Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about God—or at least the God who wanders through the background of Simon Rich’s sophomore novel What in God’s Name. He googles himself. He dreams of opening an Asian fusion restaurant. He types with two fingers.
And he knows exactly what the non-believers say about him behind his back. God even tried to read Richard Dawkins’s bestseller The God Delusion, “but it hurt his feelings so much he had to stop after just a few pages.”
In short, he’s a loveable oaf in the Homer Simpson mould, only a deity. And to readers of Rich’s two brilliant collections of short humour pieces, he’s also 100% recognizable. Like his 2010 debut novel, Elliot Allagash, What in God’s Name takes a previously explored subject near and dear to its author’s heart—in this case, unlimited power (in Allagash it was unlimited wealth)—and stretches, stretches, stretches it. The result, unfortunately, is also the same: a joke that overstays its welcome.
I’ve already alluded to a big part of the problem, which is that God himself is only a peripheral figure. Instead we spend most of our time with Craig and Eliza, two nondescript angels who work in the lowly Department of Miracles. Thanks to their creator’s distractible nature, he becomes bored with the Earth, and decides to destroy it. Unless, that is, Craig and Eliza can use their powers of miracle-creation to make two schlubby mortals fall in love first. Why? Because it’d be funny. The truth is God doesn’t really care either way; to even get his attention on the matter, Craig has to promise to invest in his fusion-restaurant idea.
You can see how the comic potential is already building: a supposedly omnipotent God is too lazy to get off the couch, while his angels have a bottomless toolkit with which to work their magic. And to his credit, Rich does spend a little time exploring the logic of this heaven—sorry, Heaven Inc.—he’s created. It’s paradise, but employees still have to pay for the vending machine. And Craig is a workaholic who rarely leaves the office. “Heaven was so vast,” Rich writes, “yet his entire life took place within a single square acre of it.”
We never see the true possibilities of such a system, either. Everything God does is a treat—the only prayers he’s interested in answering are field-goal related—but he doesn’t do enough. Most of the novel takes place in a row of cubicles, cleaning up after his few select messes, instead of gleefully creating new ones. Craig and Eliza, meanwhile, can’t even do whatever they want to create miracles: they’re stuck with subtly manipulating the laws of physics so the humans don’t figure out what’s going on. So how do they orchestrate the first meeting between their star-crossed lovers? By short-circuiting their iPhones, of course.
More distressingly, with this book Rich moves further away from the rapid-fire comedic voice of his short humour, and further into the role of novelist. Which is fine in theory, except that Rich is not a good novelist. His style has always been extremely plain, but when stripped of most of the actual jokes, it just becomes weak writing.
I wish it weren’t so. Rich, a Brooklynite who has written for Saturday Night Live, the New Yorker, and Pixar, is still hilarious when he wants to be. (See his most recent Shouts & Murmurs piece, the autobiography of a condom.) I just hope he remembers to save some of that comic juice for his next novel. Longer doesn’t have to mean less funny.
Reagan Arthur, 240 pp., $26.99, hardcoverJul 31, 2012