Monday, October 14, 2013

The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow

From the outset it is clear that James Morrow’s The Philosopher’s Apprentice is tackling matters theological. The principal characters are the three sisters Londa, Donya and Yolly Sabacthani. Sabacthani is a Hebrew word, most famously featuring in Matthew 27, describing Jesus’s despair on the cross:

Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'
So we are in the territory of Godlessness. The Sabachthani girls, we later discover, are manufactured clones, created in a laboratory and not quite human. Their travails become increasingly severe, tracking as they do the foibles of humanity and the ruinous consequences of our thirst for technological advancement. Stylistically, The Philosopher’s Apprentice owes much to Walker Percy: its spirited satirical approach, knowing humour and brisk narrative style are strongly reminiscent of Percy’s dystopian novels and the self-effacing narrator, the philosopher Ambrose Mason, recalls Lancelot Andrewes Lamar in Percy's Lancelot, although he is, of course, massively less unpleasant. However, where Percy, a Catholic writer, used his satires to attack the hubris of modernity in trying to establish an immanent heaven-on-earth, Morrow’s approach to rationalism appears, in the early stages of the novel at least, to be more positive. Sadly, it doesn’t stay that way.

The novel begins with Ambrose being hired to work in a secret enclave in Florida Keys by a mysterious molecular geneticist, Edwina Sabachthani. His role is to tutor Edwina’s daughter, Londa who, after an accident, appears to have lost all moral conscience. Ambrose sets about giving his new charge a thorough grounding in western philosophical thought, from Plato to Heidegger’s dasein via the Sermon on the Mount and a powerful relationship is established between the two. Gradually, the story grows ever stranger. Their retreat, initially edenic, becomes increasingly like the island of Doctor Moreau, with sentient plants and a talking, winged iguana. Unknown to her, Londa has a sibling, a younger sister called Donya who lives in a separate area of the island, with her own personal ethics tutor in tow. All is not what it seems. A dark underbelly begins to emerge, encompassing genetic engineering and that ultimate in human hubris – the artificial creation of life itself. A third sister is revealed. Time passes. The Sabachthani Sisters mature into apparently fine and principled young women. Londa, in particular, becomes a world-famous scientist in her own right, establishing her own scientific institution and utopian community, Themisopolis, through which she makes stunning breakthroughs in the treatment of disease. Themisopolis becomes a blueprint for the secular community of humanity. This, however, leads to a showdown with religious fundamentalists of the Catholic persuasion, involving zombied “immaculoids” brought to life from dead foetuses and instilled with a deadly sense of holy indignation at their fate and a hatred of the parents who caused it. From here the plot spirals dizzyingly out of control as Morrow uses his broadbrush satire to explore complex areas of human ethics and morality. It almost works but doesn’t quite.

Morrow is on record as being an advocate of rationality and the Age of Reason, and the early stages of The Philosopher’s Apprentice certainly reveal such a sensibility. The novel appears to be a useful rejoinder to the gloomy anti-humanism of much contemporary conservative thought. Somewhere along the line, though, something goes wrong and, by the novel’s end, instead of the humanistic glory of a Kurt Vonnegut novel we are back firmly in the worlds of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor or Cormac McCarthy, in which the flaws of humanity are writ large and inevitably come to overwhelm us. Londa’s decency is compromised, then utterly ruined. The corrolary is clear: we, too, fine human beings that we are, may have grand ideals and noble intentions but those are not ever enough to combat the simultaneous flaws which inhabit our psyches. Having done so much to dismiss the conservative litany of criticism of humanity, it seems unfortunate that, in the end, Morrow begins to occupy similarly totalising territory himself. Yes, he presents complex arguments and the moral quandary Ambrose is left with at the end is illuminating, but it doesn’t quite gel. His characters remain bloodless and artificial. They never aspire to the heights of humanity of a Kilgore Trout or Rudolph Waltz or even Candide and Pangloss, and this is the great weakness of the novel. In the end, we are not privileged with a sense of caring for these characters. That makes their fate too easily palatable. Our sense of outrage is never invoked as it should. We are not shaken out of complacency the way a good satire should.


Jim H. said...

Thanks for a thoughtful review. Do you know "Never Let Me Go" by Ishiguro? That might make a fine comparative as well, especially when we get into the issue of what it is that ultimately makes us human.

Tom Conoboy said...

I read "Never Let Me Go" about six or seven years ago when I was doing my Creative Writing course and thought it extraordinary. I'd been pretty unsure of Ishiguro until then but that convinced me he's a genius. I did do a brief review of it here:

The other one it puts me in mind of is Michel Faber's Under The Skin. It covers similar territory, but far less effectively. I reviewed that here:

I haven't re-read this review but I suspect I'm being slightly unfair on Faber, who is definitely a very good writer. But I seriously didn't like the book. Unlike the Ishiguro.