When people hear that I wrote a “novel” and ask what it is about, I tell them (1) that it’s not a novel and (2) that it’s about an angel’s-eye view of the connections between Jesus Christ, Muhammad, dead Vikings, sassy Black feminists, Dutch Calvinist seminarians, very large Mother-substitutes, armless nature-mystics, Caribbean rubber dancers, the Wandering Jew, angels in disguise, three popes in one year, Cortez, Romeo and Juliet, the sea serpent, our Lady of Guadalupe, the demon Hurricano, islam in the art of body surfing, the universal fate wave theory, the Palestinian intifadah, the fatal beauty of the sea, dreams of Jungian archetypes, the dooms of the Boston Red Sox, the abortion wars, the Great Blizzard of ’78, the wisdom of the ‘handicapped,’ the ecumenical jihad, the psychology of suicide, and the end of the world. But that’s an oversimplification.
OCEAN originated in something almost as far from it on the literary spectrum as infrared is from ultraviolet: an essay. It was an essay on life after death, an argument between a Fundamentalist and a Modernist (both were wrong, by the way) about who goes to Heaven. I made it more lively by putting it into dialog form, and then I further enlivened by adding a setting, namely a rocky coastline, and an event to trigger the discussion, namely a suicide. Gradually, the story, the setting, and the characters conquered the abstract argumentation, so much so that the original essay or dialog disappeared (it’s in another book now) but the “additions” grew and became a story.
A story has five ingredients: character, plot, setting, theme, and style; and each of these five ingredients, in that order, should serve the previous ones. It took a long time for the character of ‘Isa to emerge and dominate and for the theme to be planted and buried in the story. I’m a philosopher, and most philosophers make lousy story tellers because they like to argue more than they like to live, and even find abstract arguments more interesting than concrete characters. (I know that’s a serious mental disorder. Descartes said there is no idea so insane that some philosopher has not seriously believed it.) It’s still a “philosophical” story, and “wordy,” but the words now show the characters rather than the other way round. That took many years to happen.
From the Publisher
[In the publisher’s words:] This is the damnedest novel you’ll ever read. It’s more an autobiography or a rumination on the state of man’s soul from an exciting and fascinating writer. I can only compare it to reading The Brothers Karamazov the second time, after you realize that the whole center section on the teachings of Fr. Zosima is the central core of the novel or, if you have a larger capacity for crap than I have, reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged without becoming a cult member. It is belles lettres, metaphysics and physics combined, psychology, theology, and spirituality as related by a beguiling story-teller. It is like reading the last few pages of Hegel, without the suffering that it took to get there, or finally seeing the whole grand structure of Thomas Aquinas, when the theory of everything and the synthesis that ties all of life together become visible through the maze.