Review of The Philosopher's Apprentice by James K. Morrow
The Philosopher's Apprentice
by James K. Morrow
What is this I don’t even.
Argh, my brain hurts. Where did it all start going so wrong? Was it when the sexually ambiguous cadre of private female shock troops seized the recreation of the Titanic in order to force its first-class passengers to toil at menial labour in an effort to rehabilitate them? Or was it earlier than that, when the ludicrously one-dimensional antagonists unleash a clone army of aborted foetuses on unsuspecting would-be parents? Or maybe even earlier, when a lone philosopher discovers that his tutee is in fact a sociopathic clone of his employer?
The Philosopher’s Apprentice is just … odd. And not good odd, like Christopher Moore or Nick Harkaway or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. All of those authors’ writing has something in common with James Morrow’s slightly absurdist deconstruction of Western morality … but they manage to create a coherent story while they are being absurd, whereas Morrow seems more interested in sandwiching in yet another layer of plot twists.
Part of me worries that I dislike this book not for its merits (or lack thereof) but because it didn’t turn out to be what I expected. From the description, the premise sounded like an Emile-inspired take on Sophie’s World. I was looking for another romp through the history of Western philosophical thought, this time with a focus on morality and ethics. Instead, Morrow discards this pretence of philosophical discourse fairly early on. Mason discovers Londa’s true nature, and he quickly concludes her moral education so that the rest of the story can happen (if that is, indeed, the correct word for the train wreck that follows).
It’s one thing to write a book steeped in philosophical thought that also stimulates a reader’s own thoughts. Sophie’s World accomplishes this through its overtly didactic tones. Umberto Eco’s numerous novels are similar, with his characters wrestling over philosophical dilemmas that are integral to the plot. Morrow, on the other hand, keeps his philosophical discourse on the surface. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is a volatile headache of intertextual allusions and philosopher name-dropping. And while this is consistent with the idea of Mason’s character—one wouldn’t expect a doctoral candidate in philosophy to explain the nuances of various philosophers when he is narrating his life story—it does the reader no favours. Reading this made me feel like what someone a few decades from now will probably feel when they listen to the pop-culture–laden dialogue of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer: a mixture of annoyance and confusion because they don’t understand the references.
Now, I could get past that if, beneath this surface layer, there were a more compelling story into which I could sink my teeth. Alas, nothing like that seems apparent. Mason reminds me of Michael Youngs from Making History: delusional and self-absorbed, obsessed with achieving his place in academic history through a masterpiece thesis of staggering genius. I don’t really feel sorry for any of the things that happen to Mason, as absurd and undeserved as they might be. I don’t really feel sorry for many of the characters, because they don’t feel like real people.
I want to call The Philosopher’s Apprentice allegorical, because that’s the only way to excuse the naked characterization that happens here. There is no attempt to make any of these characters seem like actual human beings; rather, they are a hodgepodge of caricatures, plot devices, and set pieces. They seem just as lost in this illogical and convoluted tale as we readers are; at least we have the option of leaving the story. Mason and his companions are trapped within the confines of these pages, doomed forever to live out this story over and over. Is Hell perhaps becoming a character trapped in a terrible story?
I just don’t get this book. Maybe I’m not smart enough, not well-read enough or well-studied enough in philosophy, so I don’t deserve to get it. I’m the last person to charge that literature needs to be accessible to be good. But I want to believe that, issues of accessibility aside, the story within this book just isn’t very good. Morrow makes a big deal of the fact that Mason is supposed to be Londa’s conscience, that her actions flow inexorably from an inconsistently developed code of ethics laid over her innately sociopathic mind. As far as I can tell, though, her actions seem arbitrary and driven more by plot than character motivations.
The Philosopher’s Apprentice is a hot mess, but not the kind of hot mess you want in your bedroom. There are far better books that manage to mix philosophy with good story telling—just indulge in a little of The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, or Sophie’s World to see what I mean. I’ll give Morrow credit for some of his ideas here, but it took a lot of effort to eke out much enjoyment from this book.