We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In The Story of B, the central character is, of course, B, though throughout the book several characters assume the role. B is different things to different peopleAntichrist, Christ, lunatic, genius, wacked intellectual looking for something to do. It isn’t easy being B. He/she has to suffer frequent assassination attempts (some successful). B’s work is taxing, and the pay is horrible. Marxists, Christians, Muslims, and most all other popular religious and/or political sects work incessantly to smear B’s name. What’s worse is that even B’s disciples agree that B is disposable. B the person isn’t as important as B’s lesson: How to save the world.
The lesson is one author Daniel Quinn has taught before. His earlier book, Ishmael, won the half-million dollar Turner Tomorrow Fellowship for suggesting positive solutions to global problems. The book starts as a dialogue between the wise titular gorilla and a curious but skeptical student. The conversation evolves into a student-teacher relationship the basis of which is the study of events leading up to a looming apocalypse that’s easier to explain than avoid. Ishmael is sold as either fiction or philosophy, but most who read it regard it as something closer to a religious text.
While Quinn is reportedly working on a follow-up entitled My Ishmael, The Story of B expands on so many of Ishmael’s themes that it seems that the prior book’s long-anticipated sequel is already here.
The Story of B is structured like a quasi-thriller. Its hero is Jared Osborne, a Laurentian priest willing to do anything to jump-start his nowhere career. Quinn places much of the blame for mankind’s debasement of the planet in the lap of organized religion, and the Laurentians are painted as an evil fraternity whose morality is as suspect as the gospel it preaches. Jared admits he’s not much of a priest: He’s blinded enough by his faith to trust his superiors, but he likes to hit the bottle and isn’t immune to lust.
The Laurentians are obsessed with a centuries-old mandate that requires them to be aware of potential antichrists, learn everything there is to know about them, and eventually take them out. Bernard Lulfre has caught wind of a potential antichrist, Charles Atterley, a maverick itinerant preacher living in Europe and working bars and theaters like a politician trying to harness support on the stump. Lulfre is part of the shady Laurentian hierarchy, and he dispatches Jared overseas to uncover whatever information he can about Atterley. While in Germany, Jared finds out that Atterley is known by a small group of followers and a large group of detractors as “B,” an intellectual colleague of Ishmael’s who wants to change the world.
The story itself, told through Jared in his diary and in written transcripts he makes of B’s speeches to fax back to the Laurentian headquarters, is tirelessly banal, like what Robert Ludlum might have come up with in high school. Quinn’s gift certainly isn’t for fiction, which he proves when he tries to introduce some sexual tension between Jared and Shirin, a female character who takes over the role of B after Atterley is found with a bullet in his temple. Faced with Shirin’s “sweetly benevolent” smile, Jared can hardly keep his belt on: “For one terrifying moment, I actually had to struggle to keep from grabbing her.” Hot.
In The Story of B, as in Ishmael, Quinn uses the novel form to give some fizz to an intricate argument about the planet’s and human culture’s 10,000-year downward spiral that would read like so many boring scholastic texts if it wasn’t stapled to a little drama. The plot is used as a frame that takes the place of a classroom, and in it B educates Jared in a philosophy that holds that a return to the hunter-gatherer mode of living is the only way to avoid the destruction of the planet as we know it. That Quinn so convincingly argues such views is what makes The Story of B read almost like a thriller; it’s not his prose.
Quinn doesn’t pine for the days when man was at one with nature and drank water directly from the stream. He doesn’t even mention recycling, acid rain, vanishing forests, or any modern political leaders. Quinn’s main argument is that our view of history is a self-serving one that falsely assumes man was divinely shaped to conquer the world. Quinn refers to farming as “totalitarian agriculture,” and blames it for much of our environmental problem because it has made man the only species with control of its own food supply, leading to rapid population growth. Before humans began to farm, their population grew at a glacial pace, doubling only over periods of thousands and millions of years. The last doubling of our population took 36 years. Quinn doesn’t think condoms are going to help.
“[O]ur population problem is a biological problem,” Quinn writes. “If we pursue a policy that would be fatal for any species, then it will be fatal for us in exactly the same way. We can’t will it any other way.”
Vigorously arguing that agriculture inaugurated not only disasters like famine, plague, war, and overpopulation, but also religion (as a means of convincing us that a life of suffering will be rewarded with “salvation”), The Story of B leaves so little doubt as to the logic of Quinn’s evidence that the book’s aftertaste is one of crippling knowledge. “For the first time in the history of the world, we bewail the collapse of everything we know and understand,” B says in one of his speeches, “the collapse of the structure on which everything has been built from the beginning of our culture until now.”
The Story of B is like other books about the environment in that it aims to re-educate its readers in a way that will force them to adopt a new lifestyle. What makes it different is that it doesn’t offer any programs for change short of total re-education. In Ishmael, Quinn didn’t hazard any guesses as to how long it might be before the apocalypse; in The Story of B, the title character tells Jared we’re two generations away. It’s a hard prognosis for anyone addicted to happiness to accept, leaving cynics and believers alike to ask why Quinn’s Socratic reasoning has never been heard before.
The bizarre upliftand the dark undercurrentof Quinn’s work is that he doesn’t implicate humans as villains. He depicts them as victims of a lifestyle that encourages creatures of habit to be callous to disaster. As a result, The Story of B is cursed to harmonize with an ambivalence most of us aren’t even aware we have. “It’s hard to notice nothing happening,” B tells Jared at one point. “Everyone knows that.”CP