Michael Bartholomew-Biggs accompanies Nancy Charley on an unorthodox poetic excursion into the New Testament
A Trickster figure occurs in many mythologies as the questioner of established orders and the mischief maker who may seem briefly to be on your side but is never to be trusted. Nancy Charley imports a version of Trickster into the Christian Gospels, making him a participant in – and sometimes the instigator of – some of the more well-known events in the recorded life of Jesus (who is referred to throughout this book as ‘the man’). His motivations seem mixed: sometimes he seems just to be trouble-making; on other occasions he veers between grudging admiration for (what he sees as) Jesus’s own Trickster-like skills and a wish to thwart whatever plans Jesus actually has. Finally it appears that Trickster himself may have been a pawn in a bigger game being played by a higher power.
One question occurred to me immediately after I had written the words ‘well-known events’ in the previous paragraph. Just how ‘well-known’ are these events in 21st century Britain? Charley’s narrative sticks fairly close to the Gospel according to Luke and she seems to assume that readers will recognize the Biblical stories from her abbreviated versions. She may be on fairly safe ground with the feeding of the five thousand or the episode of the Gadarene swine; but other incidents may not ring many bells. Consequently some of the cleverness of Trickster’s subversions and alternative perspectives may be lost on those for whom the originals are unfamiliar.
The above point is, however, not one for me to labour. My own Biblical knowledge was sufficient to enable me to find Charley’s book lively and thought-provoking. The liveliness often comes through Trickster’s irreverent language. When visiting Joseph – soon to be Jesus’s Dad – and observing him covered in dust and shavings Trickster compares him to ‘a bear trapped in a woodshed’. A few months (and half a page) further on, Trickster takes on the role of the donkey which carried Mary to Bethlehem and reports that he
brayed once more, ushered in a motley gang who spluttered about an angelic throng
which is very different from a typical glossy Christmas-card depiction of the arrival of the reverential shepherds!
Simeon’s warning prophecy to new parents Mary & Joseph is more street-wise and succinct than the King James Bible version. ‘This child will expose / glitz and gutters, hidden hearts / tear you apart’ replaces the traditional language of Luke 2:34-35. In this incident (and several others) Trickster claims responsibility for bringing a speaker onstage; but it is less clear if he is to be credited as the author of the lines they speak. This is one aspect of Trickster’s rather ambiguous status which I shall return to later.
Sometimes the re-tellings of Bible stories use particularly fresh and inventive language. When people lower a lame man through the roof of a house where Jesus is teaching, Trickster expects him to ‘flare at this daring’. When a woman interrupts a party to anoint Jesus’s feet, the ‘expensive scent / sent noses lifting’. Trickster’s instructions to the demons possessing the man known as Legion include
Oi you lot, I need you to torment that odd gent who lives in the tombs. Craze him up ...
In another neat touch, the tax-collector Zacchaeus repents of his extortions and gives away ‘his soft-earned cash’.
Of course Trickster does much more than re-tell the stories in unusual language. He also offers unorthodox interpretations and explanations. For instance he explains away the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand by suggesting that one example of generosity by a (planted!) small boy shamed everyone else in the crowd into sharing their own supplies of food. This theory provokes the added compliment ‘that kind of scam could have come / from Trickster’s hand’. Trickster also claims responsibility for motivating Judas’s betrayal by playing on his neediness and insecurity
You’re always the last to leave, paying off his debts, receiving grubby money. He can’t really love you can’t even think much of you
Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is Trickster’s reaction to the crucifixion and resurrection. Initially triumphant after Jesus’s death on the cross – ‘I guess I won. Celebration time’ – he is utterly taken aback when, from a wound that suddenly appears in Trickster’s own body,
the man emerged in counterfeit BIRTH. Trickster screamed. He’d been outwitted. He hadn’t seen the master plan.
And this master plan, in which wounding is a means of restoration, turns out also to include the revelation ‘that dirt and clean may not be as they seem’ (which perhaps echoes cautions about rigid and dualistic thinking to be found in some very accessible books by the contemporary Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr).
It may be a little unfair, in a review of this kind, to pick on points of possible theological inconsistency. But there does seem to be an awkward shift between the ease with which Trickster can label the feeding of the five thousand as a fraud and his admitted discomfiture when Jesus’s words ‘Be QUIET’ are so undeniably effective that ‘Trickster found his mischief bound’. It also seems odd that Trickster chooses not to involve himself in – or even to observe – Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness by Satan (whom some might call the Ultimate Trickster but is here demoted to merely ‘A mate of mine’!).
But even if the preceding paragraph is somewhat out of order, it is certainly fair for me to comment on the book’s layout. The text is set out in two columns with chapter breaks and numbered verses: but is this simply set dressing to mimic the look of the Bible? The result is quite attractive and readable but I am left wondering if we are meant to read the work as a sequence of prose poems defined by the chapter headings. Or are the verses a coded indication of line breaks? (In the way I have set out the quoted extracts I have assumed an affirmative answer to that last question – and hereby apologise if the assumption is incorrect!)
As with all Hercules Editions publications, this book is enhanced by pictures and supplementary material. Alison Gill provides lively illustrations of episodes in the narrative and Sophia L Deboick supplies an interesting Afterword on the place of Trickster in the contemporary imagination. Nancy Charley herself has also written a short but helpful closing essay to explain the genesis of her treatment of the Gospels.
It is worth mentioning that Nancy Charley has also devised a live presentation of The Gospel of Trickster which requires her to accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of memorizing around 30 pages of text, along with stage directions and some musical interjections. By virtue of its energy and originality this book deserves and lends itself to this sort of performance. Do try to catch it if it comes your way.