The Spire, by William Golding

William Golding

The Spire is the third Golding novel I’ve read. Lord of the Flies, which I’ve read multiple times, I’d rank in about the top 20 of works of fiction I’ve read in my life. I had liked the movie a lot, and so I picked up the book, and it did not disappoint. Pincher Martin I thought had an interesting subject and an intriguing narrative style (it’s a first person account of an increasingly delirious sole survivor of a torpedoed ship), but frankly it was a real chore to get through.

The Spire is closer to Pincher Martin in that regard. I found a lot of it dense, probably unnecessarily so. If I had read either of these books first instead of Lord of the Flies, I doubt I would have bothered reading more by Golding. His writing style tends to be more obscure than I like, leaving a lot out so a reader has to guess, sacrificing readability for symbolism and other literary masturbation.

Not that there aren’t elements that I enjoyed, elements that are thought-provoking. It’s far from the worst or most confusing book I’ve ever read. But on balance I don’t think I got a whole lot out of it.

The story—which is pretty sparse; this is decidedly not an eventful, fast-paced book—concerns the obsession of the head priest of a church (Dean Jocelin) to have a monstrously large spire added to his church. The builders protest that it will be impossible to build what he wants in a way that will be structurally sound, and the other church officials protest that this is a disruptive and distracting use of time and resources that is taking away from their religious duties. But Dean Jocelin insists that his quest is inspired by God and that the very fact that it has such drawbacks is what makes believing in it and sticking to it all the more admirable a show of faith.

Much of the novel is told from within the mind of Dean Jocelin, and it gradually becomes clear that he is at least somewhat (and probably increasingly) mad, that he is very sincere, and that he is trying to overcome a considerable amount of self-doubt and guilt.

It also is apparent there is little he won’t do to get his spire built. Albeit with great reluctance and self-questioning, when he sees that the master builder is leaning toward pulling out, he welcomes the fact that the builder is then distracted and encouraged to stick it out by his commencement of an affair with a young and naïve wife of a church worker. Further complicating things emotionally for Dean Jocelin is the fact that this is a young woman he has felt close to since she was a small child, and has gradually developed an attraction to that is pretty clearly sexual, even as he tries to fight that interpretation.

Like a lot of indie films, it’s the kind of book that drops you in the middle of things without any background or introduction, where you have to gradually piece together who these people are and what they’re doing from the events and dialogue depicted. Which is a style that, for me at least, can be frustrating depending on how it’s handled.

And here it’s handled in such a way that evidently I missed plenty, at least judging from what I found out when I cheated and read about the book afterwards on Wikipedia and a couple other sites. Here’s a partial list of what got past me:

• It is set in the 14th century.

It didn’t feel contemporary to me from fairly early on, but I didn’t pick up on enough specifics to be able to date it precisely at all. I would have said anywhere between about 600 and 1900 I suppose.

• It is set in England.

Based on the names and such, that would have been my first guess. So I wasn’t surprised to read that later, but it’s not like this is something I was sure of from reading the book.

• Though it’s not based on any known historical events, it’s vaguely about, or at least inspired by, Salisbury Cathedral near where Golding lived in real life.

I’m pretty sure there’s zero way to know this from the book.

• Dean Jocelin is suffering from tuberculosis.

Well, he seems convinced there’s alternately an angel or a devil communicating with him, and it seems to somehow be located on his back, giving him comforting warmth or pain there. How you get tuberculosis out of that I’m not sure.

• One of the semi-main characters ends up being murdered and buried by the workers where the construction is going on, as some sort of superstition thing.

This one may not count, since another source says this character’s fate is left open and that different readers have interpreted it different ways. In any case, he does disappear from the book, and in an ominous way I suppose, but I didn’t get anything specific like this.

The novel is mildly interesting as an exploration of the pros and cons of committing so deeply to something that you’re willing to stick with it no matter the evidence, no matter the opinions of others. When you believe in yourself and your life projects more than might seem justified, you can potentially achieve great and unexpected things. But of course there’s a fine line between that kind of confidence and reckless irrationality.

Religion has no doubt added more of both kinds of phenomena to the world than there otherwise would have been, but I dare say far more of the second, undesirable, kind.

I’m sure there’s a lot going on here if you want to see the spire as the Tower of Babel, or a phallus, or whatever symbol, but I’m more inclined to seek value in a book or movie’s story in a much more straightforward way. In that regard, I liked a little bit about The Spire, such as the psychological interplay among some of the characters and within Dean Jocelin, but for the most part it’s a slow, sluggish read, and a little too obscure for my tastes.

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