The best paragraph in this fascinating book review by John J. Reilly is this:
As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.
As a modern, it is actually kind of hard for me to find fault with the lead character’s stubbornness. The power to be able to say “No” is rather appealing. But as the ashes of Notre Dame cool in Paris, it is worth reflecting that the woman who is honored above all other people in our culture, except for her Son, said “Yes”.
We All Fall Down
By Brian Caldwell
2000, Infinity Publishing.com
(2006, Reissue by Alphar Publishing)
253 Pages, US$15.95
Yes, the Antichrist is evil and his agents are vivisecting nightmares from splatterpunk fiction. Anyone who understood that would never accept his mark; certainly not now, when the visible fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation proves that the Second Coming of Christ is less than seven years distant. But wouldn’t making a decision for Christ be, well, inauthentic? That’s the existential decision that the remarkably foul-mouthed Jimmy Lordan has to make during the Tribulation period in this equally remarkable riff on the now-familiar themes of the apocalyptic novel.
The theme song for this book should probably be The Day the Ravens Left the Tower by the Alarm, a Welsh evangelical rock-band that used to open for U2 25 years ago. The song is about the legend that England would end when the ravens leave the Tower of London; the song ends with the rhyme, "Ring around the Rosie," which is also recited in the course of the book. The connection of the song to the book is speculative, but the Generation-X edginess is obvious enough. The protagonist is a member of that generation, a teacher of English at a high school in Michigan but a native of Boston, a city to which he returns twice in the course of the story. (The book is in three acts, rather like a screenplay, and they are presented nonsequentially.) We see Jimmy sliding into early middle age in the early 21st century after his devout wife disappears in the Rapture and the world begins to come apart at the seams.
The pre-tribulation millenarianism that the story assumes is explained only in briefest outline. This is quite unlike the custom in apocalyptic novels, whose primary point is usually to inform the reader of the details of that eschatology. We get just a glimpse of the Antichrist (one Sir Richard Grant Morrison) and that only on television, when he welcomes the sadly depopulated United States into the One World Community. The story is not about world history, but the choices that cosmic catastrophe bring to Jimmy. Readers accustomed to the air-brushed atrocities of the Left Behind series may well be shocked by what they read in this book. As Jimmy explains to the penitent homosexual who tries to help him perform at least one good deed before the Second Coming:
"George, do you have any idea how many times in the last few years I’ve woken up without the slightest fucking clue where I was and what was happening? My wife disappeared from my bed, I watched my father get shot in the face, I thought I was going to die in a nuclear attack, I spent a month getting tortured, a building I was in collapsed, killing everyone but me. I’ve wandered insane through the Israeli desert, spent two years surrounded by Christ-freaks in a camp protected by God, a month on a prison ship watching kids get raped. I’ve been beaten by an ex-student who worked in a death camp and got attacked by a swarm of locusts."
Actually, Jimmy’s adventures are even worse than that, because here Jimmy is telling only what happened to him, not what he himself did. There is quite a lot of graphic sex in this book. It’s not gratuitous, since it serves to establish character, but it is often vindictive.
The Rapture in this book serves to set us a philosophical puzzle by removing metaphysical doubt. Suppose we knew for a fact that theism is true, as we well might surmise in the face of the clockwork fulfillment of the pre-tribulation Endtime scenario. Obviously, the worship of God would then be advisable on utilitarian grounds. However, does the power of God make it morally imperative that we love Him?
This is not a new question. The Book of Job is the text to which all other treatments of the matter are commentaries. In this connection, Immanuel Kant laid down the principle that a command, even the sort of command that God seems to spend so much of His time issuing in the Bible, cannot be the basis of a moral duty. Perhaps the most entertaining relatively recent treatment of the issue in fiction is Robert Heinlein’s Answer to Job. That book, too, is set during the Endtime, indeed during the Endtime in several parallel universes. Theodicy fails to justify the arbitrary salvation and damnation of the characters; in the end, God Himself is ultimately convicted of tyranny. The problem with that conclusion, though, is that it rather incoherently appeals to a justice that transcends God. We All Fall Down takes the issue in a more radical direction. We see it stated here by Jimmy’s highly amputated cellmate, Stan, as he explains why he once refused to inform on a prison gang that had abused him:
"You wanna keep saying no, then ya better find your Inch, boy. Find it and protect it. Ya can cry and scream and beg and curse. Ya can do any damn thing ya gotta do to get through it, but as long as you don’t say yes, you win. Long as ya keep yer Inch for yerself, long as ya don’t pussy out and give it to Morrison or God, you win. You win and they lose."
The power not to say “yes” seems even more intolerable to Antichrist’s government than mere Christianity. As is usual in apocalyptic fiction, people who refuse to receive the mark of the Beast are arrested. Receiving the mark is called “tagging” here; as has also become a literary commonplace, it means you need an implanted microchip in your hand to buy or sell. The authorities quickly execute the Christians, once it is clear they are sincere. In contrast, the authorities take infinite pains with the small number of people who have not converted to Christianity but who refuse to be tagged as a matter of personal integrity. They beat the recusants in ingenious ways over a period of weeks; by and by they snip off ever more noticeable bits of them, all the while engaging in the sort of thoughtful dialogue familiar to us from O’Brien’s exchanges with Winston in 1984. Jimmy’s rudeness during these sessions is stunning, but then, as we slowly come to realize, Jimmy is a genuinely bad man.
Jimmy’s refusal to give an Inch, in fact, raises the question whether the evil in this book comes in two distinct varieties. There is the garden-variety evil of those who willingly follow Antichrist. They worship an object unworthy of worship, and therefore suffer a fitting decline in their sanity and physical condition. Then there are the elite of the damned, people like Jimmy and his father and Stan. Their whole motivation shrinks to the defense of their personal integrity, which is defined in an amoral, even ahedonic way. In normal times, perhaps, one might take this supernal stubbornness for ordinary existentialism: the existentialist defines as real what he would be willing to die for. As an aside, we may note that this solidifying of the self into an entity that acts without regard to desire is also the goal of certain esotericists. The adamantine self becomes a "body of light" divorced from time, and so immortal. The preservation of the self through the rejection of the rest of reality might, in another view, be thought to be nothing more than the construction of a personal Hell. The author of We All Fall Down may well have intended to make just this point.
There is another perspective that the book does not consider, however. Though Jimmy’s recusal from the demands of both God and the Devil is not presented as admirable, it is presented as unanswerable. The final defense of the self is made to seem as self-evident a choice as the acceptance of salvation, even if the final outcome of that defense is completely horrible. This equation is not just ill-advised, however; it may also be merely mistaken.
We should note that the discernment of the absolute self has not always been thought to lead to an inescapable spiritual black hole. The method of contemplative prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing is based on the premise that, when the contemplative strips away all desires, fears, and distractions, all that remains is the naked desire for God. Furthermore, only someone who has already become virtuous in conventional ways can hope to clarify his basic nature for this purpose.
If that example seems too esoteric for Stan’s Inch, then consider that it is precisely in those extreme situations of danger, when recourse to moral theory is impractical, that many people first encounter the moral life. This is the truth of which existentialism is a caricature. There are circumstances in which moral imperatives are experienced as both commands and discoveries. Kant had a point when he said that a command from one human being to another cannot create a moral duty, but he was wrong when he assumed that experience cannot be commanding. In this sense, the moral life can be said to be a direct experience of the substance of God.
At the risk of taxing the concept behind the book with more analysis than it should be required to bear, let me also suggest that the choice for salvation and the defense of the Inch may not be so incompatible as We All Fall Down takes for granted. Readers may be familiar with the C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength. It involves an occult conspiracy that could well have been the beginning of the Endtime, if it had been permitted to get off the ground. The story includes another interview between an interrogator and a victim whom the interrogator is trying to convince to make a decision very like the one the forces of Antichrist were trying to foist on Jimmy Lordan. The victim in the Lewis novel refuses, too. He does not refuse because of theological scruples, but because he sees that what he is being asked to do would be the end of him in some more fundamental way than merely dying. However, far from being the event horizon of a spiritual black hole, the victim’s refusal is his first discovery of the moral life, and then of the transcendent. In deciding to resist, he had decided, all unknowing, to fight on the side of the angels in whom he did not believe. In other words, by defending his Inch, he had also accepted the grace of salvation.
This book uses eschatology to simplify certain questions, which is fair enough. Still, I could not help wondering as I read what would happen to the logic of the story if complications had been introduced. Suppose anonymous Christians had been raptured. Well, that’s another story.