Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom: Science vs. Religion, but Make It Entertaining as Hell

I expected Yaa Gyasi's sophomore novel Transcendent Kingdom to be heavy. It's about a Stanford neuroscientist named Gifty who grapples with many of life's most transcendent questions. It's certainly as thoughtful, intelligent, and measured as I was hoping — one of the more interesting examinations of science vs. religion I've ever read. And it is, indeed, heavy at times. But what I did not expect was it to be entertaining as hell. It's a plot- and character-driven family saga that just reads so smoothly and enjoyably, you actually forget you're even weighing these big ideas. 

At the start of the novel, Gifty is finishing up her doctorate at Stanford when her depressed mother comes to live with her. Her mother, who had lived by herself in Huntsville, Alabama, has been clinically depressed since Gifty's drug-addicted older brother died of a drug overdose several years before when he was in high school. Gifty's mother has even tried to kill herself once, resulting in teenage Gifty having to spend a summer with her Ghanian relatives. This trip included a meeting with her father, who abandoned his family in Alabama to move back to Ghana when Gifty was a child.

Now, Gifty has made it her life's work to try to understand these psychological illnesses, depression and addiction, that have so dominated her family. "Could (science) be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?"

Then, there's religion, too. Gifty's mother raised her to be religious, and throughout her childhood, she was devoted to being the best Christian she could — that is, until cracks started forming in her faith, as she was introduced to some of the cornerstone contradictions of evangelical Christianity. For instance, if the Bible is "God's word," and is to be interpreted literally, but it's been translated many times over, and therefore open human to interpretation, then...what gives?

Even at Harvard, though, Gifty clings to a somewhat modified version of her religion, despite derision from her friends and classmates. For her, personal belief becomes a long and winding road, especially as she considers, evaluates, and incorporates new information, new thoughts, new ideas, etc. She describes how fundamentalism inherently rejects change because learning new information requires you to reject what you thought you knew before. For instance, discovering that the world is round means you must reject the formerly held idea that the world is flat? And then when you begin incorporating new information, what other views do you start to reconsider? "If the earth is round, then is God real? Literalism is helpful in the fight against change," she says. 

So yes, science vs religion features prominently in this novel, as you'd expect in a novel about a scientist who grew up in a strictly religious household. The main question here is this: Does one preclude the other? Gifty concludes, "I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately, both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning."

Whether or not you agree with Gifty's conclusion, it's more the seeking that's important, isn't it? And that's partly what makes this novel fascinating, beyond the really entertaining plot about a family saga. You're not going to find a more astute writer than Gyasi. She just...gets it. I don't know how to explain it better than that. You're just constantly nodding your head as you read. "Yes, that is something I've always thought, but never been able to put into words as well as this" — that type of reading experience. There is certainly a lot here: It's a novel about the dangers of addiction and depression, the horrors of racism, the family ties that fray and break and can or can't be repaired, and just how we find our places in the world. 

You sometimes see writers who achieve as much success with a debut as Gyasi did with Homegoing to slump a little bit in their second book. That is definitely not the case here. This is one of the best books I've read this year. 

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