I admit to a love of this world, in all its mess, complexity, pain, and challenge. It tries me at times, but I love it.
As often as in its joy, I find my love in its pain and challenges. This isn’t a simple world, as I imagine we all know, and it’s often not the most kind. This is as true within the human element of our world as within all the rest of it. I’ve written time and again here of some of the failings I see in how we humans live here, in and on our home, upon this planet that will surely be our only one. We have some particularly egregious failings at this point in our history, though I hesitate to claim them more egregious than at other times. I wasn’t there; I don’t really know. (Or if I was, in some past life or another, I don’t remember it well enough to pass judgement.)
Yet, I can’t stand behind the idea of original sin. It never has made much sense to me. Maybe that’s as much due to the way I’ve heard and read it represented, seeing as I have no strong background in Christian theology (aside, of course, from its pervasive threading throughout my culture.) But in how I understand it, the idea holds little appeal to me. We humans are flawed, without question, but I can’t come to see it as an inherent failing.
— ∞ —
This is, in some ways, a review of Dean Koontz’s book Innocence, though it’s more than that, too. It’s a response, I suppose, and an explication.
Growing up, Dean Koontz proved my second favorite author, behind only Christopher Pike. Even as my taste in reading began to shift away from genre fiction and more toward literature—and, eventually, a healthy mix of nonfiction in with that—I still read Koontz. I still read horror and other genre fiction in general. The better works are grand entertainment, and the right ones can emotionally strike me just as well as any lovely work of literature. Koontz didn’t always strike me emotionally, but he often did a fine job of entertaining me and proved a strong linguistic practitioner. I enjoyed much of what he did with words, though every now and again it would feel too luxuriant. Who am I to complain about such a tendency, though?
A few years ago, I grew tired of his new books. They kept putting me off, not so much because of the writing (though he did release some mediocre ones) but more because of the sensibility behind them. His tropes came consistent in every book, and they started to wear thin. Thus, I stopped reading him and relegated his works to fond memories from my childhood, such as voraciously reading Shadowfires while camping. But then I heard some good things about his new book, Innocence, and I decided to check out a copy from the library and give him another shot. Maybe he had worked his way through the phase that so put me off and come out the other side to a place I would find more appealing, more in line with what I loved of his early work.
Or perhaps not.
What I found instead was a well-written and mostly compelling read that, ultimately, placed into sharp contrast the reason why I had grown disillusioned with Koontz’s more contemporary works. It came down to a question of world views, of where I am with how I live today and what I think about humanity contrasted with where Koontz appears to be coming from. And to fully explain it, I’m going to have to delve into complete and extensive spoilers for Innocence, so if you have any intention of reading the book, I suggest you stop reading now.
— ∞ —
The aforementioned tropes in Koontz’s works can be rattled off readily: protagonists pure of heart, perhaps with a few token flaws, and often somehow set aside from the rest of society; villains of cartoonish black hearts, often with no depth other than evil; kind and clever dogs who help out the protagonist at key times, as though angels direct from God; oftentimes someone in a coma or otherwise seriously debilitated that the cruel and utilitarian Establishment (often physicians and judges) wants to let die; and terrible people inflicting pain and punishment on others at every turn, littered across the societal landscape. In the worlds Dean Koontz writes of, humanity is deeply and perhaps irredeemably flawed, though there are good people littered amongst the vast and evil wasteland, providing the smallest glimmers of hope for redemption. Overall, though, cruelty is everywhere with little respite. Reading Koontz often feels like watching the local evening news.
Innocence follows these tropes well. Every one is present. The two protagonists, Addison Goodheart and Gwyneth, are social outcasts. Though wonderfully kind and caring, Addison—26 years old, as the story begins—has been born with some kind of unexplained deformity that causes other people to want to murder him on sight. Seeing even just his eyes can create this effect, and it’s not limited only to those black of heart, but to near all people. Gwyneth, on the other hand, is a woman of 18, dressed and made up as a goth, who has an extreme social phobia that leaves her barely able to be around others and unable to be touched by anyone. Both have lived lives of seclusion: Addison within the bowels of the city, deep underground in a few small and mysterious rooms, initially living with his adopted father, who suffers the same condition, and—for the last six years, as the story begins—alone after his father’s death; Gwyneth in the secluded uppermost floor of her father’s house and—later, after his murder—in a series of homes set up for her via a trustfund.
There’s plenty more to the story, including a terrible antagonist and a multitude of passing cruelties, beatings, and murders. The world in Innocence is a truly dark place, as it so often is in Koontz’s stories. There are moments of beauty, though, and I should make it clear for those who haven’t read Koontz that he often remarks upon the joys of the world, of love, and litters his stories with characters of kindness and compassion, to go along with those who swim in the darker rivers of the heart. Yet, the viewpoint toward humanity tends to be one of fallen grace, and that is as true in this novel—more true, in many ways—as it is in his others.
One of the central mysteries in the book is just what sort of deformity Addison has that compels people to want to murder him on sight. It’s in this mystery that the core of the story resides, and it is revealed, as would be expected, near the end of the book. In its revelation, the strong Christian underpinnings of the story truly take shape, though they are there throughout.
Addison—and, as it turns out, Gwyneth—were born free of original sin. They are not of Adam and Eve and in their purity, they reflect back the shortcomings, failures, and sins of everyone else around them. To look upon them is to be plunged into a dark recounting of one’s own failures, and in each person’s stark understanding of their own true failures and cruelties, nearly all of them turn murderous with misdirected rage and seek, essentially on instinct, to kill the person in front of them who’s mirroring their own true selves.
As this revelation is made, it also becomes clear that a man-made plague is sweeping across the globe. The North Koreans have created a combination of the Ebola virus and a flesh-eating bacteria and have lost control of it. This isn’t surprising, considering they designed it to be airborne, and Koontz fails to explain the basic logical failure on the part of the North Koreans to not realize that an airborne virus loosed on the world would not be able to be controlled. Furthermore, it’s revealed that birds are carriers of the virus, and so it’s spread is essentially inevitable. There is no effective quarantine. The virus has a near-100% mortality rate.
Who, though, is immune? Our protagonists, of course. In being free of original sin, they also happen to be imbued with perfect immune systems. They never become sick, and this man-made monstrosity condemns them no fatal fate. As the story winds down, we learn that there are at least a few others like them and likely still more scattered throughout the world. It is them, we come to understand, who will be left as the apocalyptic plague tears apart the broader world.
A character in the book, Father Hanlon, tells us that this is not the Revelation spoken of in the Bible, but is the work of humanity instead. And yet, the final pages of the novel unfold otherwise, in my mind. As the plague infects the world’s population, our two protagonists and three children—also free of original sin—retreat to a decadent cabin in the woods, in fine repair and with a three year stock of food. On their way there, they’re joined by a large group of dogs, which help protect them at a final, critical moment. They settle into the cabin and, within a few days, they sense that humanity has been wiped out, aside from them and whomever else is like them, scattered across the globe. At the same time, the forest around them changes, new trees and plants take up residence within it, and these new species bear nourishing fruit—a fruit that provides all their nutritional needs, as well as the needs of all the animals of the woods. As such, predator and prey no longer dance in their unending cycle, but instead frolic together in the sun and grass. The children ride on the backs of bears. The earth becomes a community of perfect harmony, beauteous, free of the cruelty of death and its role within the cycles of life.
This strikes me as an elementary Heaven, even if we are not to think of the plague as a Rapture. It’s a rejection of the world we know in favor of apocalypse and a resultant paradise, free of all the pain we see around us, the necessary joy and suffering that crafts our lives and the lives of all the creatures on this planet. It strikes me as a rejection of humanity, a rejection of this world of ours, a rejection of all the mess and complexity, pain and suffering, transcendent love and joy that makes up our time here on Earth. Even the necessity of contrast is rejected in the novel’s final sentence: “Until then, there is joy, which by the way does not, as was once thought, require contrast with fear and pain to keep its zing” (p. 338). The paradise is absolute; fear and pain have been banished.
— ∞ —
I love this world of ours. Maybe it’s because I’ve had it too easy. Pain has discovered me many times, but I have yet to suffer some of the greater cruelties that happen far too often, often inflicted by others. I’ve lived most my life in physical comfort. Emotional comfort has been less common than physical, but still more common than not. Death’s touch has been light in my life, though it has shown itself, and not all of the deaths have been timely. I’ve loved and lost recently, as the saying goes, but even in the darkest moments of that process I found a startling beauty. The stark emotion somehow heightened me, even as it seemed to suffocate me. I can hardly explain it. But the intensity of it brought me a comfort even as it tore me apart.
And so I love this world. And so I don’t understand original sin. Of course humans are flawed. Of course we make terrible decisions at times, we hurt people, we hurt ourselves, we sometimes even tear apart this amazing and beautiful world of ours. Yet I like humanity. I like humans. I love them. I think we’re beautiful, and stupid, and heartening, and blind and dumb and self-delusional, and capable of incredible love and generosity and tenderness. I thrive on others. I thrive on relationships. I thrive on my interactions with other human beings, even when they’re infuriating and piss me off. Even when they’re hurting me, or I’m hurting them, or we’re hurting ourselves, or we’re conducting some beautifully dark dance in which we hurt each other, mercilessly, completely beholden to our own desperate and contradictory attempts not to hurt.
I don’t think we’re born with some irreversible stain. I think we’re born as creatures in this world, creatures of this world, perfect in our individuality and heartbreakingly vulnerable to both failure and success. We aren’t the tainted lineage of a devastating, initial mistake. We’re of the ever-changing lineage of life on Earth, life in this universe. We are of this planet and its vast, unimaginable, incomprehensible history.
That is a grace. It’s the grace, as far as I’m concerned.
— ∞ —
The way I see and understand this world is not the same as the view in Innocence. I once yearned for Utopia. I no longer do. I prefer the world as it is to the idea of Utopia—though I would most prefer a happy medium in which we live a bit better as a species, complete in our flaws and failures, but with less destruction and unnecessary cruelty. Some years ago, when I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat (an experience I still need to write about here) I couldn’t get behind the philosophy. The teacher, S.N. Goenka, kept talking about Nirvana. I just wanted to go outside, walk the paths, and watch the birds. He said that meditating outside would be too distracting, and so it couldn’t be allowed except for advanced students. I thought the distraction the point of all of this. What the hell are we here for if not to hear the birds sing, to watch them forage within the bare and jagged branches of winter shrubs?
I can’t stop thinking of humans as simply another creature on this planet. We are a unique creature, yes, but then so are all the others. I don’t think we’re uniquely special. Nor do I think we’re uniquely flawed or evil, either as a species or in our culture (which is a part of us as a species.) In much the same way I can’t get behind Koontz’s cruelties around every fictional turn, I can’t get behind the arguments of Derrick Jensen and other such writers that our current culture is horrifically and uniquely evil. It’s the same original sin, the same fallen grace that jumps off every page of Innocence. It’s the same Christian theology that makes no sense to me. We don’t need Redemption as a species or even as a culture, so far as I’m concerned. We just need to stop acting so fucking stupid.
But even in that stupidity, it’s often understandable. That doesn’t make it excusable—the consequences of our actions will demand our acceptance, whether we like it or not—but it is understandable more often than not. I’ve quoted this line before, but in his book Overshoot, William Catton, Jr. wrote something I found both profound and beautiful: “The end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper” (p. 177).
We have made a chain of decisions that bequeaths us a future we likely do not want. For the most part, those decisions weren’t rooted in evil. They were rooted in our attempts not to hurt. The same as we cut ourselves with other people, we cut ourselves with the earth. They may be failings, but each one is a decision. They’re not inherent. And even in their failure, beauty sometimes can be found.
— ∞ —
Koontz no longer works for me. Innocence confirmed what I already knew, no matter how fast and compelling a read it was. The ending bores me. It doesn’t speak to me in the least. In fact, it strikes me as a condemnation. I don’t believe the final sentence; we need the full range of experience and emotion. I don’t want to see predator and prey frolic together while munching on the fruits of Eden; I want to see the heartening cycle of life on Earth played out again and again, even with its pain and suffering and, yes, sometimes cruelty. Maybe my opinion will change when I find myself more direct on the receiving end of the cruelty. Maybe if I endured a childhood like Koontz’s, I would sing a different tune. Maybe I’m guilty of romanticism—I often am.
Yet I want the world as it is. Sure, I could stand to see some changes, as well, but the ones that are possible in the world as it is, not the fantasies of Utopia. Not magical new trees bearing the fruit of an end to violence, but of the hard and individual work of necessary change. Of altered habits and lifestyles, clawed out of the endless backsliding. Of conversations and considerations. Of the tiny victories that go along with the brutal defeats. Of a garden grown, a thermostat turned down, a car shed, a walk taken. Of connection to other lives, human and otherwise. Of respect and love in the face of hatred. Of an honest assessment of the situation we face and a commitment to doing our own small part in making the future better, of changing its shape into something slightly more pleasing, and of understanding the very limited scope within which we are capable of working.
I love this broken, painful, fucked up world. I don’t think it’s the result of an irredeemable mistake. I think it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. I want it to be better, and I’m going to try to make it so. But I’ll take it, this world. Even if I fail to make it better, I’ll take it, because every day—even the unremarkable and shitty ones, the ones I fail, the ones I grind into dust—bring me joys, and bring me breath, and unveil their grace to me. Even when I’m so busy trying not to hurt, I miss it. It’s still there, the grace, because it’s what this world is made of.