Monday, May 07, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack, Final

by James Robertson
Penguin Group/March 2007

"What can this work be? Can it be anything other than the ramblings of a mind terminally damaged by a cheerless upbringing, an unfulfilled marriage, unrequited love, religious confusion and the stress and injury or a near-fatal accident? Who would dare, in this day and age, to suggest that Gideon Mack was, as he maintained to the end, telling the truth?"

So wonders the fictional, reluctant publisher of Gideon Mack’s memoir. Can it be the truth? Can a man who claims to have met and befriended the Devil be anything other than insane? The pleasure in reading The Testament of Gideon Mack is that even as you turn the final page, you’re not quite sure. This novel is full of slight tricks of hand. They begin, not with the mysterious appearance of a standing rock, but with Robertson’s introduction of this fictional publisher. This very effective literary device forces us to consider the extraordinary (perhaps supernatural?) circumstances that occur in and around Gideon’s life in the context of the real world. By doing so, he ensures that Gideon Mack’s testament is not easily dismissed. He forces us to share in the publisher’s own confusion: an inclination to disbelieve something so fantastic which battles the desire to entertain, at least, the possibility.

Is it a coincidence that this struggle between belief and disbelief is similar to the one many experience when it comes to the subject of religion? Indeed Gideon, an atheist minister, is the very embodiment of this struggle. But what makes Gideon, this lonely and desperate man, the hero of his own memoir is that, when confronted with the empirical proof of the existence of the supernatural -that is, if we accept Gideon’s own testimony, the veracity of which is highly debatable - he unhesitatingly believes. How many of us would have the courage to do that? How many of us wouldn’t dope ourselves up with the latest anti-depressant and check ourselves into a mental hospital after we recall memories of having spent three days in the company of a man whom we believe to be the Devil? To not only accept that as a reality but to also share that truth with the entire world makes you either very, very brave or very, very crazy. Robertson leaves it up to you to decide which.

But, like any great magician, he doesn’t make it easy. If the standing rock is real why doesn’t it appear on film? If it isn’t real why is Elsie, Gideon’s friend and lover, able to see it? Did she see it? After confessing to having seen the mythical stone, Elsie mentally backtracks:
”I think I saw it..That’s all I have from that night - a maybe. I might have seen it. That’s not enough. It’s not real.”
“So what’s real?” I said.
The “I” in this quote could very easily be Robertson asking us that very same question. What is real? If you’re an agnostic waiting for that empirical proof to make your final decision, how would you define it? The supernatural and the miraculous, by their very definition, don’t follow the laws of nature - at least not as we currently understand them. The supernatural can appear one day and disappear the next; was it real?

But even as we begin to consider such high-minded philosophical concepts such as the definition of reality, we’re never for one moment allowed to forget that it is all grounded on the crumbling pie crust of one man’s testimony. It isn’t even ever clear that the man whom Gideon believes saved his life is really the Devil. The Devil clearly never identifies himself as such. Instead, he’s sardonic and enigmatic, never answering a pointed question, leaving Gideon (and us) to draw our own conclusions. It says something about our main character that, when confronted with a supernatural being, he assumes him to be the Devil based on little or no proof. Perhaps it says too, something about ourselves and about what we choose to believe of this “man” dressed in black, who steals boots and lives a despairing existence in a cave with junkyard furniture.

This reader has her own suspicions about who this Devil actually is but, for now, I’ll keep them to myself since I haven’t quite found a way to make all the pieces fit (two days and counting - I’m still working on it and having a grand ole’ time). The Testament of Gideon Mack is at heart a mystery and it’s likely to leave you with more questions than answers. But that’s not entirely true. The Testament of Gideon Mack, like any great scripture, supplies all the pieces; you just have to decide what picture it makes.