If ever there were a day deserving to be called—secularly—a “day of reckoning,” this would be the day for Owen Ross, the 47-year-old atheist narrator and principal character of Jon Mills’ provocative first novel, When God Wept
. For it is on this fateful day of his divorce from a disastrous 19-year marriage that he’s compelled by forces deep within to re-visit, re-live, and re-evaluate unresolved traumas from his past.
Long estranged from his wife, Owen’s divorce does liberate a part of him. Yet he must also find a way to free himself from the many negative assumptions and beliefs engendered by a lonely, emotionally deprived childhood—as well as an assortment of personal tragedies. Highlighted among these misfortunes are his three-year-old self searching the household frantically for his mother, only to discover her hanging from a bathroom curtain rod; and the heartwrenching death of his beloved six-month-old daughter, a devastating tragedy from which he’s never really recovered—especially since it was she who’d supplied his life with meaning that, sadly, he couldn’t provide on his own.
Owen is a hospital psychologist and psychoanalyst—as is the novel’s renowned author (Ph.D., Psy.D., ABPP), who has written or edited over 100 publications, including 13 books. Though not nearly as prolific as his creator, Owen (in analysis himself) is working on a second book on trauma (obviously to better comprehend his own trauma-shaped identity). And his core defense against the many hardships he’s endured has been to detach himself from his feelings—which, ironically, mirrors the self-defeating ego-protectiveness of some of his patients, whose torturous, self-flagellating sessions he poignantly narrates.
Of his own emotions, he candidly admits that they’re “in exile under the guise of control.” And the anguish and despair characterizing so much of the novel’s disheartened tone is curiously juxtaposed with Owen’s shameful and self-humiliating confession that, frankly, he’s lost all genuine caring for others . . . as well as for himself. In fact, the central themes in the novel are clearly rooted in basic existential tenets and starkly reminiscent of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, and his atheistic/humanistic regard for humankind’s eternal predicaments. And in this regard, it should be noted that in Mills’ Acknowledgments, he openly admits his intellectual debt not only to Sartre but also to many other acclaimed thinkers in Western philosophy and literature—including Bataille, Camus, Freud, Hegel, Heidegger, William James, Jung, Kant, Kierkegaard, Lecan, Nietzsche, and Winnicott.
Mills’ fiction revolves around how the narrator, through his various desperate attempts to recapture both his empathy and authenticity, finally retrieves the sense of vitality, meaning, and purpose that he’s lost. Which has led him to feel lost—utterly adrift in a formless, aimless existence of his own unconscious making.
But until the work’s conclusion—suffused in paradox, yet curiously life-affirming—the book focuses on the narrator’s obsessive ruminations on the meaninglessness of his existence and his all-consuming apathy. In the opening chapter, he reflects on “the dismal familiarity of my chronic discontent” and how “all traces of concern for others had been purged,” going on to confess: “It is in me . . . this filth, infecting my consciousness with a caustic bile. All commitment toward others had been regurgitated, my obligations effaced. . . .” It’s transparent that feeling dead inside, he’s incapable of summoning up any real fellow feeling.. Aware that to be truly concerned about those he meets—and professionally treats—he must be able to personalize them, he comes to realize that in his systematic retreat from his own pain he’s ended up objectifying all of humanity.
Although Owen’s father, an eminent classics professor, is a devout Catholic, religious belief offers him no solace. And his position on religion generally borders on the hostile. Skeptical empiricist that he is, he sees people of faith as “worship[ing] a wish.” For personally, he can locate no evidence of a supreme being. Sent to parochial schools, brought up on Catholic doctrine, he observes that he still occasionally talks to God, but (he sardonically adds) “God never listens.” And elsewhere he muses, brooding over his daughter’s untimely death, “If God really did make all this, I wonder if he ever wept?”
As an alternative to the glib reassurances of meaning offered by the church (for he declares that “science [is his] religion”), Owen eventually advances his own existential/humanistic stance toward what can be affirmed in the face of human suffering and a seemingly indifferent universe. “Only one thing is for certain,” he proposes. “You have this life and it’s up to you to decide how to live it, how to fulfill it, how to be. We make choices and no matter how trite or careless they may seem to be, they are still our choices—in this moment, in this time. I believe that the most fulfilling life is one that is lived as authentically as possible.”
Examine, too, this complementary passage: “Perhaps it doesn’t matter what you think or say, or what your principles are, or even what you stand for, the only thing that counts is what you do. . . . The mark of a successful life is being able to look at yourself squarely in the face and honestly ask whether you have made an impact on other peoples’ lives. . . .”
And finally, consider the narrator’s self-transformative message elucidated toward the very end of the novel: “Life is an either-or, either this option or the next—you cannot have it both ways. . . . Reality demands something from us all—to care, to forgive, to live—How dare you demand something from reality?! It was time for me to make a new choice [to overcome his existential angst—and ennui] and stop trying to elude that pervasive, tormenting question: What does it mean to be? . . . While some things in life may be understood, I concluded that the riddle of Being can never be fully known, only appreciated as a process of becoming. . . . As a purpose without a purpose—without a cause, life is bound to paradox.” And, in culmination, “Death gives life meaning, it makes existence that much more of a priority, to be lived and relived.”
I’ve quoted so liberally here to give the reader a broader sense of the gravitas of this unusual fictional undertaking. It’s a deeply psychological/philosophical novel as penetrating as it is thought-provoking. But I need to add that although the work, encompassing a critical, event-crammed day in the narrator’s life, is inundated with such abstract, contemplative introspection, it also includes a concrete, absorbing plot; a selective but intriguing mix of compellingly portrayed characters; and the narrator’s intense love for an unhappily married female colleague (long his personal and professional confidante). Beyond these more “novelistic” elements, there’s a dramatic progression that builds throughout the novel right up to its stunning—and totally unexpected—conclusion.
Though, frankly, it would be unconscionable to disclose the shocking, and utterly unpredictable, ending to When God Wept, let me at least suggest that it simultaneously undermines and affirms everything that’s happened, and been meditated upon, earlier. Which is to say that the extraordinary, absurdist—and powerful—climax is steeped in irony and paradox. And yet the novel’s entire dramatic, thematic, and ideational structure richly validates this most unorthodox of finales: A finish that brilliantly resolves everything . . . and nothing.
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© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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