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Merge and Disciple by Walter Mosley

The allegory is one of the most difficult of all literary forms to write. When an author writes in factual terms, we have well-established tools to use in judgement of the quality of the narrative. We can decide whether the facts resemble real-world experiences, whether the behaviour shown would be expected of real people in comparable situations. Credibility is a hard task-master, but if what you write purports to capture truth, then it’s a fair yardstick. But what if your text is intended as an extended metaphor? Suddenly all tests seeking to measure truth are redundant. What the author intends as the allegorical message is not mentioned in the literal meaning of the words used to form the text. The intended meaning is hidden in the silences between the words or lines of words. This makes the text enigmatic. In a simile, we’re given a pointer because we’re told what the meaning is “like”. Metaphors lack such a signpost to guide us. We’re forced to intuit or infer the meaning using our intelligence and, in a sense, that’s where the problems start. If the meaning is pathetically obvious, we curl our lips in contempt. We may even suggest we’re being patronised if something has been so dumbed down. Move to the other end of the scale and many will scratch their heads in confusion or even anger that the meaning is so obscure. We bitch the author has failed to make the message clear. We rant that perhaps the author has no message and is simply hiding his lack of inspiration behind the obscurity.

So here we come with two more contributions to the Crosstown to Oblivion series (Tor, 2012) by Walter Mosley. The first is called Merge. An African American who’s not very bright is sitting quietly reading a self-improvement set of lectures when he suddenly becomes aware his world has been invaded. Sorry, that’s both literally and metaphorically true. In the sense of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, a being has come to Earth. Perhaps, fortunately, the intention is not to replace the human as in the novel, but as a trailblazer hoping to merge with humanity. In the metaphorical sense, our human hero has almost completely withdrawn from the world. He has lost his two real friends and the girl who slept with him has gone off with another man. He then won millions on lotto and could passively insulate himself from other people. So when this odd thing appears in his room, he’s not so much frightened as puzzled. His space is invaded but he doesn’t feel threatened. When it asks for food, he offers it fruit which it happily absorbs. So begins a gentle mutual exploration.

Walter Mosley without the usual blue backlighting

The question, of course, is what meaning we’re to draw from this man’s ultimate decision to merge with the alien. We could look back at the history of slavery and wonder whether the modern African American is still subservient, yet the reality of the merger is an equal partnership between the species. This is not a return to the yoke as such, but there’s an amazing quality of humility and forbearance on display. He endures torture at the hands of angry white Americans. Even the Islamic warriors held beside him in Guantanamo Bay sympathise with him. To that extent, this stereotypes the whites as aggressive in the defence of what they perceive as their own interests. By this, they sacrifice their chance of access to the benefits of the merger. I suppose we could be playing “the meek shall inherit the Earth” game, but this lacks the more general trappings of a Christian allegory. Or we could have an immigration debate story. An African American citizen “marries” an illegal alien except, because he becomes an alien (in part), he’s one of the people the GOP thinks should self-deport. That’s why the military inquisitors chop bits off him in Guantanamo. Indeed, when you look at which human groups actually go through the merger process, almost all of them are marginalised outsiders. These are the people who see little or no future for themselves in the current America and are hoping for something better when they merge. It’s ironic because if America was a better place with a fairer society, everyone might feel like merging or no-one would (in the latter case, everyone would perish). In many ways, Merge could be read as quite an anti-American novella taking aim at some of the worst aspects of current society. Or it may be signalling the possibility of some hope for the downtrodden if they embrace opportunities for change. Given all this, I remain undecided what the intended message is. However, this does prove to be one of the more interesting allegories, managing to maintain a good pace and developing a good set of variations on the theme. No matter what it’s supposed to mean, I found it enjoyable all the way to my arrival at the end.

Disciple, on the other hand, is less successful. From my stance as an atheist with only limited knowledge of the detail of Christian beliefs, I take it to be a kind of parable, loosely based on Abrahamic traditions. An alien contacts one of life’s losers and, after offering proof of an ability to see into the future, persuades the man to become its servant. At an early stage, the alien uses our “hero” as an instrument of death. For his obedience, he is rewarded with wealth and as much freedom as he can create for himself. The only problem is the guilt. He takes responsibility for being the immediate cause of a few dying so that many can be saved. It’s an application of utilitarianism and Mosley invites us to consider what degree of responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the “innocent” agent. The man had no idea what effect would result from following a simple set of instructions, yet he was the direct cause of transmitting an infectious disease. Because he infected a high level politician, it was detected far earlier than would otherwise have been the case. His actions saved millions of people.

Once the disciple understands his role, he can never be innocent again. He knows that following the instructions given to him by the alien could be the cause of more deaths. So now he has a choice. Does he abandon the alien? Does he follow instructions to take Isaac to Moriah? Will he actually sacrifice the animal trapped in the bushes? That’s why this is not strictly Abrahamic. In this case, our hero is not substituting a ram. He’s substituting a smaller for a larger number of people. Either way, people die. It’s simply a question of how many.

I’m inclined to give this pair of novellas the benefit of the doubt. They avoid some of the preachiness that has blighted earlier efforts in this direction. Merge is clearly better than Disciple but both are interesting and, in these superficial times, you can’t ask for more than that.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
When the Thrill Is Gone

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  1. June 24, 2014 at 1:47 am

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