Science Fiction Though the Decades

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2011: The Breath of God (Small, Jeffrey)

Modern pulp through and through (2/5)

I can’t define what “popular fiction” is, but I tend to steer away from it. Is it similar to “pop music”, meant for the broadest spectrum of people for mass consumption? Is it similar to “pop art”, whimsical pieces to catch the eye and entertain? Does popularity equate to quality? Are the hordes of people reading the same book happy? To mince a quote from one of my favorite “popular fiction” titles, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1996): Do people read to popular fiction because they are miserable? Or are they miserable because they read popular fiction?

In regards to modern popular authors, I haven’t read Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, but I have read Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October [1984]), Stephen King(The Running Man [1982]), and Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain [1969])… all oldies. More modern popular fiction… I’ll have to consult my database (beep beep boop): Yan Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997), and Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996). That’s about as modern as I get for popular fiction.

Now, we come to Jeffrey Small’s Breath of God (2011). How did this end up on my to-read shelf? I thank one of my M.Ed. professors for sending me two boxes laden with secondhand goodies from his father’s library sale. He knew I liked fiction and he knew I used to study Buddhism (as a hobby and during my B.A.), but, while his heart was in the right place, this novel was flatter than a saltine cracker on my tongue’s palate (dimensionally, texturally, and taste-wise).

Rear cover synopsis:
A murder at the Taj Mahal. A kidnapping in a sacred city. A desperate chase through a cliffside monastery. All in the pursuit of a legend that could link the world’s great religious faiths.

In 1887, a Russian journalist made an explosive discovery in a remote Himalayan monastery only to be condemned and silenced for the heresy he proposed. His discovery vanished shortly thereafter.

Now, graduate student Grant Matthews journeys to the Himalayas in search of this ancient mystery. But Matthews couldn’t have anticipated the conspiracy of zealots who would go to any lengths to prevent him from bringing this secret public. Soon he is in a race to expose a truth that will change the world’s understanding of religion. A truth that his university colleagues believe is mere myth. A truth that will change his life forever—if he survives.”


Though I went through nine years of Catholic school, I immediately left the church after leaving the school; thus came four years of a-religious tendencies. In university, I was brought back into the fold of religion through my personal interest in world religions, both in courses and in my free time, mainly Buddhism. I had many interests in Buddhism and devoured many texts and devoted lots of time to its practice. Even back then (circa 2000), even though I was a highfalutin grad student, I saw and accepted the similarities between the world religions (through Theravada Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and beyond). So, when a writer pens a novel like Breath of God based on those similarities, it holds an intrigue for me.

On that account—the cross-pollination of ideas in world religions—, the novel does an OK job of capturing its essence for the average reader (it is popular fiction, after all). Small pulls together a lot of facts together with some speculation into a taffy-like plot that stretches its effect to the nth degree. The outcome is interesting, the worldly implications are intriguing, and the secret history of Jesus is also a gem… but when taken together with the pulpiness of its delivery, the novel reads like and has the predictability of a paint-by-numbers picture.

For the sake of convenience and sturdy construction, many parts of the novel are made of wood: the evangelical reverend (Brady) is greedy and preachy, the religious studies graduate student (Grant) is open-minded and persistent, the religious extremist (Huntley) is amoral and internally conflicted, and the lone female role (Minaski) is supportive, of course. Those are the roles, but all characters must also have a flaw: Brady’s ignorance, Grant’s naivety, Huntley’s over-confidence, and Minaski’s… well, she’s just a supportive female so she doesn’t count. The only other female in the book—Professor Martha Simpson—gets blown to smithereens by a bomb, so she’s not worth mentioning either.

Playing their parts to stereotypes, the American evangelical camp is avaricious, scheming, and hell-bent on dogma while the Bhutanese Buddhist camp is simple, serene, and pragmatic. In the American corner, there remains the loose cannon of Huntley, not directly under the employ of Brady, but definitely a wildcard if exposed; in the Bhutanese corner, the wildcard is the abbot of the temple who doesn’t want the texts exposed to the world. Exposure, for both sides of the world and of the story, is a shame worse than the truth.

In the end, this isn’t promoted as “a novel of religious inquiry”, “a novel of spiritual enlightenment”, or “a novel of male dominance in religion and religious studies”… but it’s promoted as “a novel of suspense”. Like the characters and the plot, the suspense is also as predictable as a child’s match-the-shape-with-the-hole game—where it feel like the plot needs an injection of suspense, in the next page it springs. And you know, in those really bad Hollywood action movies, where the villain seems like he dies, only he has one last gasp of energy to revenge himself and attacks—not once, but twice—and the viewer just screams at the screen, “Just kill the bastard!”… well, it’s the same in this book.

Then there’s the end, which is all inclusive and wholly satisfying to those who demand a dreamy marriage, a wonderful promotion, and a all-encompassing personal history rehash. It’s everything that a typical epilogue should be and—while I understand that it should provide closure—it’s all too laid out, neat, fanciful, ideal, etc. It simply reeks of being a popular fiction epilogue, a pulpy ending to a pulpy book. After all the terribly predictable suspense, the conclusion is a terribly written piece of gristle at the end of a chewy string of pulp.

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