In 1842, Adolph Peter Adler, a pastor living in Denmark and onetime friend of Søren Kierkegaard, claimed to experience a divine revelation commanding him to burn his previous books and promising that God would dictate to him a new work. That new work, published in 1843, was titled Several Sermons; in 1844, Adler was dismissed from his post as a minister and afterwards wrote that he had been mistaken about his revelation, that perhaps revelation was “too strong an expression.”
Kierkegaard visited Adler following his supposed revelation, and Adler read to him from his work, using a strange, whistling voice to indicate that certain passages were divinely inspired. Kierkegaard concluded that his former friend was almost certainly mad. But the whole affair raised a difficult question for Kierkegaard: what does it mean to have a revelation? What is the difference—if any—between revelation, genius, and madness?
The same year Adler was dismissed from his post, a young man named Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was killed by an armed mob while imprisoned for treason in Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith, too, had experienced a revelation. In 1823, he was visited, or believed he was visited, or claimed he was visited, by the angel Moroni, who revealed the location of a book of golden plates containing revelations written in an ancient language. The translations of these plates, dictated first to his wife and later to a man named Martin Harris, became the Book of Mormon—a history of the people who predated European settlers in the Americas, and a continuation of the Biblical Old Testament.
The protagonist of Robert Kloss’s novel The Revelator is not that Joseph Smith, although there are enough similarities that you’d be forgiven for thinking so. This Smith also claims to be the owner of a set of ancient golden plates, revealed to him by a messenger of God; this Smith was also aided early on by a man named Martin Harris, who like his namesake was responsible for the loss of a large portion of the original translation. This Smith, like the other, rises to power as the head of a new church. This Smith and his followers are run out of one town after another; this Smith, like that one, dies at the hands of a mob in a jail cell somewhere in the Midwest.
And yet they are not the same. As in his previous novel, The Alligators of Abraham, Kloss takes as his material historical events and remakes them to suit his purposes. The result fits comfortably neither in the genre of historical fiction nor alternate history: it is unconcerned with portraying the facts as they were, but neither is there some primary difference that can be pointed out to separate the book’s reality from our own. Rather, there are numerous, tiny modifications to the world as we know it, like little scratches on the mirror. Some deliberately estrange, such as the burnt offerings offered by the churches opposed to Smith, and work to make Kloss’s dark American landscape a little more alien. Others, such as Martin Harris’s early death or Joseph’s childhood as an orphan, might easily pass unnoticed by readers unfamiliar with the details of the historical Joseph Smith. In more than one case I discovered afterwards that something I would have sworn was the author’s invention was, in fact, historically accurate, such as Smith’s early career as a treasure seeker, during which he attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to find lost items or buried money with a divining stone.
In the early, brutally violent America of The Revelator, Kloss has found both a subject and an approach that lets him explore a language deeply indebted to the rhythms and sentence structures of Melville and the King James Bible, while still allowing postmodernist moves that would be at home in the work of John Fowles or William Gaddis. This productive aesthetic tension is evident from the novel’s first paragraph:
They drifted for months aboard a ship they called the Spotted One, locked between the vast, merciless blue and the withering sun. Their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary. They conspired in the shadows, drew plans in the sawdust. They grew confident and foolhardy. Finally, the Admiral consulted his god and ordered them shot through the skulls, their bodies weighted with lead and dropped to the depths, with neither forgiveness nor prayer.
The Spotted One is one possible translation of the Pinta; the Admiral, of course, both is and is not quite Christopher Columbus. Columbus’s story, which bookends the narrative, seems to indicate that Joseph Smith’s prophecy and violent life shares something fundamental with the history of America itself, a land that has always marked itself off as exceptional, sacred, a revelation.
The Revelator’s Joseph is a cypher: he is at various points a drunk, a gambler, most likely a cheat, unquestionably a bigamist. But is he a prophet? Whenever this question is raised—whenever the book touches on the revelation itself—the narrative is staunchly indeterminate, answering, perhaps infuriatingly: both. Joseph is prophet and con-man; the Creature of God that speaks to him is at once epiphany and delusion; the plates exist and the plates do not exist. When Harris takes a sample of Joseph’s “holy symbols” to a professor of ancient languages, we are told:
And there are those who say this professor marveled over the ancient script, soon issuing a certificate . . . And there are those who say the professor ‘guffawed himself red and tearful’ before proclaiming the language to be ‘insensible squiggles’ and ‘mere stupid illustrations of plants and animals.’ And there are those who insist the professor told Harris, ‘I worry over you, man,’ for he was convinced your ‘plates’ were little more than a confidence game.
Joseph is always referred to, as in the above quotation, in the second person, a narrative device that creates a Joseph-sized hole that stretches tunnel-like through the course of the story. Though he is the protagonist, he is nevertheless in some important sense missing. We have no direct access to his thoughts or experiences. He is not contained within the book; instead the book indicates something beyond: you.
Of course, this is exactly the point. Revelation is by its nature a kind of absolute gap in our common knowledge. It cannot be reasonable. If there were any way to reason from some set of real-world premises to the substance of the revelation, then there would be nothing divine or miraculous about the revelation, and it would remain, however brilliantly, within the realm of possible human insight. David Hume understood this when he argued that to believe in the truth of a miracle, even if one has experienced it oneself, is irrational, since any miracle must oppose the combined weight of human experience.
And Kierkegaard understood this when he confronted his former friend, wild-eyed, whistling as he read. Kierkegaard could conceive of the possibility that Adler had experienced a revelation. But if Adler had, he had subsequently forsaken his responsibility towards the revelation, disclaiming it once the demands it made on him were too great; and if he had not, he had either lied or was the victim of delusion.
Kierkegaard concludes that he cannot judge the truth of the revelation itself, but only what comes afterwards. The Revelator leaves us with the same question, as regards not only Joseph but American exceptionalism as well: what has come afterwards?
James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love (Curbside Splendor Publishing 2014), and a collection of stories, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge (PANK/Tiny Hardcore Press 2012). He lives in Chicago.