MELISSA BLOCK, host:
When a writer named Jim Crace set out to write the novel "Quarantine," he wanted to, as he put it, inflict some bruises on religious dogma. But he said that novels have a way of breaking lose from their creators. And the result was not what he expected. Which leads us to today's installment of You Must Read This, it's where writers talk about books they love.
Bret Anthony Johnston teaches writing at Harvard University. And Jim Crace's "Quarantine" is his pick.
BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON: Here's how Jim Crace's novel "Quarantine" opens: Miri, a young pregnant woman, is holding vigil over her dying husband. This is in the Judean desert, 2,000 years ago. Death is coming slowly and with blistering heat; it turns her husband's tongue black. To travelers heading toward Jericho, Miri epitomizes a grieving wife. Really, though, she's rejoicing: Musa, her husband, has routinely beaten and raped her, and now, finally, his dying promises salvation. Or it would have, had Jesus not stopped in and miraculously ruined everything.
In fairness, Jesus doesn't mean to ruin everything. He doesn't even know if He's the Christ. This is Crace's genius: He takes a familiar story, Jesus' 40 nights in the wilderness - the titular quarantine - and he vividly reimagines it. The result is beautiful and merciless fiction, not like a secular prayer, but like the answer to one.
Ever since graduate school, where all of us wannabe writers studied Crace's novel like scripture, I've read the book about once a year. I can't get over the shimmering prose or the author's unwavering confidence or the way he freights the most innocuous detail with meaning and tension. Like when Jesus, upon leaving the dying Musa's tent, says, be well.
This was the first-century equivalent of see you later, unless, of course, you're the Son of God. From Jesus' lips, the words are tonic: Within hours, Musa is, in fact, well, and that's when the sand really hits the fan.
Allegorically, Musa is Satan. As other pilgrims file into the desert, hoping to cleanse themselves of madness, cancer and infertility, Musa cons and terrorizes them. And he tempts Jesus - with food, water, doubt. He's an awful villain, but what's most compelling and most frightening is his potential for grace: Of everyone in the novel, including Jesus, this hideous brute alone recognizes the Messiah for who He is.
In the end - and the novel's ending is a drastically realistic revision of what happens in the Bible - Musa's wickedness is as human as it is devilish as it is captivating. Equally captivating is Jesus' complex innocence. My favorite moment is when, after praying so long that the common words lost hold of sound and the consonants collapsed, Jesus receives His first missive from God: A dead donkey falls from heaven and thuds to earth. A clearer symbol there never was, and the vision animates Jesus' resolve.
Does it matter that Musa has made his wife drag that very donkey away from their tent? Or that we just watched two desert dwellers roll it over the cliff, the cliff right above where Jesus prays for a sign from God. It doesn't matter to me.
Actually, the ambiguity of the miracle fills me with hope, with reverence. Who among us can judge the articles of another's faith? "Quarantine" is a book about science and divinity, about hunger and heat and thirst and faith. But more than all of that, it's about perspective, about the uniquely human capacity to crave meaning, about our fundamental need to believe. I'm not a very religious person, but this novel, unlike most I read, always leaves me in a state of rapture, as if I had received a revelation of my own.
BLOCK: Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the forthcoming book, "Naming the World and other Exercises for the Creative Writer." You can read an excerpt of Jim Crace's Quarantine at NPR.org.