John, by Niall Williams

This 2008 work is a remarkable novel of the imagination. Williams has immersed himself in the minds, the bodies, and the souls of the Apostle John and his followers, around 100 AD. From the time he and they are exiled to Patmos, when John is an old man and blind, to his discovery of peace at Ephesus.

But throughout this period, disappointment and frustration lurk. For John, and his disciples, are waiting for the return of Jesus, his Second Coming. It is what sustains him in his old age, and what seems to hold together his disciples. The reader knows they are mistaken, of course, in awaiting Jesus’ return, but their faith, their belief in Him will culminate with the understanding, the transformation, that will provide fulfillment to their life, and to this novel.

From the very first chapter, I found myself immersed in the reality of this primitive era and the tender care with which John’s disciples look after their frail leader. Not to mention their deep faith as they ready themselves for the return of Christ, the only conclusion they can see that justifies their political exile on this desolate, rock-covered island.

Also evocative of this ancient era is the style Williams has chosen to tell his tale. It is highly poetic, as is his style in all his novels, but beyond being beautiful to read, it also serves to render quite natural the biblical world in which these characters live. Moreover, it is complemented by brief passages even more biblical in feeling when John recalls moments of his youth when he walked with Jesus.

But, of course, this is also a novel. And a novel needs more than style. There must be movement, must be tension that allows the characters to interact. Which, in turn, carries the reader ahead. And so an unexpected death early on confronts these holy men, followed by an innocent confrontation with the devil, and, finally, rebellion. Indeed, these dozen or so disciples become more human as half of them turn against their leader.

Their rebellious leader, Matthias, argues that if they are to be abandoned by a Jesus who does not return, then John cannot be believed, and so they are foolish to follow him. In this way, Matthias convinces his followers that he knows the true path to God, and that they should strike out on their own, establishing their own community. And realize that Matthias is closer to God than John ever was. It begins as an effective portrait of evil; but as it goes on, it seems quite an obvious one.

My assumption is that this rebellion is a fruit of the author’s imagination, and is part of his novelization of this portrait of John. In any event, it fits perfectly. It underscores the weakness, as well as the humanity, of these men who see themselves as servants of God. It also raises the issue of doubt, which many see today as a constant ingredient of faith. Indeed, the positive response of the remaining disciples makes their own faith stronger.

Williams has written that the germ of this book came to him when he was in the middle of another book. It came in the form of this question: what was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel? “I was looking for…the man not the Apostle,” he writes. “I was drawn to the human dimension, the idea that John was most likely the youngest of the Apostles, maybe even a teenager, and that the most significant event of his life happened then, that everything else is aftermath. His is by most agreed accounts the last of the four main gospels written. So, why does he wait so long?” And after considerable research he found himself “writing John’s experience of banishment, his disappointments in the world, and his long enduring. I am writing of belief from the inside where the doubts are.”

The climax of this novel certainly reflects Williams’ moment of inspiration. But it also reflects the depth of his research. For while the desolation of Patmos was comparatively easy to portray, the portrayal of

Ephesus is much more complex. For it was a bustling city, with merchants hustlers, and charlatans everywhere. Indeed, John can make no headway in this city of commerce—and succeeds only when there is a transformation within him. Which follow the intervention of nature…and also of God?

What was John doing before writing his gospel? He was recovering from an earthquake, recovering slowly, all the while still waiting for Jesus to return. But just as earlier, he had rediscovered the importance of love and been inspired to dictate scripture, so now a violent thunderstorm, with brilliant lightening, helps him to realize the importance of light, and how it symbolizes what Jesus brought to mankind and to the world. Which is when he is inspired to write his gospel.

But neither Williams nor the reader can forget the novel’s focus on Papias, the youngest disciple who from the beginning has served the apostle, being the youngest and the strongest. And at the climax, he as well as John is near despair at the failure of Jesus to return. Indeed, he is suffering further, for he has unwittingly contacted the plague in Patmos, and now is ashamed of his physical condition and his failure to serve his master.

When John is revived, however, after the storm, he at once cures Papias of the plague—on the last page. I think this a misstep by Williams, as if he cannot leave this young man near despair at the end, and must save him with a miracle. One suspects that Papias is a fictional character, and Williams wanted to give him a similar crisis at the end of this tale, but he could have given him another different fate—and not needed a miracle. If he was an historic figure, I apologize, but I still regret the author resorting to a miracle.

Overall, Williams was right to see his tale as a love story. It is a story of John’s love of Jesus, which motivates his entire life. But it also about his love of his disciples. And their love of God, yes, but even more their love of this aged, infirm man whom they support and guide, and refuse to desert.

This novel once again demonstrates Williams’ beauty of style on one level and depth of humanity on another. It is a depth that stems from his recognition of and commitment to the spiritual nature of man. I shall certainly continue reading him. (August, 2016)

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