Burgess's big, grating mixed bag of a novel; Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess. New York: Simon & Schuster. $15.95.
Anthony Burgess's latest of more than 20 novels traverses a violent panorama of the 20th century in the service of at least two themes from previous works. There is the centrality of free choice as a human attribute to be cherished no matter how egregious the choices made. This echoes from the book and film "A Clockwork Orange," by which Mr. Burgess is still best known. And there is the question of participation in life as opposed to what a character in an earlier volume calls "this standing on the periphery and sneering."
In the new book (a Book-of-the-Month Club selection) the narrator and main character is a British expatriate author placed on the periphery of society as a homosexual. He believes that in this respect he has no choice, that he has ironically been fashioned by God in a mold forbidden to him by God. The conflict drives him from his Roman Catholic religion, yet he remains haunted by it -- and by his guilt. Unlike some other homosexuals in current fiction, he deplores his condition, though he writes erotically about it and even outrageously recasts the story of Adam as a homosexual myth.
Can it be that God had to create the devil in order to provide the free choice that would be denied mankind if only good and no evil were available? Since God is, by definition, the Creator, does this mean He cannot destroy anything He has created, including the devil? Such questions go counter to the biblical concept of God as good, unable to create anything unlike Himself and thus leaving evil in the realm of illusion.They are the kind of questions to send readers to consult their own religious experience rather than a literary phantasmagoria in which there is often a nagging doubt about the line between strong drama and cruel sensationalism.
Mr. Burgess's octogenarian narrator, occassionally reminiscent of Somerset Maugham, looks back on family calamity and dark comedy as well as the horrors of the nazis, Asian diseases, and a Jonestown-like cult. He has fictional encounters with actual people. The result is in part a record of his coming in from the periphery, whether testifying in court, trying to rescue a Jewish author from the Germans, or tracing a supposed "miracle" by a gambling, hard-drinking Italian priest who rises to the papacy. Other characters, too, are forced into positions of making choices, getting involved. The narrator faces the possibility that his brutal mugging may have been caused by an atmosphere of violence to which his own writing could have contributed. Not many authors concede as much.
At the same time Mr. Burgess not only represents the narrator's skill with words and wordplay on the memoir at hand but invents a synopsis and excerpts for virtually every work referred to, from stand-up comic routine to play, musical, opera, movie, religious tome. The number of typographical errors must be all the more disheartening to a writer who puts such weight on getting language right.