By Mike Bryan
One of the hallmarks of today’s culture is how it has drifted away from a consideration of works of art, our cultural artifacts, and focused on their production. The shift is more than an academic fad. Popular television shows explain how pop stars are manufactured, or hit movies made. The immense popularity of DVDs can be attributed at least in part to their many “special features,” including expert commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards and interviews. Arts coverage is more often celebrity profiling than critical analysis. A lethally hip generation takes the adage that all art is artifice to mean that art itself is for suckers: unsophisticated consumers who don’t understand the network of political, technological, economic and biographical forces that went into its construction.
The Afterword, which describes itself as “a novel,” is a typical product of the spirit of this age. It presents itself as an afterword to a novel, The Deity Next Door, that doesn’t exist.
And this is a problem. Unlike other books that invent a critical apparatus for an invented text (Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Danielewski’s House of Leaves come to mind), in The Afterword there is no text. This leaves author Mike Bryan with a bit of explaining to do. So rather than an afterword, what he produces is a step-by-step commentary wherein he re-tells the entire story.
And what a lousy story it is. The Deity Next Door is an example of the kind of kitsch spirituality that regularly tops the bestseller lists. Indeed, we are told right off the top that it has broken three records on the New York Times fiction list, putting it right up there with such soulful work as The Lovely Bones, The Celestine Prophecy, The Bridges of Madison County and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
The simple premise is that a New Yorker named Blaine discovers he is the Second Coming. But, aside from the ability to perform the odd miracle, what does this mean? And will he be recognized by the faithless masses? What would it take to make us believe in his divine nature? As author Bryan puts it, recommending “a question for all the book clubs that have taken up the text”: “Would anything put all of us seriously on our knees today?”
As an investigation of belief it’s pretty shallow stuff, with Bryan’s Christianity a kind of bestseller religion. Picking up on Diana Vreeland’s observation that people are only interested in other people, he gives us a deity that could be featured in People. That Christianity is monotheism personified is darn good marketing. The reason the Second Coming lives in New York City?
America is where it’s happening today. We’re setting the course, for better or worse. The esteemed old cultures of Palestine and the Levant have passed the torch. What would have been the point of choosing one of them, or even somewhere in Europe?
How’s that for a deep theological argument?
This might have worked if it was played as satire – the hermeneutics of kitsch. It might have worked even better if Bryan had just written The Deity Next Door. Unfortunately, in trying to say something profound, The Afterword only makes a point about the superficiality of contemporary art and religion.
Review first published May 3, 2003.