Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thoughts on The Preservationist

David Maine's first book tackles the story of Noah's Ark.  Like a few of his subsequent novels, The Preservationist is an irreverent though ultimately piercing look at a familiar biblical tale.

Maine tends to look at his characters from cynically hopeful perspectives.  He views them as fallible human beings, even if most of them have a relationship with a being some of his readers may not believe in.  I say that because you don't need to be religious to enjoy this author, even if he keeps drawing inspiration from stories most people will associate with faith, in this instance that time God sent a flood to wipe out the entire population of the earth, except for whatever could be crammed into one massive boat.

As usual for Maine, there are alternate spellings for familiar names, so there may even be some disassociative elements to help some skeptics swallow events.  Noah becomes Noe, for instance.  Unlike the later Fallen, which chronicles the first humans (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel), extreme old age comes in hundreds of years, so that there is indeed a mystique that cannot be explained by ordinary science.  God still appears in his typical obtuse ways, which is typical for Maine, who likes to keep everyone on their toes.  That Noe is very old doesn't help the rest of the cast appreciate what's going on, and even Noe has his moments.  The cast includes his three sons and their three curious brides, whose perspectives gently probe the limits of just what it meant when God said he was starting over and saving only the good ones, which seems to mean only Noe and his immediate family.  Being relative outsiders, were they saved only by proxy?

In Fallen character arcs were very specifically split into sections.  In this perhaps more nebulous incarnation, Maine alternates between his cast.  The three sons are distinctive, though two of the wives are somewhat similar, so it's the events they experience that tends to differentiate them, while the third is an innocent whose musings are almost an ironic statement on the whole affair.  Taken as a whole, it's a tapestry that supports the original story while also raising new questions about it.

Being the first of anything, you can either support pretty well what comes later because it becomes a template, or demonstrate an evolution.  In some degrees Preservationist is exactly what Maine does with his later books, but it's also clearly a learning curve, figuring out what works, something Fallen demonstrates and The Book of Samson all but deconstructs, while Monster 1959 takes in an entirely new direction, perhaps the book Maine always wanted to write about God, or perhaps nature, directly but could never bring himself to do.  He knows he walks a very fine line between irritating religious readers and those who don't believe a word of it.  Readers who can follow that line will adore him.  His success at unifying all three readers will always be Maine's biggest challenge.  The prominent blurb on the cover of the book pointedly attempts to sidestep any such controversy by referencing Life of Pi, though the two stories really have nothing in common except taking place on water.

The Preservationist marks Maine as one of the most vital writers of his time from the outset.  The inscrutable wife of Noe, who dies as inexplicably as she supports a husband who barely seems to acknowledge her, may as well be the unifying guide in the narrative.  As in religion, life is constantly presenting you with challenges you may never understand.  This is a book that tries to help you feel better about that.

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