by James Morrow
(William Morrow, 1990, 321 pages, $19.95 cloth)
The startling jacket copy for Only Begotten Daughter promises “a novel that has something to offend everyone!” — a boast one wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see outside of the horror racks.
But considering the startling story between the covers of James Morrow’s new book, that notice can only be considered fair warning. Only Begotten Daughter is not a horror novel, but it is often a novel of horrors — a discomfiting, chaotic, brutally cynical, rub-your-nose-in-the-dirt story of the Messiah’s Second Coming. But this isn’t quite the Second Coming the revelationists have been expecting: the Messiah’s name is Julie Katz, and she doesn’t know why she’s here, or what to do with her divine power.
It’s probably an insurmountable challenge for a reviewer to try to capture in a few hundred words the captivating delirium of this careening runaway carousel of a book. Only Begotten Daughter is full of jarring, radical images — the devil smoking Pall Malls and plotting his moves on a portable computer, a bizarre Last Supper of pizza, public executions with hedge clippers, Jesus in hell and wholly ignorant of his impact on history. In some respects, Morrow seems to have written a manic Satanic Verses for the Judeo-Christian world.
Yet, at the same time, Morrow’s novel is suffused with a peculiar innocence, an earnest inquiry into the nature of godhood, and an enduring if battered optimism about the importance of love. These three elements of the tale are embodied most clearly in Morrow’s endearing, bewildered heroine, who faces not only the ordinary trials of human existance, but temptation from Satan, persecution as the Antichrist, and a poignant, frustrating search for her Mother’s sign and guidance.
Juxtaposing lyrical interludes which could be outtakes from Disney’s Little Mermaid with hellish spectacles worthy of de Sade, Only Begotten Daughter defies ready categorization — neither fantasy nor black comedy, parable nor prophecy. But it is clearly no mere exercise in idol-toppling and totem-skewering. If the narrative makes us flinch, it’s only because it is itself so unflinching in its dissection of human foibles and cruelty.
Ultimately, Morrow has given us a frank and fascinating novel which provokes, rather than offends — a remarkable work of fiction with the power to disturb our complacency, and challenge us to consider anew the thorny questions of life and faith.
–Michael P. Kube-McDowell is a member of SFWA and the author of The Quiet Pools, to be published in hardcover this May by Ace Books.