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What in God's Name: A Novel Paperback – August 20, 2013
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About the Author
Simon Rich "is still the freshest, funniest new writer today," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. He has written comedy for the New Yorker, Pixar, Saturday Night Live, the Believer, and various movie studios. He's the author of two collections, Free-Range Chickens and Ant Farm. His first novel, Elliot Allagash, was optioned for a film by Jason Reitman. Rich lives, predictably, in Brooklyn.
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I picked up this book on a whim after spotting it at my local library. I'd read a good review of it somewhere and thought that the premise was really original. God is like Michael Scott from The Office and Eliza and Craig are Jim and Pam, just trying to hold things together. After too many years of working in an office, some of the situations in the book are painfully familiar. I found Craig and Eliza to be very likable characters. They both want to do a good job and make a difference in people's lives, unlike God and the other angels. That kind of earnestness is refreshing. I also really liked the idea that there were thousands of "potential miracles" waiting to happen every day, and that even a small thing could become a miracle in someone's eyes.
The romance that Eliza and Craig are supposed to facilitate involves the two most awkward and clueless love interests you've probably ever met. They were actually so clueless as to be a little unbelievable, but it makes the point. Meanwhile Craig and Eliza are having their own romance issues. I guess even angels find dating a challenge.
This was a cute read but the story was very predictable and, ultimately, forgettable. I don't think it's as original as it wants to be. That said, I definitely think you'll get a few laughs out of it. I'd recommend this to fans of Christopher Moore and religious satire.
1. Stick To Talking About What's Interesting:
A short story is great because you only have a focal point on the most important aspects. In What's God's Name, Rich often deviates from what seems like the most interesting points to elaborate on predictable and tedious scenarios.
For example, this book has a heaven I've never had experienced before. The different entrepreneurial executive tiers, positions, and departments really helps to make Heaven feel uniquely intricate and yet familiar. To put it simply, Heaven immediately feels like a real place due to the rich world building Rich devotes much of the early parts of the book to. This decision makes it all the more unappealing when the story pulls away from Heaven and it's quirky cubiles and pizza cafes to some apartment in New York, off campus of NYU. Here, there's no fanciful descriptions of anything, just boring characters living out cliche mundane middle-class lifestyles. In Heaven, Craig and Eliza stand out as more than just angels, they're the most appealing characters in the whole book: they've got back stories and a real drive to save the world and all the people in it. Yet about 50% of the book is focused on a much less interesting potential romance pair straight out of a C-list summer romance comedy. The dynamic these two humans have is completely non-existent aside from an arbitrary Compatibility Stat determined in Heaven, and there encounters are wholly emotionally insignificant as they're completely manufactured by the Angels so the world won't blow up in a month. There's a lot of time devoted to the human pair, nonetheless and it brings up this frustrating dynamic throughout the book where it feels like the most important things that are going on in the story aren't the focal point. God's sitting in an office somewhere going over plans to destroy the Earth in "flames(?)", Craig and Eliza are hurriedly planning how to manifest miracles to save the planet, and we as the readers are watching a scene where a shlub is arguing with an Indian-American stereotype over how much take out food constitutes a healthy lifestyle.
I can see the argument that for as much as the angels tried to generate love, it was only when they walked away from the situation that a true miracle happened and the humans actually paired up. That would certainly explain why so much time was devoted to making scenes on Earth so drawn out, but this would work better in as short story. The expectations in a longer novel are greater and quite frankly the parameters for a "love just happens" proverb were already present yet untapped within the setting of Heaven.
2. The Characters are Relatable, But Not Likeable.
Craig and Eliza are fine characters for a short read, but ultimately flat characters upon longer periods of scrutiny. Craig, for example, is genuinely satisfied with working at his current dead-end job despite constantly being reminded by his peers, higher ups, and even God that his work is largely meaningless. I thought this would lead to some introspection on Craig's part, but for the most part his response was always to just grin and smile away the situation and continue to reinvest whatever left of an eternity he has back into his job. To a degree, I can relate to this. I even appreciate a strong work ethic, but we never see Craig as any other person other than The Angel Who Works on Floor 17. We never see him at home (or if he even has one) or out of the building he's devoted his afterlife too. He's always working and thinking about something connected to his job. He's essentially a colorful friendly muppet that's crazy about one thing and defines life in one thing. As a felt puppet, he's enthralling, but that lack of depth and contrast makes him difficult to like as a person.
3. Character Don't Develop, They Just Settle.
Eliza has a more nuanced issue, she's characterized strongly by her motivation yet ultimately settles for Craig's lifestyle and companionship. This was disappointing as Eiliza was an independent, hard working, critical thinker who was unsatisfied with her afterlife and strove to improve paradise. She was the only person in the book with enough lucidity to literally march into God's office and essentially tell Him to get His act together. I had a lot of hope for her in this book, but instead of using her to cause some meaningful changes, the book just mutes her with a layer of lackadaisical cynicism. Her motivation to improve and her life and continue moving up the corporate ladder effectively die once she gets paired with Craig.
Even more frustrating is that the elements and tools needed to generate an evolving stroyline were present but never realized. Eliza remembered some names and faces from her past life as a human--and has access to a device in Heaven called the Server, which gives her unmitigated visual access to every event in the history of Earth--yet she never connects the dots that she could use this device to piece together the humanity she left behind, and try to impact the world in more meaningful ways since God was seemingly uninterested. In such a scenario, she would begin to deconstruct the concepts of the "Heaven as an Enterprise" paradigm into something more active and entertaining, much to the distress of Craig, who had already devoted his life to sticking to the rules and not making waves. Overall, the point is that there were elements of the book that seemed promising as they would open up routes for compelling character development and character-based drama that could have a longer lasting appeal but ultimately sweeps them under a rug for more basic general drama ie "THE WORLD'S GOING TO BLOW UP!"
4. The Resolution Feels Short-Lived
The kind of God that garners so much apathy that only humans who skipped a rock nine times is allowed to enter Heaven doesn't strike me that they'd stick to the agreement not to blow up the Earth when they get bored again. And based on how God is characterized, that can happen on any whim. Because God never learns anything from his wager with Craig and Eliza, the ultimate world-saving resolution feels cheap. The world is saved... for now. What did any character learn? Eliza gave up on the world 20 minutes before implosion, Craig resigned himself to his work in making small miracles yet again even when the world was going to be destroyed, God was completely complicit with the destruction of humanity in one second, then tells his profit Raoul that he loves everyone the next second later. There's no real objective argument for why the novel was worth reading, no point. In a short story, that's completely excusable. Short stories are just a window into a quirky idea, but novels need an impetus to make up for the time invested into them. As there's none in this tale, it really makes whole book feel like a waste of time.