Here's a review of Joseph Heller's God Knows that I posted on epinions.com
King David Catches 22!
May 31 '03
* Very humorous * Rich language * Fresh perspective
* Repetitive * Requires knowledge of the Bible * Not an easy read
The Bottom Line
I would recommend this book to anybody who appreciates innovative writing.
Let me start off with a confession. I finished this book only on my 4th attempt. Initially, I had been put off by the theme as well as the plethora of Biblical names - Absalom, Jehoshaphath, for example. But deep inside of me, I had this feeling that there really was 'something' in the book. I had the book re-issued from the library many times over and finally, when I was through reading it, boy, was I glad I did!
Heller is at his inventive best in this book. Heller proves that he is not just a master storyteller but a master story-'re'teller as well. He takes the story of King David (yes, of the Bible!) and paraphrases it, as seen through David's eyes, with lots of spice thrown in for effect. Call it dollops of Biblical ice-cream with chocolate-sauce sex. As King David says in the book, I have the best story in the Bible. Heller just about manages to prove that.
God Knows looks at the Bible from a fresh, if contrary, perspective. In the book, Solomon is portrayed as a moronic mamma's-boy while David is a head-strong womanizer, at loggerheads with God. Bathsheba is the Adam-feminist bloomer-pioneer and Saul is a whimsical maniac.
The David of God Knows is a braggart and makes tall claims. David claims that he is the first everything - poet, musician and what not. He accuses Shakespeare of plagiarism and also stakes claim to Handel's Messiah. Every time he sneaks in an usage or idiom, Heller puts it as if David invented it. Preposterous claims, but one wonders : possibly true? David says that the Proverbs were actually all his and that Solomon really meant it when he ordered the baby to be cut in half to determine the actual mother!
It is always no-holds-barred from David to us. Whether it be about his relationship with his spouses or be it about the conflicts in his mind about what to do with his sinning offspring. David denies accusations of queerness with respect to his relationship with Jonathan, son of Saul whose love for him surpassed the love of a woman and also tries to justify his caprices as logical actions. All this endears him to the reader.
Treat yourself to nuggets of common wisdom. Like, "..there is wisdom in madness and strong probability of truth in all accusations for people are complete and everybody is capable of everything...". Or, "who gives up a life of opulence voluntarily?". And so many more. This is a book you would want to read and re-read.
As in all his other novels, I could catch autobiographical glimpses in Heller's protagonist, King David. The helplessness in old age, the infatuation with the nurse Abishag the Shunnamite and his obsession with his first major feat of killing Goliath all have parallels in Heller's life.
Heller shows his mastery over the language time and again. My strategy worked but my stratagem backfired. When it's adjectives, you have two..inevitably. The metaphors and similes are interesting Jewel of gold in a swine's snout? About Nathan the prophet: ... as vinegar to my teeth, as smoke to my eyes. Compared to him, Polonius was as silent as the Sphinx.
The humour is a key ingredient of the book. About Saul : He forgives and forgets. Then he forgets he's forgiven. Also advice to Solomon about the ephemeral nature about buildings: Man's erections are only temporary. Solomon's cryptic The apple never falls far from the tree is repeated to great effect. Bathsheba's persistence (Let's name him King.) and Joab's irreverence is also amusingly presented. David's dialogues with God are tragically comic. Comparisons between other Biblical characters and David are also highlights.
The storyline is well-known and can be had from the Bible. But it is the way in which the story is told that is most impressive. Heller is more at home explaining the character's thoughts than when explaining the plot though.
If you are a Heller fan, then this is a must-read. If you are not, then this will showcase Heller's versatility for you - prove that there's more to him than Catch-22. But be warned that this is not a novel in the conventional sense. It is a very novel novel.
This is a book that you would want to possess. Once you've read it, you'll want to go back to it. Hey, dust that Bible!