A review of Testament by Hal Duncan (Eibonvale Press, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone
In a Glasgow tenement, Eli takes a scalpel to the pages of the Bible. He is cutting and pasting passages from the five Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas) in order to create a single, coherent narrative. But this is no mere harmony of the Gospels, it is his personal testament. Between the extracts from the biblical story he inserts his own narrative and commentary as he attempts to clarify what Joshua really stood for.
Hal Duncan describes Testament as a ‘high-concept novel’, and it is certainly a very carefully structured book – down to the number of words in each part of the book. Eli tells us he has set himself the task of creating a testament ‘in seven parts, six chapters each part, four verses each chapter, six hundred words each verse’ (p. 43). And that does seem to be the structure of Testament (admittedly I only bothered to count the words in one verse, but there were indeed 600 of them). But that is only the formal aspect of Duncan’s latest work.
The reworked Gospel narrative is roughly chronological, with the seven parts (Jordan, Capernaum, Tabor, Sychar, Bethany, Gethsemane, and Golgotha) corresponding to seven phases of Joshua’s life and work. It is presented in a double column format reminiscent of the school Bibles of old. However, readers who are familiar with one or more of the major English translations of the Gospels are unlikely to recognize this version. Although Eli does speak at one point about cannibalizing a King James Bible, he also claims to be pinning both Greek and English texts to the walls of his tenement. And, where it seems appropriate, he is quite happy to insert quotations from other sources such as the Song of Songs. This has given Duncan the freedom to offer his own paraphrase of the text and to play with the vocabulary in imaginative and illuminating ways (e.g. God becomes ‘the Sublime’ or ‘the Worker’ depending on the context; demons and the Spirit both become ‘inspiration’, though of very different kinds – ‘fouled’ and ‘sacred’ respectively; the Pharisees become ‘the Select’ = the self-elect and so on).
For me, the real heart of the book is Eli’s gloss/commentary (single column to distinguish it from the Gospel material). Here Duncan’s penchant for Moorcockian multiverse hopping comes to the fore. Eli seems to be preparing his testament in the present day. But it soon becomes clear that he is an eyewitness to the events he is revisiting in Testament. Nor is this simple reminiscence; different times and places seem to melt together. So first-century Capernaum is also a Hebridean fishing village in the 1970s. The Roman occupying forces are armed with all the accoutrements of modern ‘peacekeepers’. Joshua leads an Anonymous-style demo outside the Jerusalem temple. Eli’s father steps out of a 1930s’ Duesenberg and into a Roman men’s club for a meeting with Il Duce Pontius Pilate. Joshua, now wearing an orange jumpsuit, is tried by the House of Representatives in a chamber adorned with fascist symbols. Chancellor Tiberius issues dictats from the Oval Office.
An analogous melting and merging takes place with the viewpoint character, Eli. He is a rich young man when he first meets Joshua, but he also identifies himself as the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, Barabbas, and a certain Judaean from Kerioth. And the picture he builds up of Joshua’s character is equally multifaceted: charismatic young rabbi, pot-smoking hippy, radical therapist/healer, dangerous subversive.
The overarching theme of Joshua’s life and work as seen through the eyes of Eli is the Empire never ended, the Empire must end, the Empire will end. By Empire is not meant just one particular historical manifestation, be it Rome, the Caliphate, the Third Reich, or the USA, but the entire spirit of Empire. Eli certainly buys into Joshua’s opposition to the spirit of Empire, but he doubts Joshua’s methods and fears the consequences of creating a faith that is so easily co-opted by the very thing it is intended to subvert.
This is not a book for everyone. It could have been written specifically to raise the hackles of the Sad Puppies (though it was already in the making long before the Sad Puppies were a twinkle in Larry Correia’s eye). So anyone looking for an action-packed SFF novel will have to look elsewhere. Nor is it likely to commend itself to conservative Christians. But if you are at all interested in a very well written piece of speculative fiction of breath-taking scope, which offers a weird new perspective on one of the formative narratives of Western culture, Hal Duncan’s Testament is a must-read.