Etc Etc Amen. Part Two of a review of a novel by Howard Male
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 3 2015.
Part One can be found here:
Howard Male has written on music for the Independent, Songlines, The Word and other publications and on the arts in general for theartsdesk.com. He is also a musician. Etc Etc Amen is his first novel.
“Let go of your belief – it’s more trouble than it’s worth! Many have died fighting over the small print from the undeniably ambiguous texts of their holy books. Belief is an End not a Beginning. Making a choice with regards to a theological position is patently absurd. Because…We. Know. Nothing.”
Male’s novel deals with rock god Zachary Bekele who founds a non-religion called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis.
KUU stands for the Knowing Unknowing Universe. Male says: “I wanted to see if it was possible to devise a theology which went completely against the troubling grain of all that had gone before it, yet made perfect if eccentric sense as an alternative.” “Knowing” suggests something that demonstrates intelligence as well as something beyond our comprehension. “Unknowable” means we have to be content with unresolved guesses because all religion is guesswork. “Universe” symbolises what we find impossible to understand. The more knowledge we acquire the more fragile and contingent we feel. “The Gratuitous just keeps on raining down”.
KUU-ism is a middle way between theism and atheism; an escape from the “tribal binary prison”. Even our greatest thinkers only seem to pose either/or questions or definitive statements. Everything is reduced to the taking of sides while the truths remain ambivalent and overlooked. “Sitting on the fence might actually give us the best view”.
The Tripod built in Marrakech symbolises this third way. It is a middle way between the belief in an interventionist or non-interventionist deity. The KUU is semi-interventionist, and recognises `Cosmic Nudges’ – KUU-incidences (what Carl Jung called Synchronicities). KUU offers a welcome to refugees from any faith or even “agonised agnostics” and atheists. Bekele describes himself as “part evangelical agnostic and part woolly-minded fantasist”. He also says he is, “just a born-again questioner with a novel interpretation of the facts”.
KUU asserts that science is just as likely to be made up of bizarre hypotheses as ancient religion was made of bizarre gods. Scientists have not “made a dent on some of the central mysteries of mind, soul or creation”. KUU is not a personifying name of an entity that explains everything. “Why should we suddenly have all the answers now any more than we did two hundred or even two thousand years ago?”
Religions have dumb rules. The bible gives equal weight to sartorial and dietary advice and serious misdemeanours. KUU Ground Rules are not Commandments. There are Eleven KUU Non-Commandments (or Gentle Suggestions), concerned with the individual’s well-being, sense of self and relationship with the possibility of a spiritual realm. Here are a few from the eleven: “You can laugh. You can doubt. Meditate on the Mystery of Music. Embrace and delight in the hello of the Cosmic Nudge. Forget about love, Empathy and respect are the real deal. Respect is rarely blind, stupid, jealous or crazy because it requires prior thought and has to be earned.
The central idea is that a connection can be cultivated between The Knowing Unknowable Universe and the receptive “entertainer of the possibility on Earth”. You may be enlightened if you entertain the possibility that unexplainable events such as coincidences are Cosmic Nudges. “It is part of our hardwiring that the unexplained is not worthy of our attention…the fact that you have never witnessed a serious car crash does not mean that car crashes don’t exist…the one form of unusual occurrence that we don’t feel self-conscious about discussing is coincidence…what if coincidences are the subtlest form of supernatural phenomena?” “The Cosmic Nudge is the light of infinity glimpsed through a tiny rent in the opaque curtain of everydayness”. We are neither favoured nor persecuted by a higher being. Cosmic Nudges do not reward or punish, they just gently tease, they are playful not frightening.
“Here are some suggestions on how to live a more fulfilling life while also getting the occasional glimpse that there could be to that life than meets the eye. Let those glimpses enrich your daily existence but don’t let them go to your head. Be aware and creative, pursue wisdom knowing it can’t be attained, and find someone to love and have a good time with”.
“Get up off your knees! Don’t pray. Dance!” When you lose yourself in dance you lose your ego.
Optimistic doubt: “instead of living in constant disappointment at not receiving what you think is rightfully yours , you live for the moment and so experience pleasant surprise when good fortune comes your way. Life is the now. “
In spite of this sensible approach, the KUU’s followers decide to interpret KUU doctrine in a way that redefines the KUU as a supernatural entity.
Influences and comparisons
While I was reading the book, a number of possible influences came to my mind. I was not suggesting plagiarism but was intrigued enough to ask the author. I was reminded of Vonnegut’s Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in which Hazel Motes grows up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin. Hazel’s war experience turns him into an atheist and he preaches a gospel of antireligion through his Church of No Christ. I wondered if there might be echoes of The Dice Man by Luke Rinehart.
The film Privilege starring Paul Jones (a rock star playing a rock star) directed by Peter Watkins and written by Johnny Speight dealt with a music idol who develops messianic powers.
Male has not seen the film. He admits to being influenced by “in some sense every decent writer who has ever made me forget I was reading a work of fiction while I’ve been reading their work” However, he has not read Wise Blood and only vaguely recalls The Dice Man.
KUU seemed to have a bit of Buddhism in it, with the absence of a supreme being and prescriptive commandments and the notion of a “middle” way. All faiths except KUU are focused on blinkered certainty. “All moral codes stem from a paradoxical blend of selfishness and altruism…KUUism is about responsibility, rather than the handing over of that responsibility to a higher order, be it human or supernatural”. I noted that Zachary’s band was called The Now. Male told me: “Buddhism, oddly enough, I only began investigating with any genuine curiosity after I’d finished writing the novel, as my sister – who has been a halfway house Buddhist for about eight years – saw a lot of Buddhism in KUUism. The new novel Serious Fun explicitly shows this influence in that it centres on a character who has recently taken up mindful meditation.”
Male told me: “KUUism had – as its two starting points – the number of unlikely remarkable coincidences that were happening to me as I considered the idea of the cosmic nudge, and the self-appointed task of devising a religion (non-religion) that was the opposite of the existing religions yet morally and (to a degree) rationally sound.”
Male has written much rock journalism and continues to write expertly on what has come to be known as “World Music”. He brings his own personal inside knowledge of the rock world to the writing of this novel. He was encouraged by supportive comments from respected music journalists like Charlie Gillett, Robin Denselow, Mick Brown, David Quantick and Nick Coleman. Coleman described the novel as “an art-school rock-theological satirical thriller.” The book received glowing praise from Tony Visconti, an American record producer who has had a long association with David Bowie. Visconti said: “It’s a wonderful book! I am even more awestruck the second time around. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. One of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade’. Whitbread prize-winning novelist Patrick Neate thought it was “something really special”.
Howard Male tells me that he has completed a sequel called Serious Fun and has started work on the third novel of the trilogy. He is now working on a screenplay of Etc Etc Amen. Etc Etc Amen is available on Kindle.