Elton loves a good rant. While some of us may be content to roll our eyes or shake our heads at some absurdity, he can manage to sustain his annoyance and ire to produce wonderfully trenchant diatribes as part of a stand up routine or piece of Black Adder invective. Or, as in this case, entire books. Blind Faith combines two beefs of Elton – ‘Intelligent Design’ ‘Fundamentalists’ and the narcissistic self-celebritising culture of facebook – with a Winston Smith who ultimately conforms more to the conventions of popular novels than Orwell’s original.
The things that bug Elton are generally in line with majorities, and it’s highly enjoyable to see him brutally pillory anyone that you yourself happen to think a fool. But the extremity of his malice – in both quantity and intensity – is so sweeping that I suspect that any friends or fans (like myself) who hang out with him for long will have a nasty moment when the target (who knows, it might be jazz fans, volvo drivers, greengrocers, people who wear scarves, vegans…) turns out to be someone you actually care about; amid the guffaws you might suddenly find yourself thinking, “Wait a minute, my mum’s not actually a sad, self-obsessed cow,” (or the like). And, importantly, Elton’s attacks are not the affectionate type, nothing along the lines of, “I can make jokes about Jews because I am one,” there’s no self-parody in the superlative denigration. Hopefully the uncomfortable sudden jarring of sensibilities will give the friend/fan pause to perhaps re-evaluate the validity of their earlier glee in whoever Elton was maligning previously. But it may only be a hiccup, and we leap back into the joys of condemning others with the next inevitable excoriation (much as we immediately notice significant inaccuracies in any newspaper article about an event we attended or an issue we’re across – yet we turn the page and give undimmed credence to reporting of events we didn’t attend and issues we don’t know about). Doubtless Elton has met many exceptions to his own damning stereotypes, but layering and insight are not always the business of satire.
However, it doesn’t mean that satire and insight have to be mutually exclusive. I suspect I share with Elton great admiration for George Orwell, and one of the pleasures of this book for Orwell fans is the self-conscious way Elton used 1984 as a template. But it was, perhaps, an unwise thing for Elton to invite the comparison. Orwell, like Elton, didn’t shy from strong criticism, but his methods were quite different. Imagine their contrasting responses to the same provocation: say they got involved in an argument with some smug, ignorant Tory who roundly and vociferously condemns workers involved in industrial action, saying they are just greedy. Orwell goes off and knocks on the doors of hundreds of miners, interviewing them and asking to measure their houses to empirically prove how valid or invalid the ‘just greedy’ claim is, along the way neither demonising nor eulogising them (The Road To Wigan Pier). Elton would go and write a story where a Tory brutally kills miners, then injects heroin into the eyeballs of their disabled orphaned children before selling pieces of them on eBay. And then the Tory would eat a puppy. Alive.
Elton seems unaware that he glories in using the same techniques that his targets are condemned for. He is peeved with the way some churchgoers continue to say that there is a God – despite the ‘Origin of species’ – so he paints a staggeringly evil imagined future church that is so vile that it reinvents history, maligning its intellectual enemies with fictional crimes. You caught that? Elton’s technique, instead of inventing a fictional slanderous past, is to invent a fictional slanderous future, where, no joke, priests are not all merely historical revisionists, but sexual predators and perverts, and insane, torturing, baby killing, genocidal maniacs! Yeah, that’s the problem with those theists; they just can’t have a sensible, rational debate.
There seems no awareness of this central irony.
Sure I get that Elton is playing with ideas and deliberately exaggerating to make a story, but it is a story with a point. It’s not just, say, a whimsical Asimov type ‘What if’ (e.g. a planet only had night once in a few hundred years). It’s more a ‘What if theists had political control?’ – and where he goes with this speculation is baseless slander, not whimsy. I prefer Elton where he takes his undeniable skills and wit to something deeper than saying how stupid other people are. Granted, I understand that polemics is something that drives him, and the result can be impressive (Popcorn; although perhaps Tarantino fans would react to this much as I have to Blind Faith). The quality of his writing is significantly greater than Elwood’s appalling Angelwalk, but the spirit is similarly mean, glib and ignorant. Despite Orwell being his muse, there’s no research here (I’m sure he’s carefully and objectively considered books by scientists with equal or better qualifications than Dawkins challenging some of his assertions, hey. Yet The First Casualty showed he’s capable of research). Elton got a lot closer to Orwell than Elwood did to C.S. Lewis’, but neither is in the same league as Screwtape Letters. Satire, sure, but notice how Lewis’ ‘target’ is someone so much like himself. That’s much of the glory of that book – it’s about honest self-analysis, and the ability to laugh at himself, to challenge himself. Unlike Elwood, Elton has the skills to write a book as funny, but lacks the humility the write something as true, powerful or insightful – taking his love for criticism to something he actually knows about, to himself. My comment on Elwood is equally relevant to Elton, “Where Lewis made one pause and uncomfortably realise, "This could be me," Elwood has ignorant people going, "Yes, that sounds like them."
Time may have run out – I’ve been saddened to see other excellent novelists (Lively, Goldsworthy) become more and more unable to consider or even see alternative perspectives as each success surrounds them with the rising wall of their increasingly impenetrable egos. Earlier books show a mind still open, where you can respect characters that may disagree – yet with ‘maturity’ the characters become more and more pantomime (‘Boo’ – people I don’t know that well, ‘Hooray’ – people like me).
But even successful novelists can escape this trap. Coincidentally this review follows one of Nemirovsky’s extraordinary Suite Francaise. This established, successful novelist managed to create layered and even sympathetic German soldier characters in full knowledge that real German soldiers were hunting her and her family for Auschwitz. Yet Ben has so much more spite for folks who merely intellectually disagree with him: he can only evoke not even straw men, but over the top salivating monsters. For a book ostensibly concerned with truth, ‘Blind faith’ far more resembles a WW1 propaganda poster than ‘Suite Francaise’ in the accuracy of its depiction of an enemy. I know that some fundamentalists offer equally absurd paranoid projections of the diabolical secret agendas of atheists, but the answer, surely, is not to fight stupidity with greater stupidity. Still, simple answers to complex questions will generally sell better: we usually prefer to have our prejudices confirmed than exposed.