BOOK REVIEW / Drought, famine, fire and flood, for ever and ever: Anthony Quinn searches for signs of God in a new anthology of contemporary short stories - 'God: An Anthology' - Ed. Stephen Hayward & Sarah Lefanu: Serpent's Tail, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AT ONE POINT in Julian Barnes's novel Flaubert's Parrot, the narrator lists 10 things he would most like to ban from the novel. His 10th commandment runs:

'There shall be a 20-year ban on God; or rather, on the allegorical, metaphorical, allusive, offstage, imprecise and ambiguous uses of God. The bearded head gardener who is always tending the apple tree; the wise old sea captain who never rushes to judgment; the character you're not quite introduced to, but who is giving you a creepy feeling by Chapter Four . . . pack them off into storage, all of them'.

There's not much hope of that, one suspects, though at the end of a century in which literature has slouched towards godlessness, it does seem a slightly odd idea to be publishing a collection of stories as baldly and boldly titled as God. It's also something of a misnomer. Few of the 19 stories assembled here actually deal with God, let alone with arguments for his putative existence. Instead they tend towards issues of a vaguely numinous nature, mulling over questions about mortality and grief, faith and doubt, loss and last things.

If most of the stories seem at a tangent to their ambitious brief, it might be because of the difficulty of dramatising what God is, or was, or might be. In his 1982 novel God's Grace Bernard Malamud decided that the most effective way of doing it was to include God as a character and have him speak in quadruple quotation marks and free verse.

Joseph Heller in God Knows made Him seem a capricious mafioso dispensing or withholding his favours. 'God and I had a pretty good relationship', reflects the narrator, King David, 'until he killed the kid'. Outside of a comic novel, though, it's a risky business giving God a walk-on part: only a fool - or a saint - would be so presumptuous as to write His lines.

In terms of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this anthology kicks around some standard notions of what God might be about. Mrs McCoy, in Diana Hendry's 'Mrs McCoy and Moses', was 'stolid Old Testament, liking the virility of an angry, jealous God, one with a penchant for drought, famine, fire, flood and pestilence'. Similarly, in Tony Grist's 'The White Lady', God was 'elusive and

terrifying . . . not something to be bantered over at street corners'.

Elsewhere, God is seen as the embodiment of universal injustice and suffering. In Evelyn Conlon's 'The Park', anger focuses upon His emissary, the Pope, whose imminent arrival in Ireland is heralded by a group of young activists daubing 'No Priest State Here' on the walls. In Elisa Segrave's monumentally depressed story 'On the Subway', God is the last resort: a girl on her way to see a dying friend glimpses the random scrawl of a fellow passenger, 'I am very scared. Please God help me]'

The question - and it is the question - lurking beneath and between the lines of these stories is: if an all-merciful God exists, then how can he possibly allow such misery and horror to reign? (Somebody actually answered this for me at a party the other night, but, to my everlasting shame, I can't recall her explanation.) God casts its gaze over wretched humanity; its pages are smudged with lacrimae rerum.

But significantly, perhaps, not one of these stories openly and unequivocally celebrates God. Allan Gurganus's story 'It Had Wings' comes close - an angel crash-lands in an old lady's backyard and seems to cure her arthritis with his touch - yet the story gives no clue as to whether this miracle is divinely sanctioned.

The cancer-ridden narrator of Jane Rogers's fine 'Birds of American River' approaches death in fear, 'real gut- fear', but finally achieves an unexpected equanimity at the sight of a bird in flight: 'If birds can fly . . . Can I begin to believe that death is freedom?'

The conflict between faith and unbelief gives way in Bapsi Sidhwa's 'Breaking It Up' to the conflict between different kinds of conviction. A Parsee woman hightails it to America in the hope of 'saving' her student daughter from marriage to a Jewish boyfriend. Irresistible force meets immovable object. Each can adduce the sanctity of their culture and history, each can lay down his or her own chip of faith - but at least one of them must be wrong. John Wakeman's 'Sherry at the Rectory' dramatises a doctrinal issue within the genteel confines of a Victorian rectory while a storm rages without. Caution - metaphor at work.

The two most interesting and, to my mind, successful stories here are ones which explore the internal struggle with God and his mysterious ways. Gabriel Josipovici's 'Can More Be Done?' is a grave and ingenious study of the ailing John Donne (a descendant of Thomas More) delivering the final sermon of his life in the presence of the king. Josipovici interweaves the text of Donne's homily with an interior meditation on his lost beloved wife, his poetry, his relationship with God and his preparation for death. It adds up to a brilliant miniature of Donne as man, preacher and poet.

Joyce Carol Oates's story 'Work-in- progress' plots the sentimental education of a young seminarian who abandons the cloistered life for a career as a doctor, before discovering that medicine has the same hideous taste of mortality. His reckoning on the slow evaporation of his faith might be the saddest passage in the book: 'Where had it gone, he wondered, that quicksilver leap of certitude he'd had only a year or so before, that almost rowdy happiness pulsing in his veins, that conviction in his heart that drove out all absurd shadows of guilt, that there was a living God, a communal spirit to be experienced, if not understood?'

This is the agonised 'Catholic agnosticism' of Graham Greene, who wrote one of the great novels about God and love and hate. The End of the Affair, a writer's anguished submission to the virus of faith, continues to haunt my bedside, and will doubtless do so to my graveside. Beyond that? God knows.