Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick
“What bliss, ye gods, to love!” —Goethe
Swanwick’s version of the Faust legend starts slowly, describing ye olde, superstitious Wittenberg headed for a savage renaissance. A bored, alienated scholar, Jack Faust wants love. He wants power. He wants to feel alive. He flat-out wants. Enter Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles offers a deal Faust can refuse, but Faust chooses an almost free lunch. Or so he thinks. Faust trades every human who exists and will exist for access to unlimited knowledge, emphasis on the word access. Faust fails to seek the most important knowledge.
Swanwick’s work picks up when the town is less than enthusiastic about Faust’s new knowledge. A balloon and a telescope earn him little but angry debtors. Faust high tails it to Nuremberg to pursue power, fortune, and a poor approximation of love. Faust’s moral powers, however, become numb and number, from semi-oblivious to completely oblivious sadism. Goethe’s bumbling bargainer becomes Swanwick’s uber-unconscionable, as morally shiftless and disgraceful as he is technically adept. The trivial sampler goes wild. Faust seeks control, yet loses control.
What things occupy Jack Faust and friends: Status, for one. Or rather, “thinking yourself better than your rivals and being certain the bastards know it.” Self-deception: being “the sort of innocent dork who implies a wonderful past to himself, manufacturing affairs from the flimsiest of history for his own peace of mind.”
And the collection of trivial knowledge: “Knowledge without morality is utter evil. The producer of a better water pump deserves more credit than he who spent his life cataloguing all the visible stars.” Let’s not forget cowardice: “He turned away and glared at his shoes. She left, not wanting to hear some inanity at odds with what he was feeling and what he ought to have been saying.” Moral neglect, too: “All it takes is decisions, even unconscious decisions not to bother with consequences.” In a Camusesque moment, Swanwick writes: “You saw nothing, you did not experience the things you thought you experienced. You did not live. You are erased.”
The utterly nefarious protagonists and antagonists in Swanwick's novel are not as well-developed as they should be. Because Swanwick's Faust begins with ignorant, indifferent misanthropism and that transforms into ignorant, indifferent, sadistic misanthropism, not much man against himself conflict exists. Swanwick’s Faust has almost unlimited knowledge available, yet behaves as if he were Forrest Gump in a straight jacket, carried by forces of history. Except Faust does not have Gump’s good luck. Faust does little creative on his own. When not following intuitions, Faust simply follows advice from Mephistopheles. When a character alternates between being a Gump and the toy of Mephistopheles, fiction suffers. Gretchen, Faust’s lover, simply follows advice from Faust or her intuitions. She is Faust’s toy.
It might have been better if Faust had vast knowledge in some subjects, but had to build his own in other subjects, rather than being inept on his own. Jack Faust lacks a clash of minds. Lightweight antagonists appear out of nowhere to push Faust and Gretchen around. Faust and Gretchen, lightweight themselves, oblige.
Mephistopheles hands Faust step-by-step secrets to seducing every woman, but Faust somehow forgets to ask for advice on how to deal with opponents. And Faust does not figure it out on his own. Imagine medieval, illiterate peasants turning into well-organized, well-funded opponents in a single generation against a man who has access to almost any knowledge he wants. Faust could install himself as a monarch or president, yet he labors as a technician and entrepreneur.
Faust’s pursuit of technology is incomprehensible. He designs leaf springs before curing diseases or pursuing more profitable products. Sixteenth century individuals had many goods they would pay a fortune for before buying leaf springs. All Faust had to do was ask Mephistopheles. Faust’s followers build a fleet loaded with missiles to defeat ironclads when 20th century guns or aircraft would have been more than adequate. Swanwick’s Faust is more knuckleheaded than Goethe's misguided striver.
If Faust did everything perfectly, by step-by-step procedures, no conflict and no novel exists. Perfect procedures bore because no risk and no uncertainty ensues, but an evil genius resembling an evil Gump bores, too.
Coincidently, I read part one of Goethe’s Faust a few months before I saw Swanwick’s version. It helped me appreciate Swanwick's work. Swanwick’s twists fascinate. If I knew little about the Faust legend beforehand, I would not have enjoyed this work, at least the parts capable of being enjoyed. Jack Faust will probably not be a big seller. Swanwick’s work is too ambiguous and high-brow for the sci-fi crowd and too offensive for a general audience. The best parts are best appreciated by those familiar with Goethe's version. Worth a look..
—book review article by J.T.
Fournier, last updated July 21, 2009