Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
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Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
The Philosopher's Apprentice: A Novel (P.S.) - James Morrow **Warning:** there are bound to be some gross, and most likely inaccurate, generalizations in here about James Morrow based on my current consumption of only two of his novels. And maybe a few small spoilers.

First, let me say that this is the first author in a long time who has engaged me enough that I am working my way through his entire oeuvre. I should probably be doing this in some planned order -- chronologically would make most sense; stylistically could be another option (since he seems to cross genres and styles, although I'm getting a strong sense of a unique and consistent voice). Instead, I am pretty much going at it willy-nilly, based on which book covers attract me the most and which are available in my local bookstore. For example, I picked The Philosopher's Apprentice as my second Morrow, because it was red. I had What Is The What and The Tao Of Pooh in hand, and ....

If this sounds nonsensical, or even silly, well it is. And so is Morrow, which is probably why I like his novels so much. The silliness, however, is just a facade for what are much larger concerns and weightier thoughts. In The Last Witchfinder, it was religious hypocrisy and the triumph of rationalism and science over superstition and barbaric cruelty. In The Philosopher's Apprentice, nothing less than the foundations of human morality and ethical decision-making, encompassing a review of pretty much the entirety of Western philosophical thought, are hoisted up like the Jolly Roger on the Titanic to see who will salute, and who (or what) will be left standing.

Morrow used the device of Newton's Principia Mathematica as the narrator to voice his big questions and themes in The Last Witchfinder. His narrator was not just any book, then, but one of the most irrefutable foundations of modern scientific thought. Hard to argue with gravity, isn't it? Here, in The Philosopher's Apprentice, we have Mason Ambrose, the former Ph.D. candidate who has tried and failed to wrestle an ethics framework from another foundational treatise of science, Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. Keep that in mind: one of the broad themes here is how we are, or whether we are, maintaining any kind of just, compassionate, ethical or moral framework as our evolution as a species escalates -- spurred on by our own self-made technologies.

Here, in a novel that is centrally about what is universally acceptable ethical behaviour, Morrow gives us a narrator who is less reliable, more prone to errors of judgement and more inherently biased. That said, Morrow gives Ambrose an apolitical, amoral voice in some ways, enough that there are times when I found myself annoyed by this character who was not behaving at all psychologically realistically when faced with some fairly significant ethical dilemmas of his own. Consider: you've just encountered a brilliant but mad scientist cloning herself for personal gain. Do you: a) call the authorities; b) take matters into your own hands and destroy the tools of reproduction and/or the scientist herself; c) accept $100K to tutor the cloned spawn, Londa, of aforesaid mad scientist, and hope to instill a more just and compassionate ethic in her because, well, if you don't, who else will?

If you chose c), you're the head Philosopher, Mason Ambrose himself, and there will be three more of you -- a psychologist, an artist and a kids' TV show host (haha), tutoring two more ethically-challenged "vatlings," "beaker freaks" or, if you insist on being PC, cloned offspring, destined to wreak all sorts of havoc and bring to light all sorts of ethical dilemmas for them, for yourself and for the readers. And while the outcome is positive, in that the novel's plot gallops along through set-piece scenes that have, underlying them, a Big Philosophical Question or Ethical Dilemma to be solved, the flimsiness of the set-up always threatens to bring the plot down like a house of cards. Morrow barely holds on to the reins of his plot, or his themes, but it sure is an exciting ride. I could swear there were points in The Philosopher's Apprentice where I could hear the author saying to himself, I can't believe I just wrote that. I think Ambrose himself voiced it after enjoying a lusty romp on stage with the cloned Joan of Arc. Creating an army of revivified aborted fetuses, including Ambrose's and his former gf's own, to stage an end-of-the-world battle royale between right-to-lifers and feminists is another case in point.

The thing is exponentially more complex than The Last Witchfinder, in which good and evil were pretty clear. The Philosopher's Apprentice is more ambitious, and has more room for slippage in the sensibility and logic of plot and character, but these flaws -- and they are definite flaws -- are easily overlooked when there is so much going on, and when the satire is this delicious.

Of the big questions raised here, whether the ends justify the means is a doozy. Another is whether choosing the lesser of two evils can be an ethical choice. And let's not forget the Dr. Frankenstein parallels brought into a contemporary setting, and ask ourselves: under what circumstances is it ethically right for humans to create and end life?

This latter question is explored in a dozen different ways, each one possibly leading to a different conclusion. Corollary: when does sentience begin -- in a fetus, or in a genetically-modified mumquat tree? No one said this was going to be easy, did they?

So again, while good-and-evil; right-and-wrong was clear in The Last Witchfinder, here the very point is to show that ethical questions and behaving in line with their answers, if you can even arrive at them, is complicated, and growing more so in a world where philosophy and those who practice it with discipline and depth have been replaced by right-wing zealots; and where scientists who pursue knowledge and discovery as ends in themselves have become pawns to greedy, immoral capitalists (a dynamic that Morrow takes delight in reversing on the inaugural voyage of the new-and-improved Titanic -- wanna take a guess at how that turns out? ;-p )

Morrow's plots are nothing if not disjointed, utterly absurd, heady mixes of the fantastic and the earthy. Yet, while the situations in which he places his characters are extreme and surreal, and his allusions far-reaching, the themes he explores are contemporary, enduring, important and pretty basic. New reproductive technologies and human cloning. Stem cell research. Abortion. What a fun book this would be to teach in an undergrad class somewhere in middle America.

What appears to me most Morrowesque, thus far, is his ability to use a science/speculative fiction-y paradigm to explore what are huge, all-encompassing themes and make it extremely palatable and accessible to 'the average reader.' (I am not patronizing the average reader. I count myself among that group.) You don't have to have an advanced degree in mathematics or physics to enjoy and get a lot out of The Last Witchfinder in the same way that you don't need an advanced degree in philosophy to enjoy The Philosopher's Apprentice.

The best comparison is to Vonnegut: there is the same 'of the people' tone; the same politics; the same humour and satire; the use of fantastic plots, characters and settings, where necessary, to convey theme (you'd not call Morrow science fiction any more than you'd call Vonnegut that, would you?). But most of all, there is the same deep compassion for humanity, coupled with a realistic but almost despairing sense of humanity's flaws and future unless we shape up and start behaving much better than we have in the past.

Raising this to a mid-4 star level, from what was a high 3.