Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Demonologist

In between finishing IT Strategy and starting Data Mining I managed to sneak in a book. I picked up the Demonologist at Harvard Bookstore on Tuesday night and finished it on the train into Boston Friday morning. I highly recommend it. It is still in hardcover though.

The book is the story of David Ullman, a tenured professor of literature at Colombia who specializes in Paradise Lost. Ullman is lured to Venice with his daughter where he encounters a demon. The demon steals his daughter (in such a way that it appears to the rest of the world--including Ullman's soon to be ex-wife) that she drowned.

Ullman pursues the demon across America,  aided by his best friend Elaine O'Brien and using Paradise Lost as his guide. This isn't a coincidence--the demon makes it clear that his interest in Ullman is due to his professional expertise. Ullman finds himself  examining texts that he knows well--this time looking for literal meanings--not figurative ones.

This is plot-driven fiction. I do not recommend it for the beauty of the prose. I do not find the behavior of all of the characters entirely believable--the duct tape that holds the plot together is visible under the velvet drapery. For example Ullman's wife is leaving him, but makes no try to gain custody of their daughter. O'Brien--the female-best-friend-with-whom-the-protagonist-has-never-slept--has bone cancer and only a short while to live when she joins the crusade.

The journeys across country serve no purpose except as a chance for the characters to muse between demonic revelations. They seem to be part of the plot because that's what heros do--go on journeys. The whole story could have remained the bounds of New York City--unless the author chose to have his characters travel because he wished to make some point about the banality of evil--it's not all about heroin addicts in the big city. Maybe he felt that New York City was already too potentially demonic--too like Pandemonium--and that's why he made his characters travel.

In spite of these shortcomings I found it a good read--it made me want to re-read Paradise Lost. Perhaps that's its appeal--it is Paradise Lost lite. There is more to it that that though.  It is another attempt to imagine the motivations of fallen angels and, for a change, one shelved outside of the science fiction section. Don't get me wrong--I love sci fi--but it's nice to read something without the snark now and again.

I feel the author could have done more character development of the demons and demonic possession. The protagonist talks a lot about the Bible and Paradise Lost, but to me this book is a descendant of The Exorcist as much as it is of Paradise Lost.

Perhaps grad school is lowering my internal bar--suddenly anything with a better plot than the Mythical Man Month seems like a page turner.

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