Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Old Story New

The Preservationist, by David Maine, Read by a Read by Tyler Bunch, Wendy Hoopes, Clayton Barclay Jones, and Maggie-Meg Reed, Highbridge Company, 2004

The committee approach to reading is a bit of a dicey proposition. I've listened to a number of books with more than one narrator, though this generally means two people highlighting cultural or temporal differences in parts of the book. David Haines' debut and critical success, The Preservationist, puts four names on the ticket, though for the eight differing characters who take their turn telling the story of the Flood it sounds quite like at least eight differing readers.

What's rather interesting about this Rashomon vision of the Flood is that everyone but Noe (Noah) gets to tell their side of things in the first person, while Noe's story is told in the third person. This leaves up in the air some of the greatest questions of Noe's mental states throughout his communicating with Yahweh. Another problem, though very small, is that when someone who's already spoken takes up his or her story again, we are not told who is speaking as they begin. It takes a moment for the story to give itself away. There are some instantly recognizable voices, Noe's narrator and Japheth and his young wife Mern are all distinguishable with the patriarch's reader churning up the story in a deep, gruff gravel tone while the youth of his children is obvious in their fresh voices.

It's a rollicking bit of fun, Maine's fleshing out of a familiar old story. Each chapter is prefaced with a familiar Biblical quote, the bare bones version, before the various voices fill us in on what they think of all this. We learn of the building of the ark, the rounding up of animals, and the dietary necessities on the ark.

We are introduced to sullen, skeptical Cham; the blind follower of Noe, his oldest son, Sem; and the wastrel, youngest son, Japheth. Never introduced in the Bible version, we are also introduced to their wives. Cham, away at the coast to learn shipbuilding, has married a pale northern beauty, Ilya, who was stranded at the port town. She baffles Sem and the others with her tales of such strange things as snow. Sem's wife, Berra, we learn, was bought by Noe, her father having sold her to buy more warriors for his kingdom. She is bitter and cynical, though she trusts in her father-in-law's god as miracles happen all around her. My favorite of all the wives was Japheth's flower child genius, Mern, who everyone writes off as a bobble headed dip.

Maine has decided to tease the readers familiar with the Bible version of events by leaving that famous enigma unsolved: what was Noah's wife's name. His Noe only refers to her as "wife" and "The Wife," while her children call her "Ma" and "Mom."

The Preservationist takes both a literal and a looser approach to the story of the Flood. When the Bible says, there were giants in those days, that's who Noe goes to get his lumber for the ship. When the Bible doesn't fill us in on conditions aboard the ark, Maine takes over, the various passengers lamenting the smell, the boredom, the stresses of 150 days adrift in a floating zoo. There is a lovely plot development, pre-Deluge, when Noe is stunned to find that people have ridden across the desert just so they can jeer him and his ark. This developing crowd coalesces into a shanty town of permanent, full-time mockers. Lovely, lovely critics all. Of course, they are all drowned, but what a show they were treated to at the end.

Japheth is the most amusing of all the narrators. He finds his dad, who he refers to as Your Man, a pain but he finds his older brother Sem worse, a bit of a hypocrite. His sister-in-law Berra he calls Princess Teats. As far as all the characters go, he and his wife are by far the most human, the most empathetic, the most interesting. His wife, Mern, has a simple way of being philosophical which she's picked up from watching animals and nature in general. She believes God is in everything in nature, resisting even killing ants.

Which is one of the pleasant surprises in The Preservationist, how much diversity of religious opinion there is, brought in through the wives and their differing countries and tribes. When you read the Bible, everyone is either from the chosen people or is a pagan monster. Mern's pantheism is refreshing as is Berra's working with whatever belief comes in handy at the moment. When she is sent out to collect animals from her father's kingdom, Berra travels with a Phoenician sailor who teaches her about the earth revolving around the sun. His lesson on the upcoming eclipse of the sun allows her to escape being killed as a witch.

Later when Berra considers all the dead and dying in the Flood, she wonders whatever became of her Phoenician captain. This had me wondering, a question I'd not actually gotten around to considering. When you think of the Holy Lands and old Bible stories, you think deserts. But there were many contemporaries with boats and even small ships. What would become of them during a deluge of this kind? Would they get in their boats, but be unprepared with food? Couldn't they fish? Would god prevent them from catching any fish? Did Noah's ark ever come up against a ghost ship? I waited in vain for this scene, but it never arrived, alas.

There is a wonderful scene near the end in which the passengers tell stories of their lives prior to the Flood. There is the amazing observation that when they run out of stories, the only one left is the one they are living, the one "no one can bring themselves to tell yet." With the ubiquity of flood stories, this is a nice little nod to stories as how we mark history, how we define ourselves and our contemporaries.

Maine slips an interesting conundrum into his story. When Ilya and Cham leave the base of Mount Ararat to go out and seek their new home, Ilya finds seashells on a mountaintop and questions them. She asks, why would Yahweh put these shells here unless these animals used to once live here long before the flood. Cham dismisses this idea, evidence of evolution and a prehistory of the world far predating Adam, as ridiculous. And isn't it? In a book that takes a Biblical story at face value?

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