Earthy prowess

Earthly Powers

The Toomey family and its spouses span the two worlds of secular and spiritual entertainment: the former popular, and the latter trying to be more so under the auspices of the new pope and brother-in-law to narrator Kenneth Toomey. Over eighty years Ken tries to hold the family together, popularize highbrow writing (or more often vice versa) and hide his homosexuality from the disapproving authorities and his more disapproving relatives. Meanwhile Don Carlo barges his way through the echelons of the Roman Catholic Church. The one, blighted along many of with his comrades-in-art by what he considers to be original sin; the other, comprehending the sinner, but unwilling to denounce that doctrine which draws most criticism to him and his allies.

Captured by the novel at the end of his life, the narrator and confirmed atheist must reconcile his own beliefs with undeniable miracles performed by Carlo, whom the Roman Catholic Church would see beatified if only the testimony of a confirmed non-believer could strengthen their cause. We find Burgess in these semi-autobiographical waters, sometimes treading, sometimes swimming powerfully (against currents to which lesser writers might yield), and sometimes splashing around in a fug, making you wonder why he doesn't towel himself off and go and do something else.

Ominously, the book starts slowly and painfully. These birth pangs lower Toomey/Burgess' prose to the level of the amateur writer: awkward phrasing, overintellectual posturing and excessive descriptions imply a difficult time ahead. But the rambling tale quickly warms up, and after a few chapters is striding through history, directing its players like chess pieces, making inscrutable moves that plan in irony for a plot (historical or often pseudo-historical) twist some ten years distant.

The appearance of several members of the entre deux guerres literati will yield either wicked grins or pained cringes, according to taste: although most will baulk at the forced (and forcedly ironic) chumminess in calling the century's most astonishing writer "Jim Joyce", the dirty truth about what George Russell was really doing on Bloomsday more than compensates for such aesthetic agonies. Certainly this novel weaves a dazzling history out of disparate and unlikely materials, although one must then contend with the entanglement of fictional and apocryphal threads in the weft.

Ultimately the story suffers from its length (a thick wodge reminiscent of doorstop thrillers), becoming meandering and losing its climax in a huddle of successive denouements. This doesn't harm the pull of its yarn, but the ante has been raised and we expect more from Burgess of all people. Still, there are treasures to be unearthed here, rich parodies and pastiches of the literary and the decidedly unliterary---the lyrics to the musical rendition of Ulysses being a case in point---and multilingual jokes that work even for the monoglot.

Here is a story, then, that can be enjoyed on a casual reading, and has much for the more circumspect; but the murky, peaty depths stop too soon, too abruptly. In a book about a writer, written by the writer's writer, this is as disconcerting as a swimming pool four foot shallower than advertised. But if not having the heart to compose a great, "high-art" acrostic---as the protagonist could not bring himself to do either---is a sin that only our mate Jim was ever able to resist, and then only one and a half times, then it can hardly be considered an original one.