I’ve been a fan of James Morrow’s work since 1995, when, in a small Edmonton bookstore on Whyte Avenue (this one) I stumbled upon a copy of the novel Only Begotten Daughter. At the time, I was just starting to become comfortable with having left the religion I’d been raised in, and admitted that, yes, indeed, I was an atheist. Morrow’s book reminded me that atheists still live in a world filled with people who are theists, and whose myths and beliefs (and fantasies) affect us all profoundly — but also that atheists could have something to say about those myths, beliefs, and fantasies.
I haven’t managed to track down all of Morrow’s work, though I have read a fair bit of it: Towing Jehovah (which, did you know, has been translated into Korean?) and Blameless in Abaddon were both wonderful, though I think Towing Jehovah worked better for me. (Eternal Footman, the last of that “Godhead Trilogy,” sits waiting on my shelf, probably to be read this fall, if not this week.) Likewise, This is the Way the World Ends and Bible Stories for Adults were both very entertaining and thoughtful.
So when I saw the gorgeous cover (by John Picacio) of The Cat’s Pajamas & Other Stories at WorldCon in 2009, I made sure to snag a copy of the hardback and stow it in my luggage. It’s taken me a couple of years to finally get to it, and, sadly, I’m kicking myself for not having read it sooner.
Morrow kicks ass — but mainly the laziest of asses — and takes no prisoners in this book: his satire targets all sorts of philosophical inanities, and while a certain skewering of the familiar organized religion of the West — mostly Christianity — runs through many of these stories, it works out in a way that feels distinct to me from the way he did it in the Godhead trilogy, something worth noting in part because these stories go as far back as 1988 (in one case; the rest date from 2000 or later).
I think my own favorite from the collection is “Auspicious Eggs,” which features a thoughtful working-out of the notion that (potentially) reproductive sexuality is the only sort worth existing: besides a copulatorium for people to, er, visit when they are primed for reproductive sex but their partners are not, there is also a horrifying ritual known as “terminal baptism” — which involves the combined baptism and murder of any infants born such that they will be unable to reproduce. There is no question that these ideas are insane perversions: the question is why we do not recognize other practices and beliefs (especially the violence of anti-abortion protesters/activists, the opposition to birth control (and certain Christians’ refusal to allow it to be sold to customers in their stores), all of which are built from the same theological principles as equally perverse. It’s a lie to say such evils as are seen in Morrow’s story are unseen in the world: my own Quebecois grandmother, after birthing double-digits of children and being told by a doctor that it was time to stop — that she risked death if she bore another — was pressured by a priest to go on ahead and get knocked up again anyway, because risking death in childbirth was much less terrible than risking hell by having her tubes tied. Or so I was told once.
“The War of the Worldviews” is another very entertaining story, and one that — like much of Morrow’s work — focuses on the debate between scientific rationalism and religion. Morrow sets the debate as the basis of a war played out in New York City between two distinct races of Martians hailing from the planet’s moons. The solution, of course, can only be carried out by a ragtag band of schizophrenics, and why not: it’s a schizophrenic culture that Morrow is satirizing.
A number of pieces are written in the form of scripts — either for film or stage, it’s not clear excepting that it seems apparent they would work equally well in either medium, but perhaps were written expressly for neither. (I suspect Morrow was just experimenting with the form, but intended the texts to be experienced on the page.) Of these, I am torn between “Director’s Cut” (an account of the full, original film version of the Ten Commandments, including all the horrific and nasty stuff that modern fans of the book of Genesis like to leave out of their accounts — not just plagues, but rapine and murder), and “Come Back, Dr. Sarcophagus” (which is a sort of exultant tribute to the monster movies of old, as well as an entertaining little character piece).
Some have described this book as uneven, and I’m not sure whether I agree: I did inhale it in the space of four hours or so, which is unusually quick for me. There are stories that stick out in my mind more, and some that stick out less — a few, I had to flip to the beginning to recall. There were certainly stories that made me uncomfortable, such as “Wisdom of the Skin” and “Fucking Justice” — both of which involve some unsettling sexual themes.
(And indeed, the whole book seems to be more sexually themed than Morrow’s earlier works; not a complaint, just an observation — sex seems to up a lot more here than in some of his other books I’ve read.)
But I don’t think being discomfited by fiction is really a bad thing… indeed, sometimes it’s interesting to see where your comfort zones lie, and to ask yourself why. I’ve seen people issue warnings about internet postings, labeling them with “trigger warnings” and I’m not comfortable with the idea we need to have disclaimers about potential comfort zone violations in stories. “Fucking Justice” probably pushes the farthest, and I would rather not ruin it by saying how it does so, except to ponder about the ethics of satire. It seems to me I’m willing to read on as Morrow’s characters (major and minor, unnamed ones too) suffer all kinds of horrible fates, in a way I wouldn’t be if someone less funny and less sharp-wittedly right about the world were writing them.
I think the story that strikes me the hardest, at this moment, is “Isabella of Castile Answers Her Mail” — a tale that slashes apart the silliness of the idea that America’s founding by religionists ought to have any bearing on its present state. (As well as slashing apart the idea that the Age of Exploration, and the Age of Enslaving Vast Numbers of Non-Whites and Claiming their Lands for Europe, was really a religious enterprise.) What happens when Christopher Columbus, sailing for the Far East in 1492, arrives in modern-day New York City, and begins interacting with the natives? It’s not just your standard time-travel gags about how much he misunderstands at the core of this story — it’s also, more eerily, about how much he does understand and gets right.
One could say the same of Morrow himself, which is why I keep coming back to his work, albeit one book at a time. But the next will have to be sooner, sooner… and so many options await.