There’s a book I was almost done with and about to put on my list of Books Read — until it managed to drive me off in no time flat. And I want to post about why.
Content warning for sexual assault, including upon dead bodies. Which right there is the tl;dr of why I stopped reading, but I want to unpack the situation a bit more.
The book in question is The Writing in the Stone, by Irving Finkel. If you recognize the author’s name, it’s not from the realm of fiction; it’s because he’s currently the Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian Script at the British Museum — which doesn’t sound like it would make you famous, and in the grand scheme of things he isn’t. But he’s charming enough that he’s been featured in a number of Youtube videos, doing things like teaching people to play the Royal Game of Ur or explaining how to enact an ancient Mesopotamian curse. I watched several of his videos while working on Turning Darkness into Light (because the Draconean script is inspired by cuneiform), and found them very entertaining, and so when I heard he’d written a novel about ancient Mesopotamia, I was intrigued.
I should say up front: it isn’t a great novel. So far as I know, it’s the only one Finkel has ever written; much of it is written just as summarizing omniscient narration, only sometimes dipping down into the specifics of a scene and with very few conversations. But since in length it might be no more than a novella, I shrugged and kept reading, because I liked the idea of a novel about ancient Mesopotamia written by an expert on the subject.
Even had it been written in more engaging novelistic style, I don’t think I would have been that engaged. The inspiration for the story is a real-world stone that fractures in a pattern which looks almost exactly like cuneiform — in fact, the more you stare at it, the more you can convince yourself you recognize a sign here and there. (Assuming you read cuneiform.) Finkel’s idea was that if a stone like this had been found in ancient times, it would have freaked people out, because it would have looked like an illegible message from the gods. Which is a cool concept! But he chose to approach it from the perspective of the story’s villain, which is not an approach I generally like. The main character — a highly-placed royal scribe, referred to as the First Exorcist (nobody in here has an actual name) — sees the existence of the stone as such a threat to his power that he starts systematically killing everyone along the chain of provenance, trying to hide all evidence of the thing, and even raising the ghost of the man who originally brought it there to find out if there are any more like it. (In a more fully-developed novel, you could have had the bad guy doing this, but told the tale from the viewpoint of a protagonist trying to stop him.)
At this point you may be wondering: how does sexual assault figure into this?
You’re justified in asking this question, because the answer is, it doesn’t. That’s part of the problem. That element comes out of left field. No — it comes from somewhere outside the ballpark entirely. It is wholly unnecessary. We can have debates about the extent to which it’s “necessary” in any given story, but here there is no debate; it is 100% tacked on.
The First Exorcist has a henchman along with him, a man referred to as Cook. For bonus unpleasantness points, Cook seems to have some kind of mental disability, being essentially nonverbal. They’ve traced the stone back to a rural village, where a traveler in possession of the stone died and was buried; after murdering the assistant priest at that temple, the First Exorcist raises the spirit of the dead man and questions him. Then they get caught by the family whose barn they’re hiding in, and murder those people, too.
Okay. We’re reading a story about a guy who’s killing absolutely everybody who gets in his way: this is just more of the same. What is not more of the same is that the narrative takes the time to let you know that Cook rapes the mother and the daughter — the mother once; the daughter twice — and since he smashed their heads together before doing this, the First Exorcist wonders if they’re even still alive while he rapes them.
At this point I flinched. It came so much out of nowhere that I wasn’t mentally prepared for it . . . but it was just a couple of lines (in a book that rarely spends more than a couple of lines on anything, except key moments like the ritual the Exorcist uses to raise the ghost), so my reaction was basically, “ugh, that’s gross, but I’m near the end of the book, and the rest of it hasn’t been like this, so I’m going to pretend that didn’t happen and just move on.”
A few pages later I was even closer to the end of the book, but it no longer mattered. I put it down, and will not finish.
See, when the First Exorcist and Cook arrived in the village, there was a fleeting mention of how Cook wandered off to get some food and “probably a woman,” since it had been a while since he had one. Which came across in a kind of nasty light when the story is essentially devoid of female characters; I think the sole exception was a priestess who assisted in one of the early murders. But since there are very few characters in the book overall, whatever.
It stopped being “whatever” in a hurry after the barn scene, when the First Exorcist wakes up to find Cook wrapped in a cloak and looking weirdly deformed, noverbally indicating he has some kind of problem. When Cook pulls the cloak aside, it’s revealed that he was out raping another woman . . . and has somehow gotten caught inside her, so that he has the body of a dead woman flopping off his penis.
I have never come so close to literally throwing a book across the room in my life.
I put it down without even finishing the paragraph, and was so revolted that even picking it up again to check a few details for this post has made me cringe. I don’t know what happened after that, and I don’t care; there is nothing the story could do to make me find that moment anything other than utterly gratuitous and awful. There’s some line about “this one was definitely dead” — I don’t want to retrieve the exact wording — just in case you missed it the first time, when he was raping those other women (don’t forget, it was the mother once and the daughter twice) and they might have already been dead. We are no longer in the realm of passing references: the story is deliberately and repeatedly drawing your attention to this.
Short of emailing Dr. Finkel and asking “WHAT THE EVER-LOVING HELL,” I can’t know what motivated him to do this. I can only speculate. Since I don’t want to contemplate the possibility that I’m seeing the dark depths of his id, I find myself wondering if it’s simply reflex — a reflection of our narrative defaults when it comes to villains. You would think the First Exorcist’s murder spree would be enough to mark him as a bad guy, as would Cook’s willing assistance . . . but we’ve got this mentality in so many of our stories where killing is just business as usual, so if you want to make somebody look truly awful you have to find something worse for them to do. And so of course the go-to answer for that is gratuitous, graphic rape, because violence against women is extra bad — except for the part where we go to that narrative well so often, it gets normalized and starts seeming like business as usual.
(I would also wonder if it’s a reflection of our ideas about historical misogyny, except that women play such a nonexistent role in this story that it doesn’t seem to be pushing any kind of point about how awful the lives of women were in ancient Mesopotamia. Unlike, say, all the grimdark fantasy which claims the medieval world was wall-to-wall rape for women.)
At this point I don’t even know what to do with the book. I don’t want to keep it. I can’t return it (I had to buy it via Amazon, as it wasn’t in bookstores). Normally I donate books I don’t need anymore to the library, but this thing has honestly revolted me enough that I don’t want to inflict it on some unsuspecting reader. And this will probably even color my view the next time I see a video with Dr. Finkel — I’m not going to be able to forget what he wrote.
So if anybody has any suggestions on what to do with a book I regret ever having bought, I’m all ears.