This week I am taking part in the 1954 Club, hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. The idea is simple – just read a book from the year in question and review it! I can’t always take part in the bi-annual Club events, but was delighted this time round to find a book in the 746 that fit the bill.
Considering it was published in 1954, Gore Vidal’s Messiah feels surprisingly current and insightful. Charting the rise of an alternative religion in the unsettled landscape of post-war America, the novel charts the birth of that religion as a simple message proffered by a charismatic young man. That message is then organised and publicised until it spreads across the entire non-Islamic world as a warped, bureaucratised version of what it started out as, unrecognisable from its origins.
The novel is narrated 50 years after the events in question by Eugene Luther (Vidal’s real name) one of the architects of that religion. Luther has been living in Egypt for the last fifty years under an assumed name and has been working on an account of what happened when he was introduced to a former embalmer called John Cave (“a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent”) John has been preaching a simple message to small groups, the message being that death is not something to be afraid of, rather it is good to die.
a society which knows what we know, which believes in Cave and what he says, will be a pleasanter place in which to live, less anxious, more tolerant.
Cave’s simple pronouncement changes, when a team forms around him, including a publicist and psychotherapist and he is put on television. Thanks to his broadcasts, his popularity soars and Cavite Inc. is born, complete with a board, shareholders and Eugene Luther as chief doctrine writer. Out of a sense of having nothing better to do and intellectual curiosity, Luther finds himself creating the ideological backdrop for this new religion.
Using scraps of other philosophies, religions and alternative beliefs, Luther creates the ‘Gospel’ that will become Cavesword, the new dominant religion. As Cavesword spreads like wildfire across the Globe, the organisation that springs up around him becomes as dictatorial and authoritarian as any religion that has come before. Every city in America soon has a Cave Centre, with Residents and Communicators replacing rabbis, priests and bishops.
Eugene Luther’s misgivings about what is happening grow as Cavesword is taken to its logical conclusion and suicides soar. The Cave centres set up special suicide units where true believers can come and take ‘Cavesway’ in a controlled environment. Churches are burned to the ground; the Vatican is razed and the methods employed to ensure that the whole world follows Cave become more and more sinister. As the reasons for Luther’s flight to Egypt under an assumed name become clear and his past seems to be catching up with him, the tension becomes palpable.
To say any more about the plot of Messiah would be to spoil what is an engrossing and satisfying novel. Drawing cleverly on parallels with Christianity, Messiah depicts how even the most benign of messages can become commodified and bastardised until it is no longer the alternative to something, but the same thing in a different form. Although the reader is kept in the dark about Cave’s intentions, or his complicity in the creation of him as a Messiah, Vidal leaves us in no doubt that once profit can be made; religion just becomes another form of lucrative business.
He was a magician in the great line of Simon Magus and the Faust of legend. That much even now I will acknowledge…his divinity, however, was and is the work of others, shaped and directed by the race’s current need.
Vidal uses the landscape of America after the war as a site of a hungering for stability and truth. It was a time when UFO sightings were at a peak and the populace was greedy for the notion of some kind of higher power, which sets the stage for Cave’s arrival.
Vidal also explores the power of television and of literature in post-war America, both as a means of communication and as a medium of persuasion, the television as the ‘home altar’ at which the whole nation could worship Cave while the fictionalised doctrine, written by Luther himself, becomes the dominant social and political force across the world.
Cave certainly had one advantage over his predecessors: modern communications. It took three centuries for Christianity to infest the world. It was to take Cave only three years.
I think it is also important to point out that Messiah is, at times, incredibly funny. One character is said to talk in ‘chapter-headings chosen haphazardly from an assortment of Victorian novels’ while Luther believes that orientalism is popular with writers in California as ‘an atonement no doubt for their careers as movie writers.’
The novel is essentially a satire of any organised belief system and yet Vidal seems to stay true to Cave’s pronouncement that we should face death in the same way we live life and embrace the brevity of the time we have. Messiah is real gem of a novel, thought provoking – even today – and filled with wit, suspense and skill.
REaD on: kindle
Number Read: 365
Number Remaining: 381
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!