading? A novelistic exploration of what it must have been like for her to have lived through the murder, death, and resurrection of her son, and the beginning of a religion built around his life, death, and afterlife. How bizarre that must have been for her! Did she ever wonder if it was all a dream? Did she ever wonder how the little boy she had raised in Nazareth came to all this? What was it like for her, having to be such a singular public face for this new faith: from Miriam to the Mother Of God. What did that do to her faith? To her understanding of herself?
And so forth. You don’t have to write pious goop to take up these themes. But who wants to read impious goop?
The truly courageous Irish novelist in 2012 is one who writes a story about what it’s like to keep the faith and hold on to hope when everyone around you has failed, and when everything you thought you knew about the way the world was has gone to hell. What then? Because that is the life lots of people, Irish and not, Catholic and not, live. We can’t go on; we must go on. How?
More Marilynne Robinson, please.