A Review of Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord

the secret chord cover image

Told from the point of view of King David’s prophet Natan, this novel begins at the moment when David’s generals and military advisors declare that he is no longer fit to lead his army into war. While dealing with his anger, David does two things. First, he authorizes Natan (Nathan in most English translations) to write his biography – fearing, I suppose, that his ousting by his generals is the first step in his decline. He gives Natan a list of three people who can fill him in on David’s early life – his mother, Nizevet; his oldest brother, Shammat; and his first wife, Mikhal – and he also instructs these three people to tell Natan “everything.” The interviews between Natan and these three individuals make up much of the plot of the novel. Second, in the throes of his anger at no longer being the field commander of his army, he paces around and gazes out of windows until he sees Batsheva bathing on the roof of her house and, as you may remember, kidnaps her from her husband, Uriah the Hittite, whom David later has killed.

Natan is horrified at David’s commandeering of Batsheva because of the affront to Uriah. David already has multiple wives, so no one bothers to accuse him of adultery or of rape, which is how the encounter is depicted in the novel. But Uriah was one of David’s most trusted generals – in fact, the reason Uriah is not at home to protect his claim to Batsheva is because he is fighting the battle from which David has been excluded. From a modern pop-psychological perspective, it seems likely that this slight against David’s virility and authority might have unconsciously been a reason for the rape of Batsheva, though I don’t recall Natan considering that possibility in the novel.

I would love to fill you in on the details of the David story, but I’m going to try to keep this review rather brief. Here’s the short version: unloved shepherd boy; Cinderella-style visit from prophet Shmuel (or Samuel), who rejects all of David’s older brothers but anoints David as God’s new chosen one; service in Saul’s army; gradual rejection by Saul; marriage to Saul’s daughter; several years spent as an outlaw, building his own army while evading Saul’s murderous henchmen; rise to kingship after Saul’s death; unifying the tribes in Israel; establishment of capital city in Jerusalem. This is a bare-bones review of the plot, but what is most interesting about David’s story is his nearly limitless capacity for sin and contrition.

The first time I remember thinking seriously about the David story was in a college class on the King James Bible. The professor’s attitude toward the subject was rather irreverent, so his lectures went heavy on the Philistine foreskins and lighter on such matters as sin and atonement and the individual wrestling with his conscience. What I remember him emphasizing, though, was the sheer randomness with which God abandoned Saul. God had no reason to abandon Saul, the professor insisted. Saul was a bit of a chump, but he had always been plodding and dutiful and boring, the sort of person one compliments using the word “competent.” In other words, the consummate administrator. And even though Saul (Brooks uses “Shaul” in her novel in keeping with the Hebrew) is one of the “bad guys” in this novel, we’re still never given a glimpse of why God turned away from one king in order to anoint and then endlessly forgive the horrible behavior of a second.

To me, now, these irrational shifts in favoritism aren’t a side plot in the David story; they’re the point of the story. In her author’s note, Brooks cites a statement that I’ve heard before: that even though there is little archaeological evidence of the events in the David story, historians tend to agree that the story must be true because no culture would devise a national and religious hero who was so horribly, deeply flawed. David was a rapist and a murderer, and it’s really not much of an exaggeration to call him a serial killer. He killed his enemies in war, sure, but he also killed at random and without purpose (his own caprices imitating those of his God, I suppose). The title of the novel is taken from the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah,” of course, and I was mildly annoyed that the title had little to do with the novel’s plot. My first thought was that Brooks hoped to sell more books by reaching out to listeners of one of the most well-known modern pop songs – and on some level perhaps she did. But then I thought about it a little more. I am not a musician, but I do know what chords are, and it seems preposterous to me that someone might “like” one chord more than others. I have no doubt that musicians might disagree with me. However, for me, the idea that David created a chord that somehow pleased God more than other chords is just ridiculous. The Old Testament is full of these sort of random choices: God likes Abel’s offering more than Cain’s, God demands that Abraham sacrifice Isaac and then changes his mind, Isaac favors Esau over Jacob (“because he did eat of Esau’s venison”), God anoints Saul as king but then un-anoints him in favor of a feral shepherd boy with a knack for playing the harp. I am not religious, and I tend to agree with Spinoza’s insight that humans were the ones who invented God in their image, rather than the other way around. Taken as a whole, these stories suggest that the quality in themselves that the ancient Hebrews most needed to explore by superimposing it onto God was their capacity to change their minds irrationally. Having preferred chords doesn’t come close to matching the irrationality of human preferences. Colors, for example. Who in his right mind could have a favorite way that light refracts off a surface and then disperses? The answer is most of us. We have preferences for everything. We are toolmakers and we walk erect, sure, and we’re rational animals at least sometimes, but mostly we are Homo preferentialis – we are apes that like some things more than others for absolutely no goddamn reason.

Brooks’ novel reflects our preferential nature. David is impulsive and violent, constantly sinning and then sinking into periods of deep contrition during which he plays the harp and sings and writes poetry (i.e. the psalms). In many cases the consequences of his actions are dire. When he fails to punish his oldest son for raping David’s only daughter Tamar (never mind when he raised a son who would rape his sister in the first place), David sets the stage for his other son Absalom’s famous revenge plot, in which he invites all of his siblings to a party and then brutally murders his oldest brother in revenge for the rape. Even David’s favoritism of his youngest son (Shlomo in the novel, in keeping with the Hebrew; Solomon in most English translations) is wildly unfair. It’s true that the young, inquisitive, calm Shlomo is more appealing than his raping, murdering brothers, but the comparison begs the nature-vs-nurture question. David’s older sons were raised in armed camps in close proximity to their father; Shlomo is the son of David’s late middle age, and, in the novel at least, he is raised by the measured, careful, attentive, and highly diplomatic Natan.

I enjoyed the novel. I enjoyed it so much that I opened my King James Bible to the beginning of 1 Samuel, though I stopped reading after the first eleven or twelve begats. But I’ll go back eventually. As I said, I’m not religious, but every time I bump up against Old Testament ideas, I feel a kinship to them. The Old Testament is braver than the New, I think – it’s more willing to wallow in the muck of human nature. From the Christian perspective, the Old Testament is muckier than the New because it lays out the sinful human nature from which Jesus saves us, but this idea has always seemed evasive to me. I like David because he feels authentic. I like the fact that the people who tell his stories (Samuel originally, Geraldine Brooks most recently, and of course countless others) aren’t afraid to focus on the ugly parts of his nature. Honestly, my primary response to this novel was to want to take on a story like this one myself, and I’ve been thinking about how I might want to do so. I have no interest in sticking as close to the original as Brooks does, but I’ve been playing with the idea for a couple of weeks and will let you know if anything comes of it.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Geraldine Brooks, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Review of Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    The finding of a special chord is a common objective. There are different ways to construct chords that do make music sound a little different, and you can add extra notes, or whatever. Composers are always trying to get a special sonority, and in earlier centuries wanted to get as close to “the music of the spheres” as they could (getting close to the divine) so I totally get the drive to find a special chord, even if it seems that there are clearly only finite combinations. Also, people with so called perfect pitch have very different associations with different keys and chords, and some expel even see/hear music in color. I personally do not like the key of C much. In fact, I like D and B flat a lot. And, the place a chord occurs in a song can have an amazing emotional effect. Enough of the lecture, it does sound like a jolly book. So to speak. It is so crazy about God’s fickleness in the Old Testament. When I was still a believer I was shocked when a professor pointed out how God changed style and personality through the bible.

    • lfpbe says:

      I understand the drive to create a special chord in the same way I understand the quest to have a complete understanding of any subject and then to contribute to the area of knowledge in a unique way. But I still think the idea of liking one chord over others (for God especially, but really for anyone) is just bizarre.

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