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Heaven Can’t Wait

I Am God

by Giacomo Sartori, translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall

Restless, 206 pp., $17.99 (paper)

God 6, 106 x 72 inches, 2013 by Dana Schutz
Dana Schutz/Petzel, New YorkDana Schutz: God 6, 106 x 72 inches, 2013. For more on Schutz’s work, see Sanford Schwartz’s essay in this issue.

I Am God is an almost outrageously charming book. In the first of his seven novels to be published in English, Giacomo Sartori takes a simple, playful premise and sets the universe crazily spinning. The Italian writer has conjured up a delicious, comical stream of omniconsciousness: a pensive diary by the original omniscient narrator, God. Sartori’s God, a being of authentic complexity and paradoxical humanity, of both otherworldly dignity and satirical absurdity, is an irresistible character. He is also in love.

Imagine how disconcerting this is for God. “The probability that my eye should come to rest on that particular girl is far less than the chances that a particular grain of sand should twice end up in the hair of the same camel-driver,” he marvels. He starts the day being God, innocently minding his own godly business with unruffled calm and expertise:

God is not the sleepy old fart that many believers imagine—let’s get that straight. He likes to keep up with what’s going on in the cosmos, he intervenes when he needs to, although intervention doesn’t necessarily mean throwing a giant tantrum or staging a Biblical-scale massacre. There are also moments (and these can go on for several million years) during which he just loafs around in his (as it were) slippers.

He is enjoying himself; he likes to “putter around” the galaxies. “Like a tourist, I have no precise objective, like a tourist my frame of mind is receptive and benevolent, I’m unstressed, I like to compare, digress.” Then, randomly—out of the blue, you might say—God, one who ought to smite, is instead smitten. “My eyes (if you know what I mean) fall on a…tall girl with two purple pigtails who at every opportunity is shoving her arm up a cow’s ass.” The object of these newly aroused feelings is a punky atheist geneticist making extra money by artificially inseminating cows with bull semen. God is not supposed to have feelings for her. He’s not supposed to have feelings for anyone. He’s not supposed to have feelings at all. Feelings are “the egotistical charms” in which the bipeds indulge, yet he, God, finds them clinging to him now, “corroding my divine aplomb like sly woodworms.”

The young woman who has inspired these feelings is named Daphne, though God does not mention her name for a hundred pages or so. For most of the book, he refers to the girl of his heart in epithets Homer never quite got around to chanting: “the big beanpole in farmworker’s overalls,” the “bespectacled beanpole,” the “giantessa,” “the lofty biker,” “the lanky unbeliever,” the “neo-Mendelian cow-sodomatrix,” and, my favorite, “Rosa Luxemburg of the purple locks.”

She is no conventional beauty, he tells us. Her “upper half resembles a skinny, asymmetric El Greco figure, her lower half a plump young Titianesque matron.” She is not just an atheist but a radical atheist, stealing crosses from churches and burning them in her stove. It is true that God has little love for the church. He finds churches themselves “dark and gloomy, too tall, too truculently monumental. Depressing, macabre. Full of chilly marble, ghoulish statues, sanctimonious paintings, furnishings and symbols in bad taste.” Incense gives him “a headache (as it were).” Theologians “reek of superiority, as if the gods (in their surreal deductions) were them.” And nuns? Don’t get him started.

The universal deity has a sharply local focus in the diary. Perhaps if he had fallen in love with a young woman in India he would be trashing Krishna. But the Catholic Church, specifically the Italian Catholic Church, is the one that is annoying him at this moment. He refers to Jesus as “my self-appointed son, I mean the emaciated hippie who claims he came forth from third-party insemination.” At the same time, God has nothing nice to say about atheists, those “emaciated philosophers and poets…swelling with pride to think they can face existence without a shred of meaning or sense.”

Nevertheless, he cannot tear his eyes away from this particular atheist. He is consumed by longing:

I…check on what’s in her digestive system, how each of her hairs is coming along, whether the pores of her skin are dilating and contracting properly…. Not that I neglect my normal divine duties: I surveil, I resolve, I save, I punish, I overlook, I admonish, I judge, I unleash, I even avenge (that happens sometimes, my son, or presumed offspring, notwithstanding). However, it’s her above all whom I scan.

When he sees a young man flirting with Daphne, he imagines “the coitus that’s coming,” though “the verb imagine doesn’t begin to convey in what detail I see the scene.” Does he cause the suitor to slip on a squashed toad and break his elbow? Well, yes. And if he were less “tolerant and magnanimous,” he explains, he’d have the girl hit by a car. “You can thank your lucky stars I’m nothing like the cruel God of the Book of Job, or she’d be done for.”

Sartori’s God is not exactly judgmental—that’s far too biblical a word for him. He does at one point flood a superhighway and bring down a commercial jet just to reassure himself of his own identity. But in general God could more accurately be called opinionated. Extremely opinionated. His withering pronouncements resemble the dry, intelligent wit of a celestial Oscar Wilde more than the crash of vengeful thunderbolts from on high. And his aim is true. He discourses on the good qualities of stars and ants. Cows, too, are viewed with pride:

Among all those I created (even before the so-called domestication, which is to say, slavery), cows were and are the most pacific. Many another beast would have mauled the sodomatrix…but the cow stands there patiently like a human waiting for the bus at the bus stop.

Humans, on the other hand, particularly now that he finds himself in love with one, have disappointed him mightily. They will destroy all he has created through their ignorance and greed. They dishearten and offend him:

Men, in their grotesque presumption, consider themselves superior and unique when instead they are clumsy and shapeless, obtuse, sex-crazed and monomaniacal, ready to fall for every sort of superstition and fanaticism, to mutually eradicate one another and commit bestial acts that make your hair stand on end. And if that were not enough, they’re infested with parasites inside and out and with terrible contagious diseases. They’re dangerous, in short. Not to mention quick to putrefy.

If I were capable of second thoughts (a priori out of the question), the one thing I’d regret would be having created them.

He is revolted by their “squidgy, amorphous pups that look like they’re made of mozzarella,” and depressed by their comportment in every social configuration, for example “the couple. I personally have never seen a pair of penguins shouting vile accusations at each other about mothers-in-law or nail scissors.” God seems almost petulant when disparaging the human race. To be human is an undignified existence, he says: You can hold only one idea at a time in your head; you have no idea why you exist; you are always unhappy, always anxious, always hungry, thirsty, tired or full of aches and pains. Humans are weak and needy, and it is he, God, who is, unfortunately, responsible for them—“seven billion individuals, no matter how irresponsible they are, are still seven billion in need of a hand. Sometimes I feel more like a social worker than God.”

Among their many faults, humans are so afraid of death that they make up nonsensical stories about an afterlife. “You imbeciles,” writes this world-weary God, “other animals also kick the bucket, and you can see in their eyes (those that have eyes) that they’re not bursting with joy, that it’s quite a nuisance, and yet they take it well, they just lie down and wait to expire.” Ants, for example. Even microbes. Billions and billions of creatures. Imagine if every insect or worm “began to moan and groan when its time came, to issue solemn declarations and beg to be granted the big pardon?”

But as much as God claims to prefer even turnips—which “remain silent and like many other cruciferous greens have a genuine vegetable dignity”—to humans, there is no getting around his new reality. He has fallen in love with a human:

At times I don’t feel like myself…. I have a feeling I’ve waded into something new, something connected with those tawdry mood swings, or rather endocrine swings underlying the bipeds’ melodramatic yearnings, and the messes they make, their stubborn and incurable and tedious unhappiness, preparatory to the great collective suicide they’re approaching.

The “great collective suicide” of the human race is very much a part of I Am God. Daphne’s friend Aphra is an activist and conservationist whose apartment is full of snakes and cockatoos. Her efforts at rescuing toads attempting to cross a highway, her protest marches, even her vegetarianism are made to seem not trivial as much as hopeless. Sartori is an agronomist as well as a writer, and sympathy for Earth and all that has befallen it at the hands of the human race is everywhere in the novel. Fixing it would be a hard job even for a god, God notes. And he has no intention of trying.

God makes it clear that he’s “no Aphrodite or Cupid,” that he has to steer clear of not only the ecological apocalypse but also the mundane romantic details of human beings. “I’m a proper monotheistic deity,” he states, “with all that implies in terms of status and decorum.” He cannot reach down and pull his imaginary girlfriend to his imaginary breast. Part of what being a monotheistic deity implies is being alone, but God begins to experience his solitude in a new way: he finds he is lonely.

On one of his “quiet, frigid evenings” when he’s ambling through the silicate dust cloud of a distant, dark nebula, God begins to consider the possibilities of becoming human. Not a god incarnated as a human, but a true human being: “To experience great happiness, and immediately after, tremendous sadness, and so forth.” A male human being, in particular. He may be formless, but he is definitely gendered. Sartori’s satirical eye could have it no other way. A goddess would be too obvious, an almost expected upending of our expectations. Keeping God traditionally male allows Sartori to strike at the high and the low all at once. Poor God suffers from the inadequacy of his human creations and their hypocritical institutions, frequently grumbling about human lust as a proper biblical god should. At the same time, he suffers from lust and hypocrisy. He imagines himself sampling wines and beers, riding a bus, being jostled at a shopping mall, and, just by chance, encountering a certain young woman. He must not overwhelm her with his divinity, but he also must not appear to be a simpleton. First impressions are everything, and “all but impossible to alter—even for omnipotent me.”

Sartori’s God imagines ejecting not Adam and Eve but himself from paradise, and into a specific earthly landscape: “that ugly urban periphery that fades into the gloomy, foggy plain with its industrial fumes, its miasma of effluvia from pig- and bovine-rearing”—the very outskirts of the northern Italian city where Daphne lives. “To be a man is certainly a miserable condition,” he muses, “really quite mediocre, and from a certain point of view, brutalizing, dehumanizing, but also very romantic, it seems to me.” Poor lovesick God. Sartori’s romantic plans for him are not what God, all-seeing or not, foresees.

Sartori playfully deploys God’s omniscience, dangling it here, pulling it away there, like a cat toy. The effect is happily destabilizing, as is his radically changing perspective, ants to nebulas to bull semen to the brilliant, explosive birth of stars. Sartori creates a God whose language is casual and genial, a God whom you could have a beer with, and perhaps already have, then yanks him back to the most remote heavens, leaving us here on Earth as insignificant specks.

There is no sense of the absolute in this novel. The only certainty is Sartori’s humor, godlike, infusing every part of the book from the premise to the plot to the venal, amiably clueless characters to the language of the diary narrated in the celestial being’s intelligent, deadpan voice. As for God’s courtship of Daphne and its consequences, Sartori resolves the love story with a truly satisfying conceptual pun.

Every parenthesis, and there are a great many, is a declaration of nuance, a reminder of the ambiguity of existence. Sartori has added to the joke of his mildly supercilious and endearingly flawed god by making him a punctilious and highly self-conscious writer. The elegant, easy-going translation by Frederika Randall is convincing and conversational, reveling in the diary’s asides, footnotes, and parentheses in which God is constantly setting the record, and the reader, straight.

God the writer responds preemptively to any stylistic complaints he thinks we might have. In one footnote, he writes, “As usual I’m presenting what I know for a fact as merely hypothetical, the way writers do to avoid looking too sure of themselves.” When God notes that Daphne is walking toward a building that is “as squalid as a seminary,” he immediately adds, in parentheses: “Yes, I know very well it is a seminary, and I know when it was built, et cetera; I’m just channeling my character’s point of view.” Or this, describing a squabble between two of Daphne’s friends: “A reader may wonder how the writer knows what a character’s thinking, but in my case the point’s moot.”

Surely the possibilities of parentheses as creative counterpoint have never before been displayed so skillfully. But even as God second-guesses his literary approach with these asides, he inadvertently reveals his new, unaccustomed vulnerability. “I am God,” he keeps pointing out. But his declarations are increasingly a defensive response. God is falling. Falling in love with a human has pulled him into the larger embrace of humanity.

This omnipotent presence flailing against the pull of earthly love is, in its modern ambivalence, as intriguing as Zeus transforming himself into a swan or a shower of gold, his female prey into a cow or a tree. Sartori writes of this interspecies affair with a waggish literal-mindedness that reveals the inevitable melancholy of any two mismatched beings trying to outwit their separateness. All encompassing and all powerful, God is constrained when dealing with Daphne. His awareness of that contradiction is used eloquently by Sartori for both comic and tragic effect, sometimes in the same sentence. At one point, watching Daphne weep over her lost job, God writes, “I almost have a lump in my throat watching her weep like that. Omnipotence: it also means having a lump in your throat without having a throat.”

Sartori has written a quick, straightforward novel that never stops looping back on itself. The unlikelihood of God’s position in this narrative is part of the narrative itself. Language, too, circles self-consciously through this tale of otherworldly passion, for like any writer, God must create—this diary at least—through language. “I am immense,” the divine diarist complains,

and my immensity must pass through the lexicon’s narrow neck and the obligatory pathways of syntax (resembling the twists and turns of a digestive system)…. It’s a titanic struggle wrestling with a language that wasn’t made for a god. Everything I say distorts my thoughts (that word!), leads me to utter further nonsense that I don’t mean to say and find repellent.

Language is just one more constraint on the frustrated writer. Humans are not only limited by their mortality, they are limited by their woeful language. And the minute God decided to put his thoughts into words, he is caught up in its human, earthly bonds. “It’s language that reduced me to this state…. Every language contains all the folly that humans are capable of.” A proper language for a god would consist of “billions and billions of words that zoom around in all directions like sparks rather than follow one another in slavish single file like dumb ants.” Alas, there’s always that annoying monotheism—no one to hear you speak in your marvelous divine language, no one to listen to.

Language, writing, thinking—these are the culprits, God decides. They lead to feelings. To love:

It’s this “diary”—N.B. not one day has ever gone by for me out here—that’s bringing me to ruin. You write, and the more you write the dizzier you become, and you end up with a headful of foolishness.

In a love story narrated by a god who scorns both language and writing, not to mention love, the next part of the joke is how deftly recognizable God’s story is as part of the literary tradition. Boy meets girl. Girl is beneath him socially. Boy falls head over heels for girl.

Even when God announces to his diary that he intends to find a proper, human boyfriend for Daphne, we are in familiar territory, and we wonder if God will be as doomed as Jane Austen’s Emma, literature’s finest clueless matchmaker. Sartori has bestowed on us a narrative that is both comforting and disconcerting. His main character is preposterous and genuine, a supremely confident supreme being discovering the immensity of human insignificance, the wonders of confusion and vulnerability, the limitless frustrations of language and love and, of course, sex. Like an inside-out Whitman, God learns to contradict himself. He’s large, he contains multitudes, and he is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

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