We asked Rebecca Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, to respond one of the questions included in our reading group guide. Below, Rebecca explains why she added the question to our guide–and why she feels that the intersections of humor and cruelty make great opportunities for discussion.
The Question: “Religion is an immensely serious topic and yet the author chose to write her novel in a mostly comic vein. Why do you think she did that? What role does humor play? Do you find her humor to be sometimes cruel?”
When the list of reading group questions for 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction was submitted to me for my approval, I added in a few of my own, including this one. (Notice, by the way, how careful I am to state the sub-title of the book; after all, that sub-title is the first joke. What’s the joke? Discuss!)
Why did I think it was important to have a question devoted to the humor of the book? Maybe I was just being manipulative. Ever notice how when someone who’s known as The Funny One in the group opens his or her mouth to speak everyone is already smiling, preparing themselves to laugh? I love that. I love That Funny One and the atmosphere they create. The more serious and personal the topic, the more exposed toes there are just waiting to be painfully trod upon, the more important I think it is to have an atmosphere in which people are already smiling, poised to laugh with one another.
Here’s another thing: Humor and philosophy are intimately connected—which doesn’t mean, alas, that philosophers are always comic geniuses. But the moves you have to make, in pursuit both of humor and of philosophy, are quite similar. Both humor and philosophy require a person to take a giant step away from the normal way of looking at things. It’s at this distance that both philosophical questions and funniness can emerge. Philosophers’ word for this distanced way of looking at things is “objectivity.” The Funny One is already half-way there to being a good philosopher.
I added the piece about cruelty because I thought it might be a good point for group discussion, meaning I thought it could get a good rip-roaring argument going. I have my own view about my characters. I happen to feel deep sympathy for each and every one of them, even Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper, but others might feel very differently about these characters. I can’t control that—nor, I suppose, do I want to. The ‘I suppose’ is an indication of some ambivalence on my part. It’s painful for me, sometimes, to hear characters I sympathize with gone after savagely by readers. But that’s the price of being a novelist. Characters in a novel, just like people in real life, call forth vastly different responses from different people. We’ve all had the experience of a friend (or worse: a close relative) falling in love with someone we find eminently unlovable, and we wonder: what is he/she seeing in that person? Real people are dense with unanswerable questions concerning their true nature—unanswerable even to themselves—which means that real people support wildly different interpretations of them. Characters in a novel should be like that as well, I think. I don’t hate any of my characters, but you very well might. And it might even seem to you that I created them in order for you to hate them. That’s what I meant by ‘cruelty.’
Rebecca also spoke to The New York Times recently about her penchant for (and the challenges of) including philosophy in her novels. Click here to read the full article.