Recent Reading: HIM by Geoff Ryman

A new Geoff Ryman novel! Nearly twenty years after his last one, I think we can be forgiven for having assumed that this impossible-to-pin-down author—winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award for Air, originator of the Mundane SF manifesto, creator of one of the first hypertext novels with 253, and one of the darkest Wizard of Oz retelling with Was, the man who was once synonymous with The Child Garden's lesbian polar bears—had said all he wanted to say. And yet what's most striking, when one starts to read HIM, is how much of a piece it feels with 2006's The King's Last Song. Like that novel, it is a lightly-fantasized, fictionalized retelling of the life of a major historical figure. It's as if no time at all had passed between the two novels—though perhaps the delay can be accounted for by the difference in subject matter, which might have made Western publishers hesitant. This time around, Ryman's focus is not a major figure in Cambodian history, but Christ himself. And, in his retelling of the story, Jesus is a trans man.

Gender, in fact, is placed at the forefront of the story before Jesus even enters into it, when we encounter Maryam, an intelligent, quietly rebellious young woman from an aristocratic family in first century Jerusalem. When Maryam announces her pregnancy—interestingly, Ryman chooses to start the novel after the immaculate conception has occurred, although he leaves no space for the possibility that Maryam is lying or mistaken about the nature of her predicament—she takes advantage of her family's bewilderment to orchestrate a marriage to the socially-awkward heretic preacher Yosef, and their banishment to the hinterland town of Nazareth. Yosef has landed himself in trouble with the priestly classes by advocating the unity of the sexes and the desirability of abstinence, and may be asexual himself. He is thus perfectly suited to the plans of Maryam, who believes that her child—she is convinced that in the absence of a father, the baby will be a girl, which is perhaps a too sophisticated bit of a biology for an iron age woman to have deduced—will break the prohibition on women preachers and usher in a new age of political and social opportunity.

Maryam will remain our point of view character, and arguably our protagonist, for the rest of the novel. One of the core dramatic arcs of HIM is her (slow, grudging) realization that what she has birthed is bigger not just than her, but than the dreams she had for it. That the miracle she has enabled will be fundamentally different than what she imagined, because it is not something that she could have imagined. In this, she is perhaps no different from many parents of trans children. Nevertheless, when Maryam's child announces, at a very young age, that he is a boy named Yehush, Maryam's objections and vehement denials are not rooted—or at least not only—in gender panic, but in a belief that god's miracle is being sullied. When Yehush chooses not to become a scholar like Yosef, but to apprentice with a local craftsman, Maryam is doubly crushed—by his apparent choice to turn away from greatness for the life of a simple laborer, and by the way that both Yosef and the community around them simply accept this transformation, allowing Yehush to opt out of the restrictions and realities of womanhood in a way that Maryam (and eventually, her younger daughters) are unable to do.

If there's something radical and iconoclastic about HIM's version of the life of Christ, in fact, it is perhaps less Jesus's transness—which is, after all, one of the less interesting things about him once everyone, and most especially Maryam, stops making a big deal out of it—as the fact that he is something of a bully, steamrolling any opposition to his vision of the world with immovable stubbornness and psychological torture, suborning his neighbors and younger siblings to his own ends, and generally getting his way not through mildness or preternatural calm but through sheer bloody-mindedness. And yet, much like the rest of the novel, what this apparent psychological realism obscures is something otherworldly. When Maryam, frustrated and unable to cope with Yehush's implacability—when he, for example, doesn't express any grief after Yosef's death—pushes against her child and demands explanations from him, what she discovers is a creature who is learning how to be human from first principles, who insists that by doing so he is teaching god what the human experience is actually like.

I haven't read a lot of fictionalizations of the life of Jesus, but one thing that struck me about Ryman's version was how Jewish it is. It stresses Yehush and his family's Jewishness, as well as the social, religious, and geopolitical context of first century Roman-controlled Palestine. The book gets into the contrast between the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms; intra-Jewish conflicts between various sects which differ in religious adherence and emphasis; the class divide between the elites in Jerusalem, the Hellenized upper classes in Sepphoris, and the lower classes in small towns like Nazareth. Eventually, it gets into the uneasy reality of life under Roman rule, as when high priest Caiphas tries to persuade Yehush not to declaim against Rome, less out of a desire to save his life as because of a recognition that for the Romans to execute him would deal a blow—perhaps an unrecoverable one—to Jewish self-rule. I wonder, in fact, whether readers who are more familiar with the historical context of Jewish life during the time of the second temple won't have an easier time with this book than those who know more about the Christ story. There were points when I found myself a bit lost, realizing that references were being made but not having the grounding in Christian tradition to recognize them. More often, though, I felt as if the book was speaking to me, as when it identified Mary Magdalene (here depicted as a brusque, rough-speaking brute forced into sex work by poverty, distrustful of Yehush's more genteel supporters) as "the Migdali", a resident of Migdal.

As Yehush grows older and Maryam grows more accustomed to the idea that the miracle she enabled will not materialize—as she becomes more consumed with the lives of her other children and their domestic concerns—he is suddenly spurred by the crisis of his father's death (perhaps more importantly, by the visceral realization of what death means to people) to become a religious leader, amassing hundreds of adherents who follow him from town to town. A skeptical Maryam, still smarting over her son's ability to opt out of womanhood, still bitter that he hasn't followed the path she imagined for him, nevertheless decides to join the procession, making one last grasp at understanding her child. Ryman captures extremely well the excitement, but also the strangeness, of being in at the beginning of the movement that develops around Yehush, which is part mystical cult, part people's revolution. He observes both the politics that inflect it—the Jerusalem elites who are true believers, but who also seek to direct Yehush towards the avenues of power they know and can influence; the nationalistic fanatics trying to recast him as the Messiah—and the genuine religious and social fervor that drives it. 

At the same time, the novel keeps coming back to the otherworldly. Though Yehush remains ornery and stubborn—again, it is perhaps the most irreligious aspect of this retelling that the kind and patient Jesus most of us have taken in through cultural osmosis is nowhere to be found in it—it becomes clearer that this is partly because he always has one foot out of reality. He sometimes seems to come unstuck in time, trying to explain to Maryam things like future technologies or the nature of the cosmos. And he is constantly struggling with his own powers. Ryman's depiction of Yehush's miracles, as a rewriting of the entire universe that he at first engages with sparingly, and then later, as he becomes more aware of the fate he's headed towards, almost desperately, recasts familiar stories as something almost out of a horror novel. In one particularly disquieting scene after the resurrection of Lazarus, Yehush confides to Maryam that he had previously brought back another girl, who returned with no memory or personality. He concludes that god has already reworked reality so that the soul survives death, which was previously not the case.

As that example suggests, Ryman is weaving a wider cosmology around Jesus, whose existence in this version of the story is necessary in order to teach god about human existence—about suffering, injustice, and of course death. But here the novel runs up against the problem that the solutions Yehush can come up with have to dovetail with the core concepts of Christianity. When Yehush's sister is mistreated by her husband, and laments that his powerful family connections mean that he will face no consequences for his actions, her brother invents hell as a place where accounts can be settled. Though the novel acknowledges that this is a problematic solution, it can't avoid bringing us to the creation of the Christian cosmology, which I personally have always found deeply distasteful. Even the changes Ryman makes to Christian theology—Yehush must die, we're told, not in order to atone for humanity's sins, but so that god can experience death through him—do little to make it more palatable.

As HIM approaches its story's inevitable ending, one can sense the struggle running through it. Partly, this is the struggle of the characters themselves. In keeping with the difficult, prickly version of Jesus he represents, Yehush's reaction to the realization that his agonizing death is both inevitable and necessary is bitterness and anger alternating with fatalism, while Maryam, even in the face of all that she's witnessed from her son, refuses to accept that he has truly seen his future. But partly, it feels as if Ryman himself is struggling with the need to make a final statement on his topic. He offers hints of a secret history—Maryam writes her own version of the gospel, which often runs counter to the one being compiled by the affluent scribe Mattia (presumably Matthew); her daughter Babatha, after a lifetime of resenting her brother and opting for conventionality, is granted access to the numinous, becoming a prophet in her own right. 

In the face of our knowledge of history, however, these feel like empty gestures. A last-minute miracle that returns Yehush's gender identity to the foreground is both obvious and a bit weak sauce. The choice to close the story not on the crucifixion but on Maryam's last act as a mother is more dramatically successful, but also feels a bit like a way of avoiding the obvious. In the end it's hard not to feel that maybe Maryam had it right all the way at the beginning, albeit for the wrong reasons. Maybe god's miracle has been sullied and corrupted, used to create more injustice and suffering, not less. Perhaps that's the point Ryman is making, but at the end of this novel of excellent parts, it's hard to tell what conclusion he expects us to draw from the whole.


Erl said…
On the theme of ornery avatars of God, whose stubbornness coincides with their unworldliness, one is reminded of J.E.D.D. Mason in Terra Ignota, or Mendel Shpilman in Yiddish Policeman's Union

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