Philip Pullman's latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is part of Canongate's "Myth Series." Each book is a retelling by a well-known author of a well-known myth. So far, we've had, among others, Margaret Atwood on Penelope/Odysseus, Jeanette Winterson on Atlas and Alexander McCall Smith on the Celtic god of love, Angus.
In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, we have what is both a perfect and perverse pairing: Philip Pullman and the "myth" of Jesus Christ. The pairing is perfect because Pullman is, in his work, clearly fascinated by both the lofty idea of "god" and the crude fact of religion. The pairing is perverse because, well, Pullman is an atheist. In his best-known series of books ( The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), there is no "god" save for an angel (called "The Authority") who poses as "god" and (kindly, frail and ancient) dies in a gust of wind.
This tension between what Pullman evidently takes to be an amusing idea (benevolent dictatorship by a supreme being) and the horrifying use of that idea (by churches and ruthless men) is at the heart of The Good Man Jesus. Here we find Jesus of Nazareth split into two brothers, twins born to the virgin Mary and the reluctant bridegroom, Joseph. One twin is named Jesus, and the other Christ. Jesus is resolutely human, fallible, principled, a troublesome and headstrong child who is his father's favourite. Christ, on the other hand, is weak, otherworldly, needy, a writer. He is a mama's boy, proud of his more forthright and courageous brother, but unable to keep up with Jesus when it comes to will, belief, piety and depth of thought.
For the first two-thirds of this short novel, things play out as you might imagine. You are meant (I think) to like Jesus and you do, with some reservations. You are meant to mistrust Christ and, with similar reservations, you do. But Pullman isn't Manichean. It isn't a matter of "good" here and "evil" over there. The book's title is ironic. Jesus's resolve is counterpoised against his soul-blistering and church-damning doubts in the garden of Gethsemane. Christ's willingness to betray his brother is weighed against his sincere (even moving) desire to do good. In effect, Pullman has written a version of the passion in which Jesus and Judas are brothers, physically similar, necessary each to the other in every way. Together they found what we know as the church.
Although Pullman is a great choice for this story, the question remains: Has he succeeded in doing anything new or interesting with one of our civilization's most compelling stories? The answer, for me, is: Well, no, not quite. But this short novel's flaws are instructive and kind of fascinating in themselves.
The Good Man Jesus begins with the pace and sense of adventure of a Pullman story. The first 30 pages or so were fun. But after that strong start, Pullman begins to recount, with only minor variations at times, the well-known incidents from the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We get the tale of John the Baptist, the bread and the wine, the Sermon on the Mount and so on.
Yes, Pullman's versions are revisionist. One understands why he chose to recast them. Throughout, he insists on Jesus's humanity. The problem was, for me, that in sticking so closely to the biblical narratives, Pullman brought the Bible constantly to mind. And, as I'm sure he would be the first to agree, he is in no way as powerful or elegant a writer as Lancelot Andrewes and the committee that put together the King James Bible. This was particularly glaring during Pullman's retelling of the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most striking passages in Western literature. Pullman was brave to risk the comparison, true, but - to be kind - it doesn't work in his favour.
There was probably little question that Pullman's version could or would equal that of the King James, but some of the writing here is quite far from Pullman's best. For instance, "The execution of Jesus had come upon them like a thunderbolt out of a blue sky; of all things they had not expected that." (Well, no, one doesn't expect thunderbolts from blue skies, but why the unnecessary and melodramatic "of all things they had not expected that"?)
More surprising are the things that don't quite add up. Pullman is at pains to explain away the miracles, suggesting rational causes for the biblically miraculous. But he allows himself the appearance of an "angel," a being who is interested in founding a church, one who seems to have extraordinary perceptions. At the end of the novel, Pullman partly denies this "stranger" any supernatural agency. He leaves the stranger's nature an open question. Clearly, Pullman wants it both ways. He wants the miraculous and the non-miraculous, angels and non-angels. But this is hypocritical. He tacitly criticizes the Bible for being inconsistent with the known laws of physics, but he exempts his own story from such.
Then there's the matter of how little Pullman actually does with his own premise. Having split Jesus Christ into two beings, one would expect the split to be dramatically active. But both sides of the split are one-dimensional, and there's little tension between them. Jesus is a kind of miserable spokesman for a difficult moral philosophy, while his brother, Christ, is a whining would-be holy man. Neither is particularly compelling or intriguing. And though the penultimate chapters - beginning with Christ's betrayal of his brother Jesus - recover some of the narrative drive of the first pages, the story is not particularly well told.
After all that, it may seem odd to call this a "successful" novel. But I actually think it is, in its way. Despite its flaws, The Good Man Jesus invites another look at the source, at the New Testament. It made me think of the story of Christ as just that: a great story. At times, while reading, I had the pleasurable feeling of two versions of a tale, the original and this one, unfolding at once. (Like looking at one side of a river while walking along the other shore.) In other words, I felt myself involved and implicated, though I wish Philip Pullman had given this another draft.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's collection of essays, Beauty & Sadness, will be published in September.