Critical reading: "The Book against God" by James Wood - Reliable or Lies?

Scientific Essay 2009 9 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


The Book against God: Reliable or Lies?

by Marylise Thill

The Book Against God is a debut novel written by James Wood, a famous book critic. This book portrays Thomas Bunting’s life. This 26-year-old man is married to Jane, a famous pianist. Thomas is supposed to write a Ph.D. in philosophy. However, he started it seven years ago and he still has not finished it. He is in fact a man that is unable to finish something that he has begun. Instead of finishing it, he has started writing another book, The Book Against God (BAG). This is his private project, as he says, in which he “copies out apposite religious and anti-religious quotations, and develops arguments of his own about theological and philosophical matters.”1 This quotation shows that he is an atheist and that he wants to write a book about it, which he considers to be his “life’s work”. Thomas has also many other bad habits like lying, never paying bills, no earning money, being unclean (“[…] I was no fan of bath or shower.”2 ), etc. All this leads finally to a separation with his wife.

However, whenever reading, given it is a book or an article on the internet, the reader should always be critical and not believe everything that is there in black and white. He should always keep that in mind. This essay will specifically treat about that critical reading: Is the narrator reliable or not? Can the reader trust him or is he a real liar? The argumentation will be based on several examples in order to be more explicit.

Before starting the analysis, it is important to define the notion of reliability. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, W.C. Booth defines this notion as follows: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work […], unreliable when he does not.”3 Thus, the narrator has to respect certain norms and has to be coherent throughout the book. It is also important to know that there exist different types of narrators: first-person, second-person and third-person narrator. Each of these possibilities has its own characteristics. For instance, the first-person narrator belongs to the story and coincides actually to one of its character.4

According to Suzanne Keen, “many first-person narrators […] strike readers as highly reliable.”5 In other words, the narrator may appear as reliable without being it. In the Narrative Form, S. Keen gives plausible reasons for a narrator’s unreliability such as psychological states (grief or denial), incapacities (low IQ, extreme youth, etc.), limited information, dishonesty and so on.5 She also adds: “To say that a narrator is unreliable […] differs radically from an accusation of lying.”6 In other words, one person can be lying and be reliable in the meantime. For Riggan there are also “standard types of unreliable narrators such as the madman, the naive narrator, the hypocrite, the pervert […]”7 Finally, Phelan and Martin note that narrators perform the three following functions: “reporting, interpreting (or reading) what they report, and evaluating (or regarding) it.”8 Consequently, there exist six types of unreliability: under-reporting, under-reading, under-regarding, misreporting, misreading and misregarding.8 In addition, Booth highlights the fact that it would be extreme to find a narrator that would be entirely reliable or unreliable. Most of the time, the narrator is in between.9 To be as complete as possible, the essay will go through most of the points of this definition in order to verify if the narrator is reliable or not.

First of all, it is noticeable that the narration uses a first-person narrator. It is in fact Thomas Bunting that tells the whole story. As S. Keen said, this sort of narration can imply a reliable narrator as an unreliable one. Therefore, the reader should pay attention to it.

The first aspect to point out is that the narrator claims himself to be a liar. However, as S. Keen noticed, lying does not necessarily involve the narrator’s unreliability.10 Unlike her, Riggan considers that the liar is one of the “standard types of unreliable narrators.”11 This point should draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the narrator might also deceive him. Consequently, he has to be critical throughout the book and continuously reconsider what the narrator is saying.

In the novel, there are a lot of examples in which Thomas says clearly that he lies. For instance, at the beginning of the book, he invents illnesses that some philosophers should have had when he is talking to an editor, Ralph Hegley.

“Catching on, and knowing nothing about the apparently welcome illnesses of various world-philosophers, I invented several ailments. […] As usual when lying, I felt warm, lightheaded.”12

Thomas wanted to impress the editor in order to get the job. However, he never gives him the obituaries he was supposed to write. As said previously, he never finishes what he has started. And after having postponed the obituaries several times, he had to find another excuse and told the editor that his father died, which was not true of course. This lie can match with a psychological state motioned by S. Keen: denial. Thomas in fact denies his father by saying that he died. This point tends to prove that the narrator is unreliable.

What is more, he lied about his father’s death twice. The second time occurred when he received a letter from the Inland Revenue about outstanding taxes payable on various parttime jobs he had had during the last few years.

“This worked so well that I told a similar lie a month later […] [The letter] explained that due to the recent death of my father […] I had fallen behind in the paying of my taxes. I was truly sorry to have found myself in this position but the last three months had been a period of grief and shock […]”13

This extract confirms that Thomas is a real liar. He is in the meantime a good actor because he fooled people twice with the same lie. And he emphasised his lie by saying that he had been in “grief and shock”. However, when people know that he is continuously lying, they will not trust him anymore even if he is telling the truth. It happened for instance when he told for the third time that his father died. Nonetheless, it was not a lie that time and the manager he was talking to did not believe him. Curiously, Thomas felt then “cheated”14. In fact, as he says: “When I’m not lying I think I should almost get credit for it.”14 This shows that even if he is a liar he cares about people’s opinion. Like anyone else, he is a person with feelings and he can be hurt. The fact that people do not trust him when he is telling the truth may not encourage him to be sincere.

Furthermore, the reader rapidly knows that lying has become a habit for Thomas because he said: “As usual when lying […]”.15


1 WOOD J., The Book against God, London: Vintage, 2004, p. 3.

2 Ibid.., p. 128.

3 BOOTH W. C., The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1961/1968, pp. 158-159.

4 HERMAN D., JAHN M. & RYAN M.-L., Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, London/New-York: Routledge, 2005/2008, p. 390.

5 KEEN S., Narrative Form, New-York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 43.

6 Ibid., p. 42.

7 HERMAN D., JAHN M. & RYAN M.-L., op. cit., p. 496.

8 Ibid., p. 371.

9 BOOTH W. C., op. cit., p. 274.

10 KEEN S., op. cit., p. 42.

11 HERMAN D., JAHN M. & RYAN M.-L., op. cit., p. 496. 2

12 WOOD J., op. cit., pp. 2-3.

13 Ibid., p. 4.

14 Ibid., p. 5.

15 Ibid., p . 3.


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Title: Critical reading: "The Book against God" by James Wood - Reliable or Lies?