Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Children of Men - Review & Quotes

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night….
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
(Psalm 90 ESV)

To those familiar with the mystery genre, P.D. James is a very prominent name. Her series, featuring poet detective Adam Dalgliesh, is among the best contributions in modern mystery. However, she has also written standalone books, among them the dystopian philosophical novel The Children of Men. After listening to clips from a 1992 interview with James on Mars Hill Audio, I decided I must investigate.

There are a lot of doomsayers out there, but one of the most compelling arguments I’ve heard is the idea that those countries with the greatest birth rates will rule the world, as described by Mark Steyn in his book America Alone. America, for instance, is scraping by at just above replacement rate, which means we'll soon have an enormous elderly population alongside a much smaller young generation - there's no chance one will counterbalance the other. It's already happening in Japan.

The Children of Men is an extreme realization of that possibility, and it's simply an amazing novel. (EDIT: Interestingly, Mark Steyn drew inspiration from the book, and is acquainted with its author.) While ultimately falling short of its potential, it touches on a huge variety of relevant themes: apathy, power, hypocrisy, hope, death, worship, love, and above all, the sanctity of life.

The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.

James said of the novel: “When I began The Children of Men, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book. I set out to deal with the idea I had. What would happen to society with the end of the human race? At the end of it, I realized I had written a Christian fable. It was quite a traumatic book to write.”

Both things are true - it is very grim, and deals with lots of dark subject matter. James's idea has enormous potential as a concept, but her capacity for world-building is somewhat limited. Her detective stories are always set in a small community, often isolated, cut off from the world. The premise of The Children of Men, on the other hand, is an idea that cries for a bigger picture.

Yet, sensing her limitations, James narrows the focus down to one Oxford academic. Instead of the common dystopian conceit of a rivalry between a war-torn hero and a far-off, omniscient dictator, we have scholarly Theo and his cousin, Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. Theo and Xan grew up together, looking back to carefree school days like the garden of Eden. This echoes the relationship of Brideshead Revisited's Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte - Xan even points this out: “How too Brideshead, dear boy. I feel the need of a teddy bear.”

Clive Owen as Theo in the very different (and very differently good) movie adaptation
Theo is quite similar to Charles Ryder - a dispassionate, atheistic narrator who is gradually drawn into the wilder lives of believing characters (by belief I mean not just religion, but any belief, any devotion to an abstract.) At the beginning of the story, Theo cares for nothing, which has destroyed his marriage and his happiness. As the story progresses, he is forced to care, even for unlovely things, which makes him a dynamic character. Knowing some of James's views on love helps to clarify Theo's journey. She believes that love and goodness are seldom showy, but reveal themselves through small acts of kindness, like taking care of the embarrassing physical needs of another. Because it isn't glamorous.

The book is jam-packed with religious overtones, but that doesn't mean it's preachy. Far from it, James's characters are (as usual) very complex and broken, and there is no cut and dry answer to the big questions raised. The primary representative of religion is Julian, a member of a band of dissidents called the Five Fishes. Through Julian, her husband Rolf, and the other Fishes, James examines various forms of religion. Julian comes the closest to the real thing, but her faults give her a sort of skewed perfection, like a badly painted Madonna.

Rolf, whatever he may say, cares most about power. He's a powerful portrait of a passionate revolutionary with dark motivations. Miriam, another of the Fishes, is a former midwife and also receives significant page-time. The last two Fishes, however, Luke and Gascoigne, are little more than names, sacrificed to the Theo-centric narrative. This is one of the weaknesses - as usual, James spends a lot of time talking about the scenery, and the pacing can be very slow. This book could have been faster, and if it was, should have been longer, incorporating more story lines and locations. Again, though, not James's style.

In the end, The Children of Men is about life and death, but more about life. Throughout the story runs the symbolism of the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end. With the abrupt ceasing of childbearing comes the death of the future. The single most harrowing and realistic element of the book is its portrayal of the utter loss of hope occasioned by this world-wide catastrophe. It makes Denethor's issues look like child's play. Never have I truly understood what it meant to the ancient Israelites (and modern Middle Easterners) to have children. To have children was to have a hope. In a world where every woman is a Hannah, an Elizabeth, a Michal, to lose children is to lose your future and your purpose.

Thank God for Leah.

She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children. (Gen. 29:35)

Judah means praise. For Leah had found another purpose.

(As ever, P.D. James is one of the most graceful writers in the modern world - her sentences are works of art. Enjoy.)

Theo thought [of the museum caretaker]: Perhaps he will die here quietly, sitting at this table. What better place to go? And then he had an image of the old man left there, still at the table, of the last custodian locking and bolting the door, of the endless, unbroken silent years, of the frail body mummified or rotting at last under the marble gaze of those blank unseeing eyes.

It was reasonable to struggle, to suffer, perhaps even to die, for a more just, a more compassionate society, but not in a world with no future where, all too soon, the very words “justice,” “compassion,” “society,” “struggle,” “evil,” would be unheard echoes on the empty air.

"The world is not changed by the self-regarding, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves."


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I have "Death at Pemberley" by her. I'll have to make sure to read it soon, and see what books the library has! She sounds awesome. I hope to find Children of Men. It's sounds really worth it!


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