Monday, October 10, 2005

Book #34: The Preservationist by David Maine

The Preservationist is an odd novel: a rather modern-naturalistic retelling of the story of Noah (known here as Noe), complete with odd miracles (or incredible coincidences, sure), as told by Noah and his family. The story of the ark and the flood has an unreal fairy-tale quality that I've glossed over in my own head due to its pure familiarity (not that I'm saying that I believe in the story - I'm saying that I've never really thought about how odd it is, just how impossible).

Maine's stories vary in and out of first-person (strangely enough, it seems in my memory that only the parts of the tale from Noe's perspective are told third-person), handling Yahweh's occasional conversations with Noe and a few experience unlikely enough to be miracles with a deadpan nonchalance. Maine lingers over the details of Noe's attempt to build the ark (fortunately, his second son Cham - or Ham in most English-language Bibles - has learned shipbuilding skills) and to collect the animals (he sends his daughters-in-law North and South after animals with no money or provisions) and the somewhat hellish experience of travelling in a floating zoo. Characters ask themselves why they are building the ark, why Yahweh has chosen to flood the world, and, most importantly, why they survive when others die.

Maine also captures the primitiveness of the time. Noe and his family hardly have sophisticated ideas about sex, which happens all the time, and are aware, though just barely, of their similarity to animals in that regard. The ark is full of shit, which must be carried up to the rail and thrown overboard constantly, although the deck is also covered in shit - bird shit, almost an inch thick. Noe, who is 600 years old (in a world only 1000 years old, at least as far as the characters are concerned), tells stories about the disappearance of the hunter-gatherers. Noe rejoices in the drowning people (although others in his family are traumatized by the children he refuses to help) around the ark as the world turns into a giant ocean. When Noe gives an order, his children don't even hesitate before obeying.

All in all, a brilliant novel. It most reminded me of Jim Crace's Quarantine, which put a humanist face on Jesus's ordeal in the desert, a story in which, like in the Noah story, few of the nitty-gritty details appear. Unlike Maine's novel, in Crace's book God does not appear, nor are there any unlikely circumstances/miracles. However, both allow for the ambiguous possibility of the Old World God acting directly on the world as much as the possibility that people read miracles into coincidence. Admittedly, the events in Maine's book are far less likely to be anything but actions of an angry god, but Crace's book (and I should point out that Crace is an avowed atheist) ends with an image of a possibly Already-Risen Jesus following some of the other characters across the desert back to civilization. Maine also provides a certain sense of why people reject the capricious Yahweh, why Yahweh forms his covenant with Noe (not to destroy the earth again, as symbolized by the rainbow, just so), and lays the groundwork for how evolutionary thinking will eventually change the way that people understand history.

Maine has a second book out, about Adam and Eve. I intend to read that one, too, with due diligence.


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