The Knowledge of Good & Evil

Image of The Knowledge of Good & Evil
Release Date: 
July 18, 2011
Tor Books
Reviewed by: 

“It must be said that behind all the bluster, Mr. Kleier’s message is one that everyone should know and live by . . .”

As the title would suggest, Glenn Kleier’s new novel, The Knowledge of Good and Evil, is a book of contrasts. It’s a book of extremes. It can lurch from the very, very good to the disappointing—sometimes within the space of a single page, sometimes within a solitary paragraph. It’s a book that manages on one hand to be highly inventive and original and on the other fairly contrived, covering territory which readers have already explored many, many times before. The Knowledge of Good and Evil is a book in which Mr. Kleier shows off an immense knowledge of scripture, but at the same time a rather one-dimensional understanding of human nature.

This is a post-Dan Brown religious mystery thriller that seems to take itself hugely seriously and yet asks the reader to take huge leaps of faith along with great fistfuls of salt throughout the narrative. It’s a duality that is troubling.

What he presents is a well-structured fable—(Mr. Kleier calls it “this little allegory” in his Acknowledgements prefacing the novel)—and it is not much more than that. The character development we crave doesn’t really happen—not believably anyway; and the “deeper truths” are shallow. We never attain any real Knowledge.

And though it appears that Mr. Kleier has thrown almost everything he has at the novel, perhaps in the hope that something might stick, we never seem to get much beyond the surface. Though the narrative takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the globe, taking in more exotic locations than can even be recorded here, and then at the end, beyond our world and into the Afterlife, into Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, the reader never really gets to experience any of these places.

The story starts with Father Louis Merton. Merton is by all accounts a “risk-taker . . . Often on thin-ice with the Church. Many opposed him as too liberal and ecumenical.” In 1968, Merton chances upon a remarkable discovery in Ceylon. He finds a “backdoor to the Afterlife,” a door that once open, reveals to him a “Knowledge of the Great Beyond” that will shake organized religion to its very core. Merton, of course, doesn’t last past the end of the prologue. He dies under suspicious circumstances—but not before mailing off copies of his journal to two undisclosed recipients.

Enter Ian Baringer, present day. Ian is a highly troubled man, a man haunted by the premature deaths of both of his parents in a terrible accident in which they sacrificed their own lives to save his.

Ian has, for all his life, clung to the hope that his faith is founded on solid ground, that there is, as religion promises, an afterlife and that the soul survives death. And yet increasingly, he is looking for more than just faith. He too is searching for proof of the Afterlife. And as the novel begins, he believes he has found a way of Knowing for sure. The Near Death Experience (NDE), “. . . where individuals seemingly die, life functions ceasing, only to revive a short time later. (. . .) Ian’s intent was to sneak through death’s door to confirm the existence of the Afterlife, expecting to be resuscitated before it closed permanently.”

This premise calls to mind Flatliners, the 1990 Kiefer Sutherland film, and indeed, the narrative proceeds in much the same way for a while as Ian becomes increasingly more addicted to NDEs, increasingly wants to be “put under” for more and more time. The primary reason for this is the fact that he’s now discovered that his parents have been damned to the deepest Pit of Hell because they have been deemed suicides: “Ian was reminded of the story of Job. His parents had failed the Test. Regardless, Ian still found their punishment extreme. How could one desperate mistake made under the most stressful circumstances outweigh a lifetime of good works? How could an all-Good, all-loving God act so ungodly?”

So Ian embarks on his quest to save them from Hell’s clutches with an almost maniacal obsession. His will to keep subjecting himself to the NDEs comes at a high price though. His fiancée, the psychologist Angela Weber, can barely understand what he is trying to do. Mr. Kleier contrasts the engaged couple rather nicely here; Angela “didn’t speak Faith, he didn’t speak Reason.” And despite the fact she is described as “punctual as a church bell,” she “had her own Faith, and that’s where she turned now for her strength. To the Science of Psychology, which offered her a possible solution to this nightmare.”

His actions not only cause cracks to appear in their relationship, they also attract the attention of certain sinister forces who don’t want him to “trespass the Afterlife” at all and will stop at nothing to make sure he does not encounter the true Knowledge, something which organized religion has spent centuries trying to hide. As the body count and their airline miles start to pile up, Ian and Angela still find time to discuss and come to terms with certain issues, such as the divine paradox. “Ancient theological riddle: ‘How can a God Who is all-Good and all-Powerful allow Evil?’ I’ve wrestled that question my whole life.’”

Flatliners isn’t the only filmic comparison. At one point in the chase, the narrative almost stumbles into Indiana Jones territory, “Stolen Nazi booty. Ancient lost map. Formula to raise the dead.” At another, we’re confronted with Ghostbusters-esque “Don’t cross the streams” mumbo-jumbo: “I warn you, you mustn’t combine the Knowledges! It’s mixing matter and antimatter! It will be the end of everything! Apocalypse!”

And yet, the main problem of the book, over and above the imaginative leaps Mr. Kleier asks us to make, is the fact that he does not seem to trust his readers enough to infer things. He has a tendency to overexplain. Never is this more apparent than in his handling of the many different accents in this globetrotting novel. Whether the accents are Eastern European, Irish, or Caribbean, generally, they are poorly done. Take this example, “The man shrugged his big shoulders. ‘You vere on my vay to the airport.’” This bizarre handling lends nothing to the plot, or to character, and in fact detracts from our reading. The villain in question, once we’ve deciphered what it is he is trying to say, ends up sounding as though he’s just stepped out of a Bond movie.

Another example is his over-egged Irish accent: “There’s more history ta that isle on there than all the rest o’ Ireland combined.” Which is simply annoying. Most of Mr. Kleier’s readers will have heard an Irish accent before and won’t need to have its own particular tics pointed out to them in minute detail—especially not if the accent then descends into cliché like this: “Seems slayin’ the snake ’twasn’t enough ta convert the Celts though, so Patrick gathered ’em out on the isle an’ scribed a big circle in the earth with ’is staff. Straight away a ’ole opened into Purgatory, swallowin’ up the worst sinners, causin’ the rest ta see the light. An’ ta make sure ’is converts didn’t backslide, ’e left the cave open, a reminder of the perils o’ sin.”

And sadly the accents aren’t the only examples of clichéd writing. In the first line of chapter one, we’re presented with a certain Charles Dun, who feels like he’s “just won the Super Lotto.’” Maybe it’s nitpicking, but surely there are more interesting similes to make here. After all, that’s part of the reason we read: to be enlightened, to allow writerly skill to weave magic all around us, to have things presented to us in new and interesting ways.

Then there’s his awkward handling of flashbacks. Take this example, “Her mind flew back to the mess of a man she’d met in grad school years ago . . .”

But perhaps the guiltiest passage of the whole lot comes when Angela arrives at St. Maarten Island, Caribbean, on the hunt for Ian:

“Shacks began to appear along the roadside, cobbled together of rusted, corrugated metal and warped plywood. The inhabitants, all black, milled about barefoot in ragged clothes. Worse by far than anything East LA had to offer. Angela’s heart went out to them. She could just imagine how upsetting this must have been to the sensitive Ian.”

Which strikes a jarring chord of condescension and arrogance.

So the novel is not entirely precisely written then, but it is cleverly tied together. There is authorial skill demonstrated in terms of the overall structure of the novel and its status as a bonafide page-turner.

And it is, in fact, the passages that owe more to the imagination, those that take place in Hell and Purgatory, in which Mr. Kleier is most successful. He meets otherworldly creatures. “The creature wore no robe, skin shiny dark and leathery. Head, neck, chest and shoulders massive, arms rangy and muscled, angled out like a gunslinger’s—forced out by the girth of its biceps. Fingers long, clawed and curled. And supporting its bulk, a pair of pillar-thick legs set on lizard feet with nasty, hooked dewclaws.”

He makes us experience places much more than he does in, say, real world Venice or Vatican City: “Soon the atmospheric haze began to thin, and ahead Ian could make out what appeared to be a boundary, spirit-cloud giving over entirely to dark substratum. As if a line had been drawn. And no sooner did Ian sail across than he tumbled, crashing hard to the blackness.”

He offers us incredible, Boschian images of Hell: “The tortures appeared to be burlesque offenses the souls had committed in life. One man was being spanked with a flaming belt by a troll who ridiculed his intelligence. Another gnomish demon had a woman’s tongue in a pair of red-hot tongs, chattering at her like a gossip, hot breath scorching her ears.”

And more: “Inside the gate, countless more such insects were swarming the victims as other pests clawed, gnawed, and vied for their share of the ethereal flesh. The souls thrashed and screamed to no avail, Dark Angels patrolling with buckets, some tossing what looked like salt on the wounds, others relieving themselves on their helpless prisoners, taunting, driving them to madness.”

Receiving The Knowledge is interestingly framed too. Ian “could feel something being implanted far inside him. Sinister, streaming into him like the downloading of a computer file, entering in merciless bits and bites. And he was powerless to stop it. The infusion surged on, how long he couldn’t know, afraid that even if he survived there’d be no time to understand all this.”

And we even meet Satan himself. Satan is depicted interestingly, as an old man.“Tall, slim, poised despite his apparent age, greeting Ian with a slight nod. Ian responded in kind, sensing power in this ancient being, if seeing no resemblance to any satanic images of yore.”

Hell though, and its devils, get all the best lines. By the time we reach Heaven, we’re back to the cliché again. It’s depicted as an “immense pastoral valley at the height of spring. Resplendent in wildflowers of every hue, scent of bouquets on the air, souls strolling the meadows hand-in-hand, rolling hills behind.”

No surprises there. Nor are there surprises in the population of heaven: “Glancing about, he saw several clearings crowded with souls. At their centers were people he recognized. Mother Theresa surrounded by children. Mohammed Ali shadow-boxing and working magic. George Harrison serenading on a guitar. Roberto Clemente coaching baseball.”

It’s “like a picnic at the UN,” as Ian observes. And at the same time, one wonders whether you have to be a celebrity to enter Mr. Kleier’s Heaven.

It must be said that behind all the bluster, Mr. Kleier’s message is one that everyone should know and live by, and it is this that finally rescues the book for Good. “As he now understood, the souls of this Heaven were of every ethnic, religious and political stripe, and both heterosexual and gay. All convening in a spirit of camaraderie, celebrating the joy of unconditional goodwill.”