I don’t like biographies. Usually.
I make a point of staying away from the genre, for two reasons. One. Individual people aren’t as important as they’d like you to think – we live in an educated society with millions of people. There isn’t any such thing as a Great Man. War and Peace says this better than I do. We’ll talk about that someday. Go read it. Two. Individual biographies tend to lack a focus, and cram in far too much detail about a topic it’s unlikely anyone will care about unless they know the writer personally.
The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ avoids both problems. Andrew Klavan, conservative writer and intellectual, explains to us exactly how he got where he is – and also, why he laughs so much in his damn podcast. Klavan is a famous writer of thrillers, behind numerous books and movies such as True Crime and Don’t Say a Word. He avoids both biographical potholes and emerges with a Great Good Thing.
The book covers Klavan’s spiritual journey, from an insincere bar mitzvah to a baptism in a Catholic church, and the observations he made about the world that pushed his perspective in line with Christianity – or rather, how he slowly came to realise that his values were already Christian, by virtue of having grown up in the western world. He rejects moral relativity and post-modernism after reading Crime and Punishment and Hamlet. ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ is supposed to be Hamlet pretending to be mad, Klavan says, and so we see that Shakespeare was already past the intellectual level of the modern American college campus, despite having died about four hundred years ago.
The language is candid and often quite funny. However, it’s also sometimes taken over by a kind of extraordinary sincerity which seems to be unique to Klavan, and results in passages like:
“What is this?” I asked myself. “What is this feeling?”
And I answered back, “I am feeling the joy of my joy.”
This peculiar Christian frankness is something unique to Klavan – I might go so far as to call it a part of his style. As he points out in the opening chapter, his work contrasts nicely with his surroundings – one sincere writer in a coastal city of leftism and sardonic post-modern/ironic attitudes. Although honestly, if anyone else had written that sentence it would come across as ridiculously fake.
He also writes about the university environment of his times – the 70s, during which modernist interpretations of classical literature (participation in the ‘Great Conversation’) are succeeded by post-modern, colonial, gender-based, and racial analysis. We in the business refer to this as ‘cancer’. Klavan held a similar opinion at the time – in one particularly memorable passage he rails against what our modern culture would probably know as a ‘social justice warrior’ who denigrates The Charge of the Light Brigade. “How can we even read this poem when all it does is glorify war?” And so we see that the seeds for the current stupidity were already planted.
All of this, of course, is to ignore that Klavan, in his earlier university years, held little to no respect for higher education, and would actively avoid reading the assigned texts (although for a strange reason even he cannot explain, he purchased them all) and would fudge his way through a year of university by pretending to dislike the works of most of the famous American authors of the last century. A trick which works today for many undergrads who I’ve met, although of course, I’m not guilty of the same crime. I swear.
It wasn’t until he picked up The Sound and the Fury out of sheer boredom that he realised that not all works of ‘higher’ literary merit were pompous and stuffed full of English unintelligible to the ‘plebs’ but could easily be written simply but powerfully. From that day on, Klavan read and read and read – much like how I’m doing now, except more so because I’m lazy and I have the internet – and gained an appreciation for the cultural output of the western world, from Homer to Dostoevsky to Faulkner and quite a lot of the work in between. And by the time he’d gained an understanding of what he’d previously pretended to analyse in his first year of university, and was ready to continue studying (for real this time) the post-modernists had made it into the university, and we were treated to that incredibly insightful critique of The Charge of the Light Brigade. They slowly changed the curriculum – but that’s outside the focus of The Great Good Thing.
This is intended as a review, not a complete summary, and so I won’t describe the entirety of the intellectual and spiritual journey Klavan makes – but I will say that every story must by necessity be framed a certain way in order to be told at all. The main difficulty, for a man over sixty years old, is surely selecting what information is significant. I’ve come across a similar issue in some work – especially an article on the music industry I wrote some months ago – when the number of sources, the sheer amount of information I could use was overwhelming. Bringing cohesion to sixty years worth of memory is quite the achievement.
The book neglects a lot of things – material matters such as the lives of his family or specifically where he worked and other facts. People accustomed to biographies may dislike this trait. I find it’s at the core of what makes the book readable. Human lives, real lives, don’t have ‘plots’ or structure – everything needs to be framed a certain way for it to be interesting. Klavan has realised that the best way to write an autobiography, as with anything else, is tactful framing and the conservation of detail, something missing from an awful lot of biographies which have no other message beyond ‘this is what some schmuck spent his or her life doing, read all about it in grueling, overly-specific, mostly forgettable detail.’ I don’t care specifically where he worked in his 20s, taking odd jobs in an attempt to ‘experience’ the world and get fodder for writing. But I am interested in the fact that he tried several odd jobs…the point is, too much detail, in this genre, can actually alienate your audience.
When you remove these cloying details, you’re left with the content necessary to tell whatever aspect of your story actually connects with other people. Klavan has turned himself into a character, with an arc – it may be the first ‘deterministic biography’ ever, having an end goal with real significance other than ‘and then I was older, lol.’
Klavan never proselytises – only his criticism of moral relativism and post-modernism come close. The fact is, there’s no logic that can convince anyone either way on the religious question – thousands of years of philosophy have reached no definitive answer. But our civilisation’s built on Christian values, despite that – and that is part of how that particular secular Jew came to faith in Christ.
To sum up: Andrew Klavan’s The Great Good Thing is a Great and Good Thing. Go read it. It costs a lousy three bucks!