by Tim Powers
Orb Books 2007
$15.95; 414 pages
Earthquake Weather is Tim Powers' third book in the Fault Lines trilogy. Powers wraps up all the weirdness of the first two into something even stranger than either. In much the same way Last Call and Expiration Date were about the Fisher King and the sad not-quite-life of ghosts, Earthquake Weather is about a desperate quest to appease Dionysus, god of wine and death.
Also, much like Last Call and Expiration Date, this is also a novel about mental illness, and the indignities and injustice of our attempts to treat the most serious cases, in the mold of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Janis Cordelia Plumtree, sufferer of multiple personality disorder, and unwilling ward of the state of California, personifies the mostly invisible struggles of everyone whose mind is broken in some serious way.
Multiple personality disorder is no longer considered a serious diagnosis, a fact noted by Angelica Sullivan in the book, but with magical means Powers is able to make it more real than the real world. Plumtree doesn't just have different personalities, she has different people inhabiting her body on a daily basis. Janis tries to keep a bottle of mouthwash handy, because she finds it disturbing that someone else's spit is in her mouth. In this case, that is a totally reasonable thing to do, and the oddly specific nature of this complaint makes me wonder if Powers stumbled on this example in his research for the book.
Janis and the exceptionally ill-fated Sid Cochran meet up with all of the characters from Last Call and Expiration Date to complete the quest for Dionysus. What follows is typical Powers, and I won't explore the plot here, because I think the grand concept of the whole trilogy is more interesting, and also more subtle. The first time I read this book, I found it both strangely disturbing, and a little ho-hum. As Powers' books go, the plot doesn't seem as tightly wound, and the large ensemble cast from the previous two books can be hard to keep track of. That explains the ho-hum feeling.
It is the disturbing part that I only recently figured out. I find the quest to win the favor of the god Dionysus horrifying, because the boons he offers seem to be worse than enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For example, the pagadebiti, Dionysus' wine of forgiveness and a central feature of both the backstory and the quest, exacts a steep price: you must surrender to Dionysus every memory and emotion you have regarding he person involved. For Sid Cochran, his role in the quest is to offer up his beloved and freshly dead wife Nina [who it turns out was really married to Dionysus using Sid as a proxy] and their unborn child to Dionysus as a peace offering or gesture of goodwill.
This strikes me as very odd, but I didn't realize why until the third time through the book. The key bit in that realization was a story told about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. St. Margaret started having visions of Christ. In a prudent move, he approached her confessor and told him about them. The confessor, a stolid sort who knew that most reports of visions were just fantasies or hallucinations, asked her to query Christ in her visions and report back to him. St. Margaret dutifully did so, and the confessor was surprised to find his questions had been answered accurately. At this point, he got suspicious, since Catholics take Satanic temptation seriously. He asked St. Margaret to ask Christ what sins he had confessed last week.
St. Margaret reported back: "He told me he did not know. He said he had forgotten." The priest was dumbfounded by this, because he had expected to have his sins thrown back in his face. What he got instead, was mercy. The sacrament of reconciliation, popularly known as confession, only asks for honesty and penitence. The only forgetting that happens is apparently on God's part, as mysterious as that sounds. I used to think that it was a burden to remember all the sins you have been forgiven, but Powers showed me that it is not.
What I think Powers has done with Earthquake Weather is to write a negative theodicy. A complaint often advanced against theism in general, and Christianity in particular, is that a just god could not allow for so much unjust suffering in the world. If God were truly good, and truly all powerful, then it would be simple to alleviate the cries of the poor, for example.
Using myth, Powers has written for us the world that would result from the attentions of a god that is good, after a fashion, but willing to force his intentions onto people to guarantee results. By the end of Earthquake Weather, nearly every character has been found to be the pawn of Dionysus in some fashion. Even Sherman Oaks, the villain of Expiration Date, is in his service. I also realized that Dionysus is so terrible because he is so just. Everyone gets what they deserve. Precisely.
If you've lived in Christendom your whole life, you probably don't expect this. Neil Gaiman's books helped me realize that people playing at paganism in the United States and Europe are almost always just lapsed Christians. These, and the internet atheists, are the quarters from which complaints about God's goodness usually come. As Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man, they haven't actually managed to get far enough away from Christianity to judge it accurately.
In his way, I think Powers is trying to help.