Morrow, James. 1999. The Eternal Footman. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Reviewed 29 February 2000

The Eternal Footman (cover)

In the acknowledgements, James Morrow claims that The Eternal Footman was conceived "as a self- contained story [whose] heritage stretches back through [his] two previous novels about the Corpus Dei. . . . While these three books can be negotiated in any order, some readers may prefer to experience it as an epic, sequentially." Not exactly.

First, to disabuse you of some easily made (yet highly erroneous) assump- tions based on the acknowledgements, the flap copy, and several imperceptive reviews, this trilogy is not an epic, and cannot rationally be read as such. "Epic" has a specific literary meaning, and these books do not fall even close to that meaning. "Epic" implies a certain continuity of character, gradualism in thematic development, and thematic focus absent—on purpose—from Morrow's trilogy. "Menippean satire" is not "epic;" never the twain shall meet. Neither, though, is Morrow's work either a simple descent into nihilism or a harsh rejection of faith; rather the opposite. Most of the reviews that I've seen over the years of contemporary satire—at least, reviews written by reviewers who do not display the telltale scars of a classical education—miss a critical point: that the object of a good satire is seldom the same as its subject. (Conflating the two is itself nihilistic.) With this in mind, where are we going with The Eternal Footman?

The subject of Morrow's satire is the literal death of God. In some ways, this is a step beyond where Nietzsche was willing to go in Also Sprach Zarathustra, which limited itself to the figurative death of God. The object of Morrow's satire is a little harder to define, which is as it should be. An easily limned satire is usually a weak or lazy one, and often descends into mere parody. (Parody can be tremendously entertaining, but it's not the same thing.) Instead, what Morrow shows is a variety of transitions in both the object and the method of faith, although the authorial voice never finally approves of anything.

At this point, a classical education comes into play. In a sense, this is the weakest aspect of The Eternal Footman: virtually everything carries the weight of a symbolic or historical crossreferent or three. Toward the middle of the book, the referents begin to outweight the narrative, although they are fortunately pared away in the last quarter. Most post-Edwardian satire keeps its referents much closer to home than, say, comparative semitic religions and the Council of Damnia. Gaddis's masterpiece The Recognitions keeps the object of its satire and the source of its referents in the post-Renaissance arts; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow keeps the object of its satire and the source of its referents in post-Victorian social mores; and so on. Morrow's erudition goes just a shade too far for my comfort in a fictional context—and I do bear the scars of that classical education. A reader who does not will end up tremendously confused by all of the double, triple, quadruple meanings. Morrow's prose itself is not "portentious," which would have been the downfall of this book as a worthwhile endeavour; nonetheless, it will not be easy going.

In the end, this is the biggest barrier between Morrow and the reader who expects "traditional" fiction. Morrow is not telling a story so much as engaging in an abstract dialog through a narrative structure. That's not bad; it's just different, and beyond the expectation (or, sadly, the skills or inclinations) of most American readers. The specific incidents are individually very entertaining, but the reader must work very hard to make a whole out of them. That whole is necessarily individual to the reader, and because no reader is going to catch all of the referents, it is also necessarily somewhat less than the sum of its parts. First-class parts they may be, but . . .

Overall rating: 4 stars
Good.
An entertaining romp through a classical education. While The Eternal Footman is neither as fresh nor as pointed as the previous books in the trilogy, and it certainly relies upon more-obscure referents, it is nonetheless a rewarding book. It will almost certainly not be to the taste of most readers, although the exceptionally fine taste of those of you who read the Savage Reviews will differ (one hopes). Not quite as important as I think the author hoped for, it is nonetheless a very pointed example of postmodern Menippean satire. For that reason alone, the speculative fiction community will probably ignore it in favor of more space-opera trash. Unfortunately, "comparative religion" seems to extend only as far as Star Wars, and I think I've made my evaluation of that crap fairly clear by now.


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