The Eternal Footman
by James Morrow
Published by Harcourt Brace
359 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Not Dead Enough
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
The Eternal Footman concludes James Morrow's Godhead trilogy on a theologically perplexing note. In the first volume, 1994's Towing Jehovah, God dies and his two-mile-long corpse drops into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Decaying angels, with no divine force to sustain their existence, arrange to have the remains towed to a glacial tomb in the Arctic. In the second volume, Blameless in Abaddon (1996), God's corpse is removed from its resting place and put to trial for the deity's crimes against humanity. The first sentence of The Eternal Footman reveals that "God's skull went into geosynchronous orbit above the Western hemisphere." These scenarios obviously set the stage for theological high jinks and juicy satire, but with each succeeding volume the author's focus seems to have blurred.
James Morrow's saga of religious satire is very reader friendly. Each volume, although undeniably an integral part of the larger tapestry of the trilogy, is constructed to stand on its own. To enjoy and appreciate The Eternal Footman, for example, one need not have read Towing Jehovah -- winner of the World Fantasy Award -- or Blameless in Abaddon. (I encourage readers, however, to investigate both of these excellent novels.)
There are two principal protagonists in The Eternal Footman. Gerard Korty, a sculptor of religious art who has been in retreat on a deserted island with his wife (and, consequently, is ignorant of the existence of God's corpse and of the events that ensued from the deity's demise), and Nora Burkhart, a schoolteacher turned flower-truck driver with a passion for mythology. Nora's son, Kevin, falls sick with "death awareness" -- demonic doppelgangers invade the lives and/or bodies of their victims, subjugating them to various psychological and physical ills -- a plague that has taken over the West, and believed to be caused by the orbiting divine skull. Gerard is commissioned by the Vatican to create a reliquary for God's bones. The Vatican corrupts the vision of Gerard's creation and he is subsequently commissioned by a megalomaniac psychologist to carve graven images of a new pantheon of gods designed, in conjunction with a new drug, to cure the West of the plague by weakening the doppelgangers. Nora's quest to cure her son eventually brings her to the temple of this new religion, where the storylines intertwine.
The Eternal Footman is a delightful read. Wit and intelligence abound throughout the text. Surprising ideas take the characters through unexpected and intriguing incidents. The doppelgangers drop uproariously tasteless death jokes with almost every breath. And, in the final section of the book, a vision of a possible (albeit sadly unlikely), compassionate, rational and humanly imperfect utopia unfurls. The Eternal Footman is dense in the best of ways: fascinating ideas, quirky characters, sinuous plots. And yet as the book concluded, I found myself left with several reservations.
A few details were left dangling uncomfortably. For example, Gerard sculpts the new pantheon out of a strange meteor that crashed in Mexico. So much is made of the sculptural properties of this meteor, that I couldn't help but feel that it was a set-up for a revelation or connection that was forgotten or dropped without revising the now unnecessary foreshadowing. Also, it is explicitly stated that only the West is affected by the plague. The fate of the rest of the world is conspicuously absent from the text. The plague very thoroughly devastates the Western hemisphere. How does the rest of the world react? Are there power struggles? Are there east to west research expeditions? Why doesn't some paranoid country nuke the West in an attempt to eradicate the demonic doppelgangers? These questions, and more like them, needed to be addressed. Morrow imbues his creation with so much convincing detail that details about the Eastern Hemisphere scream their absence.
My biggest problems, however, are with the not-dead-enough corpse of Jehovah and the series' confusing stance towards the patriarchal deity who has over the years instructed his followers to sexually mutilate their male infants, ordered the extermination of whole peoples and generally tortured his "creation" -- at least that's what the "Good Book" says.
I was tickled by Towing Jehovah's depiction of a world forced to face the death of the Judeo-Christian god, forced to wrestle with the theological and practical implications of his physical, gendered, humanoid, dead body. Everyone from Catholics to feminist Wiccans to secular atheists to religious Jews had to question the basic tenets of their relationship to reality. Towing Jehovah was boisterously blasphemous and spared no targets.
Blameless in Abaddon catalogued atrocities that God unleashed or that his omnipotence could have prevented. This Jobian satire was great fun, although I did feel that the author had, this time, pulled his punches a bit. And, worst of all, God wasn't quite dead. Life still lingered (barely) in the giant, partially decomposed corpse. By the end of the book, though, it looked like the corpse had had it for good.
After the near-absolute dissolution of the divine corpse in the early sequences of The Eternal Footman, one would think, notwithstanding the divine skull's mysterious orbital behavior, that the world would be finally rid of God. Not quite. There's the matter of the divine intestines, who converse with Nora. And Kevin's doppelganger says: "Evidently the Almighty holds [Kevin] in high regard... His decision to deprive your son of adulthood..." Present tense. And the implication that God is pulling all the strings, has always done so. This implication should be unforgivably inculpating for the "dead" deity. Yet, despite the fact that it means that God again recently slaughtered millions (via "death awareness"), he gets off the hook. He's presented as being kind of a nice guy for abdicating since he saw that he was doing such a poor job of it all. It's even implied that his abdication is part of a great compassionate scheme. Despite the novel's ostensible championing of the desirability of a godless society and of the vast potentials of mortal acts, there are grumblings about a "God beyond God," and Jehovah seems all too responsible for the good that ultimately comes out this story.
Just what is James Morrow saying? It stinks of that old Christian dogma: God's benevolent ways are mysterious and unfathomable -- a facile excuse that, evidently, Blameless in Abaddon, with its trial of God, failed to completely destroy. It's unclear how aware the author is of its insidious presence in The Eternal Footman. Gerard's final work is a gigantic sculpture of a human brain, hollowed out and adorned with examples of artistic, intellectual, and compassionate human achievements, to inspire humanity towards the greatness that it all too often falls very short of. Gerard explicitly means his sculpture to express humanity's potential self-reliance and how humanity must outgrow its need for a divine overseer to reach maturity. Morrow also seems to want it to express that very same thing, yet the dead deity's indirect and direct interventions sabotage its metaphorical effectiveness.
In the end, the Godhead trilogy wasn't the no-holds-barred blasphemous epic that Towing Jehovah seemed to promise. As enjoyable as The Eternal Footman may have been for its story, prose, wit, characters and density of invention, its muddled theist/atheist stance dangerously undermines its premises -- and that of the trilogy as a whole. | January 2000