If ever there were a day deserving to be called—secularly—a “day of reckoning,” this would be the day for Owen Ross, the forty-seven-year-old protagonist of Jon Mills’ provocative first novel, When God Wept. For it is on this day that his disastrous nineteen-year marriage finally comes to an end, and he’s compelled by forces deep within to revisit, relive, and re-evaluate unresolved traumas from his past.
Long estranged from his wife, Owen’s divorce does liberate a part of him. Yet he must also find a way to free himself from the many negative assumptions and beliefs engendered by a lonely, emotionally deprived childhood—as well as an assortment of personal tragedies. Highlighted among these misfortunes are his three-year-old self searching the household frantically for his mother, only to discover her hanging from a bathroom curtain rod, and the heart-wrenching death of his beloved six-month-old daughter, a devastating tragedy from which he’s never really recovered.
Owen is a hospital psychologist and psychoanalyst—as is the novel’s renowned author, Jon Mills (PhD, PsyD, ABPP), who has written or edited over 100 publications, including thirteen books. Though not nearly as prolific as his creator, Owen (who’s in analysis himself) is working on a second book on trauma (obviously to better comprehend his own trauma-shaped identity). And his core defense against the many hardships he’s endured has been to detach himself from his feelings—which, ironically, mirror the self-defeating ego-protectiveness of some of his patients, whose torturous, self-flagellating sessions he poignantly narrates.
His own emotions, he candidly admits, are “in exile under the guise of control.” And so the anguish and despair characterizing so much of the novel’s disheartened tone is juxtaposed with Owen’s shameful and self-humiliating confession that he’s lost all genuine caring for others, as well as for himself. In fact, the central themes in the novel are clearly rooted in basic existential tenets and starkly reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s atheistic/humanistic regard for humankind’s eternal predicaments. (In his acknowledgments, Mills recognizes his intellectual debt not only to Sartre but to many other acclaimed thinkers in Western philosophy and literature—including Georges Bataille, Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, William James, Carl Jung, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Lacan, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Donald Winnicott.)
Mills’ fiction revolves around how the narrator, through his various desperate attempts to recapture both his empathy and authenticity, finally retrieves the sense of vitality, meaning, and purpose he’d lost, having been utterly adrift in a formless, aimless existence of his own unconscious making.
But until the work’s conclusion—suffused in paradox, yet curiously life-affirming—the book focuses on the narrator’s obsessive ruminations on the meaninglessness of his existence and his all-consuming apathy. In the opening chapter, he reflects on “the dismal familiarity of my chronic discontent” and how “all traces of concern for others had been purged,” going on to confess: “It is in me … this filth, infecting my consciousness with a caustic bile. All commitment toward others had been regurgitated, my obligations effaced.” It’s transparent that feeling dead inside, he’s incapable of summoning up any real fellow feeling. Aware that to be truly concerned about those he meets—and professionally treats—he must be able to personalize them, he comes to realize that in his systematic retreat from his own pain he’s ended up objectifying almost all of humanity.
Although his father, an eminent classics professor, is a devout Catholic, religious belief offers Owen no solace. And his position on religion generally borders on the hostile. Skeptical empiricist that he is, he sees people of faith as “worship[ing] a wish.” Sent to parochial schools and brought up on Catholic doctrine, he observes that he still occasionally talks to God, but sardonically adds, “God never listens.” Brooding over his infant daughter’s death, he muses, “If God really did make all this, I wonder if he ever wept?”
As an alternative to the glib reassurances of meaning offered by the church, Owen declares that science is his religion. And he eventually advances his own existential/humanistic stance toward what can be affirmed in the face of human suffering and a seemingly indifferent universe. “Only one thing is for certain,” he proposes, “you have this life and it’s up to you to decide how to live it, how to fulfill it, how to be. We make choices and no matter how trite or careless they may seem to be, they are still our choices—in this moment, in this time. I believe that the most fulfilling life is one that is lived as authentically as possible.” Elsewhere he states: “The mark of a successful life is being able to look at yourself squarely in the face and honestly ask whether you have made an impact on other peoples’ lives.”
And finally, consider the narrator’s self-transformative message elucidated toward the end of the novel: “Life is an either-or, either this option or the next—you cannot have it both ways,” Owen realizes, stating further on that, “while some things in life may be understood, I concluded that the riddle of Being can never be fully known, only appreciated as a process of becoming. … As a purpose without a purpose—without a cause, life is bound to paradox.”
I’ve quoted so liberally to give the reader a broader sense of the gravitas of this unusual fictional undertaking. It’s a deeply psychological and philosophical novel, as penetrating as it is thought-provoking. But I must add that although the work—encompassing a critical, event-crammed day in the narrator’s life—is inundated with such abstract, contemplative introspection, it also includes a concrete, absorbing plot; a selective but intriguing mix of compellingly portrayed characters; and the narrator’s intense love for an unhappily married female colleague (who has long been his personal and professional confidante). Beyond these more “novelistic” elements, there’s an engaging, dramatic progression that builds throughout the novel right up to its stunning—and totally unexpected—conclusion.
While it would be unconscionable to disclose the utterly unpredictable ending to When God Wept, let me at least suggest that it simultaneously undermines and affirms everything that’s happened and been meditated upon earlier. Which is to say that the extraordinary and absurd climax, steeped in irony and paradox, validates the novel’s entire dramatic, thematic, and ideational structure. It is a finish that brilliantly resolves everything … and nothing.