“I once planned a book which was to consist entirely of dedications,” P.G. Wodehouse quipped at the start of Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, “but abandoned the idea because I could not think of a dedication for it.” Veteran nonfictioneer Mike Bryan’s first novel, The Afterword, hazards a similarly perverse paratextual conceit, but here, for better or worse, the novelist sees it through. The pleasingly palm-sized book purports to be the authorial musings appended to the second edition of “Mike Bryan” ‘s breakaway bestseller The Deity Next Door. The title spells out the premise: A seemingly ordinary Manhattanite, blandly named Blaine, turns out to be the new messiah. Given the bits of plot and religious philosophizing recounted in this distended epilogue, Deity resolves in the mind like a novelization of that Joan Osborne song but sans a monster hook. Too toothless for sustained satire, The Afterword at least manages one slowly dawning joke: that a snoozefest like Deity could perch atop the Times fiction list for 179 weeks—”one more than The Bridges of Madison County.”
Due to Deity‘s absence as a thing of glue and ink—the impossibility of reading it in toto—The Afterword‘s audience must imagine that earlier book, and Bryan conjures a shimmering sense of its arguments and dimensions. The specific flavor will vary from reader to reader, as will opinion of its success or failure. Thus Bryan’s fictional fiction neatly suits his spiritual concerns, reflecting the all too human grasping for sense in the face of a divinity who is less than forthcoming—who is, perhaps, not.
The self-deprecating narrator-novelist readily classifies himself as a one-hit wonder. Not for him to pen are the great novels of faith in despair—Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, say, or Shusako Endo’s Silence. He has neither the “genuine voice and vision” of a Cormac McCarthy nor the hermetic impulse of Salinger. (In the road book Uneasy Rider, the real Bryan breakfasts with the reclusive McCarthy—and petulantly refuses to spill the beans.) Buzzed by his success, frank in disclosing his limitations and motives, Bryan is anything but silent. At best, he approximates Nicholson Baker, at once breezy and willing to consider every angle of a theory. (A nicely developed passage in which he compares what one remembers of a film with what lingers after reading—reminiscent of a similar pensée on aesthetic memory in Baker’s U and I—turns smartly on its heels with “Or is this analysis just totally wrong?”). But elsewhere his glibness is problematic. The more he reveals, the less one cottons to his character, as with his mercenary view of how 9-11 bucked up Deity‘s sales.
Candor is laudable, cuteness less so. Early on, he relates the names of failed book proposals that preceded Deity, including the unforgivably titled All Those Michaels and Me, Just Plain Mike—an anti-celebrity jeremiad taking to task “Michaels Jackson, Jordan, Eisner, Crichton, Milken, Douglas, and Dukakis.” Another of his scrapped projects was Shrinks: They Do the Talking, We Listen, an oral history of contemporary psychotherapy. (The parallel between the silence of God and that of the classic analyst is hinted at here.) The Afterword includes a long passage from a psychiatrist friend, in which he candidly recounts a troublesome patient who, in the face of treatment, killed herself. It’s one of the more effective (and artless) parts of the book—one wouldn’t mind reading Shrinks. But then comes Bryan’s gloss: “You have to know that this is a terrific guy, utterly devoted to his patients, and yet one of his reactions on hearing about the suicide is blessed, guilty relief. Wow.”
That pert palindrome is either a journalistic tic—a knee-jerk need to supply an emotional cue card—or extreme naïveté, or both. Such flippancy mars what otherwise is a reasonably stimulating Baedeker through religious thought, from inerrancy (the Bible as literal truth) to theodicy (the problem of evil). Tonal boners aside, Bryan’s antic riffs wrap around a once removed plot that increasingly scans as a dud.
But The Afterword‘s topic and structure are so ingeniously of a piece that the book, like God, becomes somewhat critic-proof. One recalls Borges’s fictional analysis of the apocryphal spiritual thriller The Approach to Al-Mutasim, not to mention some entries in Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, the sine qua non of false-book reviewery. In the novel under Borgesian review, a pilgrim reaches the titular object of his journey. A voice speaks, the curtain parts—and the novel ends. In a pivotal Deity scene, a succession of eternally obdurate questions occur to Blaine after a trip to the Holy Land; rather than provide answers, Bryan lets his hero sit in silence. “Readers have asked if this was an authorial cop-out. I think not. If there’s any cop-out, it’s not mine.”
Perhaps there’s an art of the cop-out. With his ample vanity (“It’s always all about me”), this Bryan starts to resemble a commentator along Kinbotean lines. I suspect this reading gives the author too much credit—he isn’t Nicholson Baker, let alone Nabokov. A diligent reader will compare “Bryan” ‘s writing to the real Bryan’s (in Uneasy Rider or another of his extant books)—how well (to crib from VN’s afterword to Lolita) do model and mimic match? I have done this; but given today’s topic, and the silence at the heart of the matter, perhaps it is more interesting if I do not tell you what I think.