Books as Prophets–thoughts on Gail Godwin’s “The Good Husband”

The difference between your Miss or Mr. Literal-mind and the Prophet/Poet is simply this: To Miss Literal-mind, a seed is a seed. She shakes it out of its Burpee packet, covers it with dirt, waters it faithfully, and achieves her petunia. That’s all she aspired to: a petunia. … But when our Prophet considers the lowly mustard seed, what he sees is the growth process of the human spirit: how a tiny, insignificant beginning can grow into a luxuriant shrub capable of sheltering others.

— Magda Danvers from the fictitious Book of Hell: An Introduction to the Visionary Mode in Gail Godwin’s The Good Husband


About fifteen minutes after I finished Gail Godwin’s book The Good Husband, I was out in the pouring Seattle rain, walking from the bus stop on Leary Way up to King’s Hardware. I felt so sad; I was already missing Godwin’s characters, wishing I could read more.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I knew I wanted to write a blog post about it. But when I closed it, put on my rain boots, and headed to the bar, it became obvious that I couldn’t. How dare I write a single post about such a lovely book? Do I dare analyze it to death?

I’ve come to regard all texts as sacred in their own way. And when something is sacred, it’s not so easy to approach. But because it’s sacred, you must approach it. This is my dilemma.

 

What I know I can say about The Good Husband is that it made me think of postmodernism. I’ve read that in postmodern literature, the author makes her presence known. While in modern literature, you might forget the author even exists as you get sucked up in the narrative; in postmodern literature, you’re continually reminded that there’s a mastermind behind the prose.

So in The Good Husband, the reader gets this sense that a character in the book–Hugo Henry, a writer–is writing the book itself. It’s because Hugo talks about how he wants to emulate another book, The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford, a book that’s plot and characters sound awfully similar to those of The Good Husband. 

I say all that to consider how this book is in its own way a prophet. What if books were prophets?

The Good Husband in particular feels prophetic, because it keeps drawing attention to itself. It reminds you that it is a book being written. It’s full of beginnings, middles, and ends.The Good Husband declares things, like a prophet. And then, later on, characters remember the declarations and repeat them.

A favorite quote from this book is said by Laurence, Hugo’s son’s partner. Hugo remembers it chapters later, writing it in a letter to his wife:

“We can’t grow up,” says Laurence,

we can’t escape our tormentors, we can’t be free, until we can express ourselves well enough to be heard by others, can we? Only then can we tell our story. And only by convincingly telling our story can each of us do our bit to help the world grow up.

The quote is drawing in on itself, while expelling out into the world. It’s only by reading stories–like this book, like stories lived out–can the world grow up and change. The book is convicting itself of this–and it’s also convicting its audience. You tell these stories. You write your own.

I wonder now if the heavy sacredness I felt for this The Good Husband while walking from the bus stop to the bar has to do with its profoundly prophetic voice. It was telling me to do something, though I wasn’t completely aware of what. Maybe all I need to do is what I always do, the very thing I fear: write about the book. Tell others what it means to me. And then, loan it out. Purchase it for a friend.

 

About Lauren Sawyer

I am a Ph.D. student studying social ethics in New Jersey. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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