Simon Rich is very funny. Seriously, the last time I pissed myself in mixed company was when I first read one of his New Yorker pieces, “A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids Table.” I’ve read many of his shorter works since, including others published in “Shouts & Murmurs” and all those collected in Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations. Rich’s sense of humor is strange and surprising and almost always produces a reaction you might have rather suppressed.
His novel, What in God’s Name, is funny, too. It’s an easy read about a couple of work-obsessed angels, Craig and Eliza, trying to help a couple of hopeless humans, Sam and Laura, finally get together. If they succeed, then God will call off this whole destroying-the-Earth thing he’s decided to do. Basically, the “Boss” is bored with humanity, but he still can’t resist a good bet.
Here’s the thing: What in God’s Name is funny independently of its premise. It’s funny because the writing is funny, because Sam and Laura are so hopeless, and because it is so obvious that Craig and Eliza want to get together, too. The whole “heavenly bureaucracy” angle doesn’t add all that much. In fact, it quickly becomes the most tired part of the book.
We’re first introduced to God as “the CEO.” He likes to watch megachurch services and NASCAR on his big screen TV, and he seems to have trouble keeping up with all the wars and genocides going on in the world. What really concerns him is getting Lynyrd Skynyrd back together despite most of the original members being dead. He drinks beer on the job and knocks off early to play golf. That’s right: God is a bro.
It’s funny at first, but the joke doesn’t go anywhere. God is a bro, Heaven isn’t any better than a Club Med vacation, and every sentence only reinforces the idea that the Earth is what matters:
Most Heaven Inc. employees spent less than five hours a day in the office. The campus had everything: tennis courts, bocce, a koi pond. It was crazy to spend all your time indoors.
But whenever Craig signed up for a golf lesson, or rented out a rowboat, he felt ridiculous. There were a lot of fun things to do in heaven. But none were as thrilling as what you could on earth.
Earth is the place where people are praying and yearning and striving to make something of their lot, and the book becomes much more interesting when the bulk of the action moves onto terra firma. So much more interesting, in fact, that I never could quite figure out what was important about Craig and Eliza being angels. I’m not sure it would have changed the book in any thematically significant way had they been merely two humans trying help their incredibly frustrating friends do the obvious.
Sam and Laura’s unromantic affair is without a doubt my favorite part of the book. From the moment they first lay eyes on each other, when they both accidentally attend a protest “die-in,” until they finally go on a date, Sam and Laura’s “courtship” is a romantic comedy car wreck. They are as shy and awkward as two people can be. They both spend a lot of time watching a reality TV show called “Bizarre Bodies” by themselves, when all they really seem to want is someone else to watch it with:
On the television screen, two conjoined toddlers were feeding each other pieces of hamburger meat. The twins shared a laugh and Laura felt an unmistakable stab of jealousy. It would be nice to always have someone by your side, to push hamburger into your face and make you smile.
They’re easy characters to root for, and a lot of what they do is hard not to laugh at, even if you often sort of want to strangle them. It’s their story that makes this breezy read worth a day on the beach or a sunny afternoon if you’ve got one handy. I basically read the whole thing on one long delayed subway ride. It makes for an engaging distraction, but you can pretty much forget about all the heaven stuff. I know I did.
Similar reads:Elliot Allagash and Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations by Simon Rich, and Getting Even by Woody Allen.