- After the End
What happens after the end? This question underlies all three books reviewed here, each of which deals with the relations among eschatology, trauma, and the contemporary novel. Whereas Bradley and Tate critique atheist novelists who have written after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bennett analyzes stories told by fictional dead people. Grausam’s stakes are the highest: he asks how the threat of nuclear war and human extinction during the Cold War affected US novelists’ work.
Bradley and Tate give away their bias on their first page, in the phrase “New Atheist cult.” In writing anti-religious manifestoes, they argue, atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have, ironically, founded a religion. But the loaded word “cult” hints at this book’s major weakness: although hard-hitting and lively, it is frequently tendentious and hyperbolic, often succumbing to the same reductivism of which they accuse their targets. This flaw is especially true of the chapters on Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, [End Page 117] both written by Bradley; Tate’s contributions—on Philip Pullman and Salman Rushdie—are more temperate. Both authors, however, tend to treat novels not as narratives but as arguments.
The authors score some definite hits. The most telling is their charge that Dawkins and writers like him caricature Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms and respond by erecting their own brand of Atheist fundamentalism (4–5). While attacking unverified beliefs, Dawkins’s cohorts present a creed “overflowing with...unverified pieties”: a Neo-Lucretian reverence for nature, a Comtean positivism, a Hegelian historical teleology, and a Judaeo-Christian belief in the significance of humans (7).
The authors also charge that the New Atheists don’t question their own belief in the transcendent value of art, especially the novel. Hence, Bradley and Tate argue, what fills the place of religion in McEwan’s recent novels is “belief in family, love, scientific progress and, most importantly, art” (16). In an interview, McEwan stated that novel-reading generates empathy—the basis of morality—because we learn from them “what it’s like to be someone else” (23). Yet in Atonement he traces budding novelist Briony’s inability to imagine being someone else; if Bradley and Tate wanted a fictional example to show the dangers of the novelistic imagination, they needed to look no further. However, in this way Atonement rebuts their claim that McEwan’s novels are little more than manifestoes for art’s humanizing power.
Yet Bradley and Tate are right to raise eyebrows at the rather ridiculous climax of Saturday, in which a would-be murderer is pacified by listening to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The authors pass over the fact that McEwan’s faith in art is itself Arnoldian; far from radical, it is nineteenth century through and through. It’s difficult, then, to see how McEwan’s faith in his own art form constitutes a threat, and even more difficult to discern why it prompts such vituperation.
If in their discussion of McEwan the authors focus on novels, in their excoriation of Martin Amis they concentrate on his recent nonfiction. They write, “For Amis...the cult of the literary represents the acceptable face of religion because...it worships a transcendental deity that actually exists” (37). Bradley and Tate are right to take Amis to task for his claims that Muslims and terrorists are impervious to reason, and for responding to stereotypes with more stereotypes. They are also correct to criticize Amis’s blurring of the line between aesthetics and politics, as when he paints Islamists as nothing more than sexually repressed lovers of cliché. Yet the authors acknowledge that Amis’s New Atheist novel “has yet to be written” (49), which prompts one to ask why this chapter exists in a book...