‘A clever, flawed novel backed by a fabulous and thought-provoking investigation of theological thought’ – 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein

As the notoriously competitive world of literary fiction becomes ever more cut-throat in the face of plummeting book-sales, the threat of the internet and economic malaise, publishers are resorting to increasingly desperate tricks to sell their books. Novels need to be plastered with panegyrics; book covers should scream the brilliance of their contents, collaring the unwary browser, seducing them with superlatives. “A fine, poised novel.” (The Littlehampton Gazette) simply won’t wash. But I’d like to think that as the blurbing has grown more aggressive, we as readers have also learned to negotiate the logic of these quotes, to read between the lines of praise and puff and, with greater clarity, judge a book by its cover.

My novel’s first printing was adorned by a few sympathetic words from the psychologist Oliver James. His wonderful evisceration of the lonely materialism of the modern age, Affluenza, was a major inspiration for my novel, and so I sent him a copy of the proof a few months before publication. He responded with a friendly and encouraging email, which he assured me I could quote at will. So there was my blurb. I dropped James’s quote from the paperback because, by that time, I could call upon the kind and not so kind words of the fourth estate to decorate the cover.

I think there is probably an assumption that quotes which are not from newspapers are from the author’s mates. I certainly allocate them less weight when carrying out a cover-scan. Perhaps most famously, the entrepreneur James Palumbo cobbled together quotes for his decidedly fishy novel Tomas from a variety of showbiz pals – Stephen Fry, Noel Fielding and – bizarrely – Niall Ferguson – and plastered them across the underground in a massive advertising campaign. The critics, of course, hated the book, and it sank without trace.

Rebecca Goldstein’s novel is a cut above Tomas. It tells the story of the religious psychologist Cass Seltzer, an academic at Frankfurter University, situated a few miles down the road from Harvard. Seltzer is the author of a surprise bestseller, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which debunks said arguments and becomes a kind of God Delusion sensation. The novel traces Seltzer’s struggles to reconcile himself to his position as a spokesman for atheism in an America where atheists are viewed with a mixture of suspicion and outright rage. Much of the time is taken up in wistful retrospection, as we see Seltzer develop his ideas under the aegis of his mentor Jonas Elias Klapper. So the book is a kind of double campus novel, with Seltzer the academic looking back on his time as Setlzer the student.

Goldstein’s novel reminded me of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. The story of Seltzer and his romantic and professional quandaries frames a series of theological discourses just as Sophie’s World attempted to illuminate the history of philosophy through the story of a young girl. But Gaarder’s book admitted that it was using this trick, whereas Goldstein attempts to pass 36 Arguments for the Existence of God off as a kind of Magic Mountain, a novel where the philosophical and pedagogical designs of the author become the story, and the characters each an exemplar of certain traits related to these designs.

The book is redeemed by its postscript. Goldstein is by trade a philosopher and she sensibly decides to include a copy of Seltzer’s fictional text at the back of her novel. It is a wonderfully sane, measured piece of theological investigation. Calmer and clearer than Dawkins, it reminded me of AC Grayling’s kind, avuncular voice, never dismissing arguments out of hand, but gently steering the reader towards revelation. For this alone, it is worth buying the book.

Oh, and to come back to the blurbs. Goldstein – who is the wife of the critic Steven Pinker – has astonishingly effusive quotes from her friends Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens and Jonathan Safran Foer on her paperback. Quotes from the press, however, are thinly-spread. It’s a shame, as I could envisage this book doing well, with readers persevering with the occasionally awkward passages and forced prose for the sake of the bright and charming voice that sits beneath it; or buying the book for the post-script and reading the novel as a kind of amuse-bouche. But if Safran Foer tells me a novel is “a joy to read” or McEwan says that Goldstein is “a rare find”, it sets the book up for a fall.

Any Cop?: Buy it for the post-script, or read it without reading the cover first. It’s a clever, flawed novel backed by a fabulous and thought-provoking investigation of theological thought.

Alex Preston

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