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Most necessary sin of Adam: Richard Major’s Quintember

Review: Richard Major, Quintember: A Novel. The first volume of the misdemeanours of Dr. Felix Culpepper (IndieBooks, 2016).

To say that Quintember is a mock-thriller and a comedy of manners is like saying that the Symposium is a dialogue. Genre houses, nurtures, and displays content as the zoological garden does its fauna or the Wardian case its flora. Quintember is a thesaurus of astute critiques of theological, philosophical, literary-critical, and cultural stances. These are presented through the medium of a whimsical adventure-narrative populated by caricatures and types fallen prey to the besetting lure of heresies and perversities both sacred and profane. This is a hilarious and sharp-as-steel lawnmower of a book, cutting a bold swath through the field of human delusion and vanity.

Felix Culpepper is a classics don at the fictional 16th-century St. Wygefortis’ College, Cambridge, and the fixer and assassin of choice for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His ancestral Culpeppers changed the pronunciation of their name to Culpa. Let the theological reader understand: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum. … O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem! (“O most necessary sin of Adam. … O happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”).

Culpepper is a thing of the Fall. Theft, fraud, murder, arson, and illicit sexual liaison (with an undergraduate) are but a few of the oeuvres in our amoral protagonist’s repertoire. We are meant neither to like nor to admire Felix Culpepper: he is a Koontzian monster imposing his will on a tediously monstrous world to make it, ironically, slightly less monstrous and therefore slightly less tedious.

The unhappy faults of mankind, all that stems ultimately from the Fall, all misguided or misaimed attempts at understanding the cosmos and the self, are prey among whom Culpepper walks about, seeking whom he may devour. From the fuzzy atheology of the College Chaplain, through the seconding of John Wesley into a geography major’s chick-lit sexual role-play, to the attempt by the classics undergraduates to return the world to classical paganism by the establishment of a pantheon in the Fens (whence the novel’s title, from the restored calendar) — the workings out (and in) of mortal error parade themselves before the reader’s and Culpepper’s critical gaze. Anabaptism, Methodism, Liberalism, Syncretism, Narcissism, Solipsism, Nihilism, Modernism, and Paganism (classical and otherwise) make Culpepper salivate with ennui and occasionally raise a destroying paw.

As a series of daring and murderous adventures, the narrative is of its nature rhapsodic, but the novel finds stability within unities of time, place, and action. The events take place over the course of one academic year: from October through July (“Quintember” or Quintilis, before Julius Caesar was stamped on the calendar). The scene is St. Wygefortis’ College, which nestles in the northeast corner of Christ’s Pieces, such that (significantly) the real Wesley Methodist Church is obliterated by the notional Abaddon Court of the College. A number of escapades take place in Bond-worthy exotic locales without this setting (the skies over the Levant, the high Catalinas of Arizona, Westley Waterless, Putney Vale crematorium) though each of these is but an excursus, run by Culpepper with or without Wygefortian protégés, which showcases a merely actual instance of an importantly universal truth contemplated within College walls.

Unity of action seems less secure. Some adventures take place without Culpepper. Three voices (a narrator, Culpepper, and Margot/Abishag his lover) share the telling. There seems no good reason apart from unity of time that the tale should begin where it begins or end where it ends (this being but “the first volume”). Behind this complex palette, however, lies a single canvas on which each episode, whether told or not told by Culpepper, featuring or not featuring Culpepper, adds a brushstroke to the portrait of the central character.

Quintember is perhaps an ideal read for Episcopalians who have reached our Anglican shores as refugees from Methodist, Baptist, or other Protestant climes, for those who have entered the fold from the campus of American (neo-)classical paganism, and for those seeking asylum from the lawless badlands of postmodern relativism. The few infelicities in the non-English languages and the (similarly few) typological errors do little harm to the flow of the sparkling prose.

From the pen of a graduate of St. Stephen’s House (an Anglican seminary in the Catholic tradition), an Oxford DPhil, and former Anglican Chaplain of Florence, the colorful, discerning, and exotic is to be expected. Quintember combines the charm of A.N. Wilson, the satire of Thomas Love Peacock, the observation of Thackeray, and the imagination of Robertson Davies with something of Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, Epiphanius’s Panarion (Against the Heresies), Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, and a little of what is truly sinister in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

The Rev. Graeme Napier (MA, MPhil, Oxford) is an associate priest of the Parish of Cowley St. John, Oxford. He is currently engaged in research at Nashotah House.


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