OF THIS NOVEL, his eighth, Bernard Malamud has declared: "Fantasy is play, fanciful invention, and that's what I engage in in my new book, God's Grace, in the hope that I can make an insightful and ultimately 'useful' statement about the human condition these days. That's quite a task. As for the mode of this fiction, perhaps you can think of it as a visionary tale with a prophetic warning." To which can only be said: Beware of novelists bearing "statements," all the more so when they have nothing interesting or arresting to say.
That Malamud is one of the most distinguished American postwar writers of fiction needs no further elucidation in this space. But God's Grace occupies the some place in his career that A Fable does in William Faulkner's, The Old Man and the Sea in Ernest Hemingway's, Oh What a Paradise It Seems in John Cheever's. These are autumnal novels, inspired by what seems a strong determination to gather into a single volume all the themes and concerns that occupied the novelists throughout their lives. They are not so much works of fiction as sermons, heavily larded with all of that genre's most disagreeable characteristics: preachiness, extreme moral righteousness, over-simplification. They do not diminish their authors' high reputations (or at least they should not be permitted to), but they scarcely enhance them; they are flat, lifeless, pompous.
So it is with God's Grace, the story of one Calvin Cohn, the only human survivor of "the thermonuclear war between the Djanks and Druzhkies, in consequence of which they had destroyed themselves, and, madly, all other inhabitants of the earth . . ." As the novel opens, Cohn, a paleologist, is floating across what may be the Indian Ocean aboard the Rebekah Q, an oceanographic-research ship: "Of all men only Calvin Cohn lived on, passionate to survive." He conducts a dialogue with the Lord, whose lines could have been written by the public- relations department of Friends of the Earth:
"They have destroyed my handiwork, the conditions of their survival: the sweet air I gave them to breathe; the fresh water I blessed them with, to drink and bathe in; the fertile green earth. They tore apart my ozone, carbonized my oxygen, acidified my refreshing rain. Now they affront my cosmos. How much shall the Lord endure?"
The more pertinent question, it says here, is: How much shall the reader endure? Aboard the ship Cohn discovers "a small chimpanzee with glowing, frightened eyes, sitting scrunched up amid bottles of cleaning fluid, grinning sickly as he clucked hoo-hoos." It turns out that the animal, whom Cohn names Buz, had been equipped before the thermonuclear holocaust with an apparatus for artificial speech, which enables the animal and the paleologist to undertake a series of heavy conversations. Spewing instant bromides in every direction, Cohn instructs the chimp with relentless solemnity: "It's through language that a man becomes more finely and subtly man -- a sensitive, principled, civilized human being -- as he opens himself to other men -- by comprehending, describing and communicating his experiences, aspirations and nature -- such as it is. Or was." The correctness of that observation is exceeded only by the banality of it.
Eventually the two seafarers cast ashore on an island, where in due time other chimpanzees appear. Soon enough Cohn has them all chattering merrily and absorbing his endless homilies; "To do what God might be expecting, now that a common language existed between himself and the chimps, Cohn felt he ought to try to educate them to some decent level. Eventually to make them aware of the cosmos and of mankind, too, who had fallen from earth and cosmos, because men had failed each other in obligations and responsibilities -- failed to achieve brotherhood, lost their lovely world, not to mention living lives."
Cohn doesn't stop at talking to the animals; in a scene that's clearly intended to be luminous and manages only to be ludicrous, he makes love to a female of the chimpanzee persuasion named Mary Madelyn, a union that produces a daughter, a "man-chimp child" who, Cohn devoutly hopes, will move the new round of evolution "an eon or two ahead on the molecular clock." But of course there is hubris in Cohn's attempt to "monkey with evolution" just as there is in his campaign to ennoble the chimps' moral vision, and so his comeuppance is certain. Into his little Eden come temptations of various kinds and degrees, to which the chimps succumb. Despite all of Cohn's teachings, the Fall is repeated: "I have failed to teach these chimpanzees a basic truth, How can they survive if they do to fellow survivors what men did to each other before the Second Flood? How will they evolve into something better than men?"
This, I take it, is the "prophetic warning" of God's Grace. Well. Has he sold the movie rights yet? Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Joan Baez as Calvin Cohn and Ed Asner as Buz, the film of God's Grace should be at least as deep as Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- maybe even as profound as E.T. With its anthropomorphic creatures and its sappy, knee-jerk "ideas," it's right down Spielberg's alley.
Is this being too hard on Malamud? Does the author of Idiots First and The Magic Barrel and The Assistant deserve gentler, more respectful tratment than this? Perhaps so. But because Malamud has written wonderful books in the past, because he has his heart so resolutely fixed in all the right places -- clean air! clean water! universal brotherhood! -- are we obliged to forgive him the manifold shortcomings and self-indulgences of God's Grace? I think not. If a case can be made that an artist deserves special deference because of the distinction of his past work, a stronger one can be made that precisely because of that previous excellence, his new work must be measured against lofty standards. By such a measure, God's Grace can be compared only with The Fixer--the first novel in which Malamud ascended his pulpit and bored his admirers to distraction. Once was quite enough.