|Simon Rich, author of What in God's Name|
Simon Rich talks to Colin about human nature, playing God, and setting work on fire for insurance money
CGB: God is neither lovingly in charge nor malevolently out for humankind, but apathetically and ignorantly waiting, with arms folded, to be impressed. I was reminded of the title of philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel's book, God in Search of Man, in the sense that even as God's pushing buttons in the break room, watching cows explode abruptly to the horror of their owners for a laugh, he is also at least open to the idea that human beings might be made of more than he can see. Did you set out in your writing of this novel to consider that duality of theological experience and specialness between people and God? Or is that just what humor does? Levels the playing field, calls everyone a fool and king?
SR: When I found out in Hebrew School that man was created in "god's image," it struck me as hilarious. If we resemble God, then logically, he must resemble us! The notion that God might be human-like -- and possess the same weaknesses that we do -- has never ceased to make me laugh. I think that's the reason why I found the Torah so funny growing up. The God of the old testament has unlimited power, and yet in many ways, he's the last person you'd want for the job. He's rash (Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah's flood, etc.), emotionally needy (all those demands for blood sacrifices) and also possibly crazy (telling Abraham to circumcise his own penis at the age of 99, as well as the penises of all his male servants.) He's not necessarily a bad guy, this God of ours, but he probably shouldn't be running the show.
When I think of books I've read that neither desecrate nor proselytize the idea of faith, I'm certain that in order to impel yourself to write hilariously about belief, you must have had or have a kind of reverence and respect for religious ritual, enriched, of course, and countered by the memory or instances of religious ceremonial catastrophe. The first time I volunteered to acolyte at church, for instance, I didn't know we were supposed to recess up the aisle toward the exits after lighting all the candles, so I stood up at the alter for a solid half an hour like a royal guard in service of the minister, pretending to make sure the candles weren't in anybody's eye line. That same year I gave a "sermon" on the beauty of not conforming in a bright orange Abercrombie & Fitch polo I'd picked out the day before. Any moments in your life of such biblical misunderstanding come to mind?
When I was eight, my older brother convinced me that he was God. (It was surprisingly easy. He knew about turn signals and I didn't, so he was able to predict where cars would go in advance. That was all the evidence I needed.) My brother was a pretty demanding God, if memory serves me. He was constantly ordering me to bring him Oreos, even though they were positioned on a very high shelf. But I felt honored to serve him and was genuinely excited to be in the presence of a deity. When my mother forced him to tell me the truth, I was secretly disappointed.
Without giving anything away, what's next for God in the universe your book creates? Does he stick to the Asian Fusion restaurant? Or is God perhaps inclined to reinvest in humankind? I guess what I'm getting at is, what are the chances we'll get to read a story about God and crab sticks in the future?
I think his Asian Fusion joint will survive, but I doubt he'll be a hands-on restauranteur. If precedent tells us anything, he'll probably work hard on the place for 6 straight days, then take the 7th day off, and then kind of "let things go." I can also see him at some point deciding to burn the place down for insurance money.