Stephen Baker

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Gospel Prism

June 26, 2015General

I just finished reading an extraordinary book called Gospel Prism, by Gerald Weaver. In one sense, I’ve never read another book like it. But in another sense, every book I read and every book I write is similar, because Gospel Prism is about every book and even goes so far as to try to be every book.

Needless to say, it’s a very ambitious novel.

Some history. I met Gerry Weaver in the ‘70s. He was a roommate of a friend of mine at Yale. I haven’t seen him since. But during those decades, he rose to a powerful staff position in Congress, was embroiled in a scandal there in the early 90s, and spent some time at a minimum security prison. This experience provides the setting and context for Gospel Prism, though the book stretches far beyond the jail walls in its themes and its scope.

A couple of years ago, Gerry got in touch with me and told me that he’d written this novel. He wondered if I might read it and provide feedback. I said yes. About a week later, an immense envelope arrived in the mail. 

I was a bit overwhelmed. I was (and am) used to helping people tell stories and organize their thoughts. But Gospel Prism wasn’t journalism or a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end. It was a big, weighty hunk of literature. It was unclear and dreamlike.

In many ways, Gospel Prism was the opposite of everything I write. My goal in writing is to make it so easy and fun that people forget they’re reading. If there’s a difficult concept or technology, I try to sand it down to a smooth surface. 

Gerry takes the opposite path. He wants readers not only to remember they’re reading, but to celebrate it. Reading, after all, is miraculous. It’s how we share ideas and experiences not only from one person to another, but also from century to the next. It may be closest thing we have to a universal brain.

Gospel Prism drives home this theme by running through the canon of Western literature. Each chapter draws from a different classic and delivers a different life lesson. It wrestles with the biggest questions, about life, love,  and God. It starts with Don Quixote, and runs through Shakespeare, Dante and Milton. It’s a book about books, and it’s only fitting that toward the end it takes the voice of the ultimate bibliophile, Jorge Luis Borges. 

I’m not going to try to summarize the book in this review. (I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Sacramento and have a redeye flight to catch in San Francisco in only 10 hours!) 

So I’ll just break out one part of it: The unreliable narrator. Gospel Prism’s first chapter, Lepanto Road Dogs, is modeled after Don Quixote, which (if we put the Bible to one side) features perhaps the most famous unreliable narration in literature. It’s supposedly written by a Moorish historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. His text was translated into Spanish by an unnamed (and no doubt unreliable) “morisco,” and it was then edited for the reader by the one-armed Spaniard (who, like Gerry, spent time in prison), Miguel de Cervantes. (The battle in which Cervantes lost his arm, Lepanto, is referenced in the book. I have no doubt that I missed hundreds of other references, but I caught that one.)

Gerry Weaver plants plenty of seeds of doubt in his own narration. The beautiful female Jesus who guides his narrator along his journey tells him to “be suspicious of all words, even and especially the word of God, because words are limited in and of themselves and by the human minds that form and then hear them.”

Hundreds of pages later, the narrator remembers telling his mother a fib. With that lie, he recalls, ”[T]he secrets of an entire universe had just opened up to me. She could not see that I had told her a lie and there was something about that which had been sublime and had been more than liberating.”

So the character, who for some reason winds up in prison, likes to lie, and it’s his story we look to for truth. Funny enough, we might find it there.


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