N°2 | The Biblical Story of King David Revisited By Joseph Heller in God Knows and Madeleine L’Engle in Certain Women
Anne Frédérique Mochel-Caballero
God Knows (1984) by Joseph Heller and Certain Women (1992) by Madeleine L’Engle are two American adaptations of the Biblical story of King David. The first is presented as written by the man himself. The second is the contemporary tale of an actor named David Wheaton who is fascinated with the Biblical character and whose life in some ways resembles that of King David. The two novels differ in tone and style, yet they also have much in common. Both stories depart from the original in letter and sometimes even in spirit. Nevertheless, they both bring the Biblical text to life in a unique way.
God Knows (1984) de Joseph Heller et Certain Women (1992) de Madeleine L’Engle sont deux adaptations américaines de l’histoire biblique du roi David. La première est présentée comme écrite par l’homme lui-même. La seconde est un récit contemporain d’un acteur appelé David Wheaton, fasciné par le personnage biblique et dont la vie ressemble par certains aspects à celle du roi David. Le ton et le style des deux romans sont différents mais ils ont aussi beaucoup de points communs. Les deux histoires s’éloignent du texte original en ce qui concerne la lettre et parfois même l’esprit. Néanmoins, elles rendent le texte biblique vivant d’une manière unique.
God Knows (1984) by Joseph Heller and Certain Women (1992) by Madeleine L’Engle are two American adaptations of the biblical story of King David. Both are retrospective: an aged David reminisces about his life, constantly moving between past and present. But, at first sight, the two narratives seem to take an opposing view with regard to almost every other aspect. The former is presented by the autodiegetic narrator as an account coming straight from the ancient king himself. The latter functions as an analogy: it is a contemporary tale about an actor named David Wheaton who is fascinated with the biblical character and whose life in some ways resembles that of King David. The adaptation of the biblical story is thus achieved using two very different techniques and the way it speaks to the contemporary reader is also dissimilar. Each book focuses on one particular event in the story of David upon which the whole novel hinges.
In Certain Women it is the rape of David Wheaton’s granddaughter, Emma, by her half-brother Billy and in God Knows it is the death of David and Bathsheba’s baby. As a Christian woman, L’Engle chose to put the emphasis on the female characters in her story and to tell it from their perspective. Even if the third-person narrator is omniscient in Certain Women, the focalization is internal: the reader views the events through the eyes of Emma Wheaton. Therefore the suffering caused by the rape is put into relief, although Emma does not allow herself to be overcome by bitterness. In God Knows, however, the narrator expresses strong anger and resentment because of the child’s death viewed as God’s punishment for David’s sin. Heller seems to be showing the reader what his own reaction would have been in David’s situation: consequently, the contrition expressed in the Bible disappears and revolt is put forward instead. The two books also differ in tone. Heller’s novel characteristically resorts to irony, derision and coarse humour, giving it an iconoclastic flavour absent from Certain Women. Yet, in spite of those differences, the two novels have much in common. Both authors raise a number of serious philosophical and theological questions about the meaning of life, the role of God, and both tackle the themes of love and death with emotion that is not less potent for being hidden beneath the surface in God Knows.
Adaptation in God Knows and Certain Women: Midrash v. Analogy
According to Linda Hutcheon, adaptations are omnipresent in our culture because of the pleasure they provide which comes “from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (4). She compares adaptation to translation and states that, just as literal translation does not work, there can be no literal adaptation (16). She writes that “proximity or fidelity to the adapted text should [not] be the criterion of judgment” (6) as it tended to be in the past. She defines the process of adaptation as “creative reinterpreting and palimpsestic intertextuality” (22). Among the tools used by storytellers, she mentions the following: “they actualize or concretize ideas; they make simplifying selections, but also amplify and extrapolate; they make analogies; they critique or show their respect” (3).
Certain Women totally fits Hutcheon’s description of an adaptation. It is inspired by the biblical text but several times in the novel (126, 350), the characters themselves point out that there is no strict parallelism between the destinies of the two Davids. For example, Nik tells his wife, who has just revealed to him that she has been raped by her half-brother: “you’re not a twentieth-century equivalent of Tamar. Sure, I can see parallels, but there’s no preordained necessity [….] free will, Emma, sweetie, not predestination” (224). In The Rock That is Higher, Madeleine L’Engle described how she failed at her first attempt to adapt the story of King David into fiction and how she turned to a contemporary version instead:
I had started out to write a novel about King David’s eight wives, and I realized fairly quickly that I could not put myself completely into the bodies and minds of women who lived approximately three thousand years ago in a culture completely different from ours. I needed a twentieth century point of view. What happened was that my twentieth-century cast took over, and the story of King David became a play that Nik Green, one of the twentieth century characters, was writing. It didn’t mean that I had to live any less with King David and his wives […] but that the story and its marvellous truth was being approached from a different perspective. (16)
While a claim to be faithful to the original can be found neither in the text nor in the metatext of Certain Women, at the other end of the scale, God Knows claims to be even more authentic than the source itself. Throughout the narrative, David comments on the way his story is reported in the Bible, sometimes complaining about how he is depicted in it: “I hate Chronicles. In Chronicles I am a pious bore, as dull as a dishwasher and as preachy and insipid as the self-righteous Joan of Arc, and God knows I was never anything like that” (9). At other times, he states that he will establish the truth about the way a certain event really happened. For instance, when he describes his battle against Goliath, he writes: “If you want to believe what you heard, I halted along the way to choose five smooth stones out of the brook. That was just for show. Any slinger worth his salt always carries his stones with him, and as I knelt with my knees in the water, I was unobtrusively removing two from the leather pouch at my waist […]” (97). The expression of the title “God knows,” found all along the novel, is his way of saying “this is what I’m telling you and you can believe me.” He rarely openly contradicts the Biblical narrative but mostly resorts to “midrash.”
This concept has been used by many critics to describe the relationship between the Bible and its rewritings (Carruthers 259). It originally referred a form of rabbinic literature interpreting or commenting on a biblical text in such a way as to clarify a point or illustrate a principle. Midrash often fill in gaps left in the narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Harold Fisch is one of the critics who refer to novelistic rewriting as midrash and he states that “the result is something between interpretation and a new invention, for biblical narratives, by virtue of their polyphonic character, as well as their pregnant silences, are particularly suited to beget other narratives” (18). To him, rewriting necessarily involves filling in the gaps of what is not said in the original text.
In God Knows, Joseph Heller constantly uses the technique of filling in the gaps and reading between the lines, thus “amplify[ing] and extrapolat[ing]” (Hutcheon 3), as in the following example, where the first sentence is a direct quotation from the Bible and the rest is commentary: “‘But I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, […] the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defiled.’ My voice was filled with righteousness. Ask me to this day what I thought I was talking about when I said ‘Lord of hosts’ and I still will be unable to tell you. I have many phrases whose meaning is likewise unintelligible to me but rhetoric is rhetoric” (99-100).
Joseph Heller goes further than most authors rewriting Biblical stories. He uses midrash to the point of often contradicting the original text, thus challenging the reader’s certitudes. One of the most unexpected examples is when he makes Solomon, popularly known as the wisest man on earth, an idiot, a cheat who got the best of his legendary sayings from David himself and who only acquired wisdom after he had become king because he asked God to grant it to him (317). This does not contradict the original text per se, but it is highly ironic and comical. Along the same lines, David disputes the modern definition of a Philistine by explaining that they were in reality a refined and cultured people (41). He also debunks the idea that the biblical David was a very pious person, stating that he was full of conceit when he attacked Goliath as a youth (21) or that he was not really furious when the Amalekite announced Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, but secretly pleased at receiving the crown and arm bracelet from him (35). Again, since he is referring to inner feelings, he cannot be accused of openly contradicting the original story. He uses the argument of a discrepancy between words and thoughts even in the case of the most important transformation of all: Heller’s David constantly harps on his refusal to repent after having committed adultery and murder and on his lasting anger against God as a consequence of his baby’s death. To the reader who is familiar with the Biblical character, this change feels the most heterodox because there is clear evidence in the biblical text that David deeply regretted what he had done and that he carried on worshipping God to the end of his life: but if the narrator of God Knows is to be believed, it was just pretence (369).
The Biblical hypotext is literally present in both novels. In Certain Women it takes the form of direct quotations, for example in the paratext, at the beginning of each chapter, or when one of the characters refers to the Bible (169, 302). In those examples, the text is in italics or in brackets to make it clear that it is a quote. In another example, the words are spoken directly by a character: “Adair laughed ruefully. ‘Poor little Inez. She’s all legs and knobbly knees and elbows. We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts’” (138). Even if there are no quotation marks in that example, the source is easily identifiable first to the attentive reader by the archaic “hath” and then in the next line, by Emma’s answer, explicitly mentioning the Song of Songs. The Bible is also referred to by the characters who read it, preach on it or discuss it on numerous occasions. Finally, there is an intermediary level between the contemporary re-writing and the biblical text itself: it is the unfinished play written by Nik on the story of King David, attempting to do what Madeleine L’Engle could not do and ultimately also failing. The play, which is supposed to tell the story from the perspective of David’s wives, is frequently read aloud by the characters and is a means for the reader who is not familiar with the biblical story to have access to it.
In God Knows there are more direct quotations than in Certain Women but they are interwoven with the narrative with no quotation marks. However they are easily recognisable because of their style. Indeed, the quotes are taken from the King James Bible and sound very archaic compared to the rest of the text, as in the following example: “‘What shall be done by the king […] to the man that killeth this Philistine and taketh away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’/ ‘Who the fuck are you?’” (92-93). “The frequently abrupt disjunction between the familiar high sentences of the scriptural material and the ‘rude noises’ of the vernacular obscenities and wisecracks” is described by Stephen W. Potts as “the most insistent comic and thematic device in this novel” (99). He asserts that “[s]ince Catch 22, one of the hallmarks of Heller’s work has been the sharp contrast between the often serious matter and the comic manner, a characteristic traditionally central to dark humor” (99).
Actually, the whole question of intertextuality is dealt with in a playful way in God Knows. It is not just the biblical text that is quoted without indication of origin. Indeed, the novel is peppered with quotations from writers and poets of all periods and styles like Jonathan Swift (247), Robert Burns (310), Lord Byron (237), Charles Dickens (222) or Kafka (120). There is even a whole poem by Shelley, “Ozymandias of Egypt,” in direct speech, presented by David as “another crack at instructing” his son Solomon (317). After a while, the reader finds himself caught up in a tacit game of trying to spot the unidentified quotes. The most frequently quoted author is Shakespeare (100, 170, 189, 207, 228, 269, 364, 433) and it is ironically funny, since David constantly claims to be a true poet and creator and accuses both his son Solomon and Shakespeare of having copied him, calling the latter an “unscrupulous plagiarist” (89). In one sentence, he criticizes Shakespeare, for having “pilfered from Plutarch too, as well as from Saul and me” and in the next, he shamelessly quotes from Macbeth without citing his source: “stupid plots cluttered with warm bodies and filled with sound and fury and signifying nothing” (188-89). He also complains that Solomon got all his Proverbs, his Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes from his father David while at the same time admitting that he himself stole the idea for his celebrated Psalm 23 (349) and several other psalms and proverbs from Bathsheba after telling her she was useless at writing: “‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ […] ‘Are you crazy? How fantastic can you get? That’s crap, Bathsheba, pure crap. Where’s your sense of metaphor?’” (348).
Although it is not treated humorously, the idea that David might have provided inspiration for Solomon’s Song of Songs is also mentioned in Certain Women (208). Besides, Emma suggests to her husband that one of David’s wives might have authored part of his writings. She is thinking of Abigail rather than Bathsheba: “[…] she’s intelligent and creative. […] why couldn’t Abigail have made up some of the Psalms and taught them to David?” (169). Madeleine L’Engle regretted that “The God of Scripture is seen through male eyes (Jacob, Moses, David), so what we are given is only a partial vision of God” (Rock 27) and we can infer that this was part of her effort to re-establish a certain balance. With that example, we can see that she also resorted to the midrash technique even if she did not use it as abundantly as Heller.
Both authors turn to the biblical text for inspiration, frequently quoting from it, while at the same time mixing it with their own writing and interpretation. By choosing a contemporary setting, L’Engle departs from the original text—and consequently from the events which inspired it—in a more obvious way than Heller, being “one step further away from real life as a representation of a representation” to use Kamilla Elliott’s phrase (162). However, in reality, David’s claim that he is more faithful to the facts than the source itself is, again, to be understood ironically since the source was to Heller, as it is to us, the only document available to learn about the facts. Heller himself referred to his inability to write a “realistic novel” in an interview: “I can’t deal with facts comfortably. […] In all my novels I try very hard not to let the facts get in the way of the truth” (Swaim). Thus, we can conclude that there is just as much “creative reinterpreting” (Hutcheon 22) in God Knows as in Certain Women.
How the Characters are Made to Come to Life
Agreeing with Harold Fisch that “the Western imagination cannot escape [the Bible] but neither can it accept it unaltered” (viii), Madeleine L’Engle felt that she needed a twentieth century point of view to be able to reach out to her public. To help the contemporary reader identify with her characters, she chose to leave out some of the more shocking events in King David’s life: consequently David Wheaton does not murder a man to be able to marry his widow, and Abishag, the young virgin who sleeps with the old king to warm him becomes Alice, a mature doctor who looks after him and is legitimately married to him through her own choice, as were all his previous wives. Although two of his sons fight and die as soldiers in World War II, David Wheaton himself does not take part in any wars and the killing of the giant Goliath is merely metaphorical (3). There are constant nods to the original story but in order to suit a contemporary audience and a Western culture, some events or practises that could be perceived as disturbing or unrealistic are left out.
Certain Women came out in 1992 but the story is principally set in the sixties, when David Wheaton is eighty-seven, and there are frequent analepses corresponding to his past life so the time span covered by the novel broadly corresponds to the first part of the twentieth century. Therefore the questions of the suffering of the innocent (260) and of the possibility of fighting a just war (145) are raised by the characters in reference to the Second World War, making them seem more relevant to the reader.
In God Knows, all the shocking parts of the biblical narrative are included, and even developed and magnified to create humour. For instance, the story of David being asked to bring a hundred foreskins of Philistines as a dowry to marry Michal is told in just seven verses in the Bible (1 Samuel 18, 20-27) but goes on for ten pages in God Knows (168-78). Heller insists on David’s boyish eagerness to perform his task and even more on the Philistine women’s wailings when they recognize the foreskin of a certain Urgat who appears to have been a favourite among them.
Despite the apparent lack of effort to try and make the story more palatable, it feels very contemporary and the reader is able to identify with David. To achieve that, Heller employs a device he had started using in Catch 22: he resorts to anachronisms. Just to give a few examples, not only does David use modern American slang and swearwords like ‘motherfucker’ (90), or “you bet your ass” (239), he also has extended geographical and historical knowledge of the twentieth century world. He compares his kingdom to the American states of Vermont and Maine (329), mentions Beverly Hills (56), London (16), Versailles (285) and Scandinavia (172). He refers to the Middle-Ages (311), to the discovery of America, to concentration camps, capitalism, fascism and communism (330-1). He mentions Cinderella (46) and at one point, he parodies a Disney song (175). He is acquainted with orthodontia (62), psychoanalysis (52, 265), miniskirts (35) and the pill (267) and is even aware of the fact that some of the things he mentions have not been invented yet (350). He uses a lot of Yiddish words like “shtupp,” “schmuck” (360), “schvantz,” “teivel,” “naar,” (420) and mentions “kasha varnishkas” (224), a popular Ashkenazi Jewish dish. He is also familiar with the New Testament, which he quotes several times (220, 289, 367). He goes so far as to ludicrously amalgamate Jesus and Marie-Antoinette by quoting them both in the same sentence: “Let them eat cake,” he said calmly. “Man does not live by bread alone” (315). The protagonist is an ancient king but his references are those of a twentieth-century American Jew, just like Heller himself. The anachronisms are so frequent that they make the world described in the novel seem familiar to the reader.
The biblical text is very simple and narrative and often the feelings of the characters have to be guessed. For instance, in the story of the meeting between David and Abigail, we can deduce from the text that it was love at first sight since David asked her to marry him as soon as he learnt her husband was dead, but Joseph Heller chooses to spell things out in order to make the story come to life: “For the longest time I could not move my gaze from her face. Then I could not take my eyes off her tits. I felt my member harden and begin to stand out” (249). It is all the more unexpected and amusing because it comes after a long passage where the Biblical text is quoted almost verbatim, although without quotation marks, as is Heller’s custom.
As Robert Merill noted, in God Knows, David is presented as “less perfect… far less pious,” “far more human” (115) than in the biblical text so it is easier for the reader to identify with him. Once more, the two authors do not use the same strategy but the result is the same: the characters feel, at least to a certain point, close to their readers.
Two Emotional Narratives Dealing With Eros and Thanatos
The central figure of both narratives is a very old man on the verge of death and who had a particularly rich love life. Love and death are central themes in both novels.
In Certain Women, they are treated very seriously as the reader is made to feel Emma’s sorrow at the idea of parting with her father, but also the pain caused by her rape and the aching of being currently separated from her husband Nik. Yet, the tone of the novel is not pessimistic. Mirroring L’Engle’s own experience, Emma and her family acquire a certain wisdom through their sufferings and learn to deal with them. Thus, the conversations they have are full of sage reflexions on the importance of friendship (160), the acceptance of death (190), and the possibility of learning from mistakes (337).
Though more humorous, “like all truly grand comic novels, God Knows is ultimately sad,” as Mordecai Richler wrote in The New York Times. Indeed, David is anxious about his coming death and especially about losing his strength and abilities. The former celebrated warrior and lover keeps regretting that he finds himself incapable of making love to Bathsheba one last time. As Heller stated, “[w]hat there is in all my books, part of the central consciousness, is a philosophical despair on the inevitability of age, of ageing, and dying” (Craig 148). David is also described as a doting father who was atrociously hurt when his son Absalom betrayed him and even more when he was killed (255). And of course he never recovered from the death of his baby boy. Although the tone is slightly more jaded, words of wisdom sounding very similar to the ones spoken by the characters in Certain Women can be found in God Knows: “[…] just as the person who wants praise will never be satisfied with praise, the person who wants love cannot be satisfied with love. No want is ever fulfilled” (105).
Both Davids were accused of being dislikeable. L’Engle’s David can be perceived as self-centred, but he admits towards the end of his life that he made many mistakes: “I have been a selfish bastard all my life. I’ve done what I wanted, even when it’s hurt other people” (291). On the surface, he seems not to care about God. Yet we learn that the reason he does not take communion when he goes to church is that he believes himself “to be unworthy” (61): “I’m just a foolish old man, suddenly remembering how often I’ve forgotten God. And David never did that” (83).
Heller’s David is arrogant and self-righteous. However, those traits are so grossly exaggerated that they become unrealistic and laughable, for instance when he claims to have invented all the best poems and music in the world (198). He always pretends to know better but, several times in the narrative, it is obvious to the reader that he is mistaken. The most hilarious example is when he accuses Solomon of having preposterous ideas because he has advised him to hide his writings in a cave by the Dead Sea in order to preserve them for future generations, which is of course a reference to the famous Qumran scrolls which came to us precisely thanks to that means (234). It could be argued that the stepping back is done at his expense in order to make fun of him and that the character is still obnoxious. Yet despite all his ranting, complaining, boasting, David appears to be a very lonely character, who wants, most of all, to be loved. Throughout the novel, he speaks very disrespectfully of God, often accusing and insulting him, sometimes even doubting his existence, but his very last words—I want my God back; and they send me a girl (447)—seem to suggest that ultimately, there is a spiritual longing in him. Just like David Wheaton, he is helpless and feels the need to protect himself from pain. Unlike L’Engle’s David, he uses coarse jokes and dark humour as a means to “[distance] and [control] the emotional desolation” he experiences (Craig 153). Although he is a complex and contradictory character, he is also a suffering human being and as such, he awakens the reader’s sympathy.
Apart from drawing from the same source of inspiration, the two novels have a lot in common as this paper has endeavoured to show. Incidentally, they also had a similar journey. Their authors, who were almost the same age, became famous at the same time, after publishing their first work, which turned into a bestseller, though not without some struggle in both cases: Catch 22 came out in 1961 and A Wrinkle in Time in 1962. God Knows and Certain Women were both written several years later, they were criticized and unfavourably compared to their predecessors. The two novels are not without faults. It can be noticed that they were accused by the critics of having the same shortcomings, namely of sometimes being heavy-handed and a bit long and repetitive. Nevertheless, they are both thought-provoking and bring the biblical text to life in their own unique way.
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Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero has a Ph.D in English literature from the University of Picardy Jules Verne, where she also teaches. She is the author of L’Évangile selon C. S. Lewis, Le dépassement du masculin / féminin dans la quête de Dieu (Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011), a study of gender in the works of C.S. Lewis. She is interested in children’s literature (particularly fantasy), in representations of the masculine and feminine in literature and in biblical intertextuality.
 In the Biblical text, David’s daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13).
 In an interview with Don Swaim, Heller said: “David would not have spoken that way. I would have spoken that way.”
 According to the Oxford dictionary, a Philistine is “a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Oxford UP, 2017. Web.
 He almost never does it. The only real exception seems to be when he claims that he has black hair (103): David is described as being fair-haired in 1 Samuel 16, 12.
 For instance in Psalm 51, a prayer written by David specifically to ask God for forgiveness “after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (King James Bible, Ps 51, 1).
 2 Samuel 23 1-7, 16-17; 2 Samuel 24, 10; 1 Kings 1, 18; 1 Kings 2, 3-4.
 The first part of this passage is a word-for-word quote from 1 Samuel 17, 26.
 “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, verses 26-8).
 In Walking on Water, L’Engle wrote how her suffering as a lonely child and, later, her failure to publish her first book, though bitter experiences, had taught her “a lot of valuable lessons” (58).
 L’Engle’s phrasing is almost analogous: “Nobody’s needs are ever met. I do know that” (CW, 160).
 Heller saw himself as an agnostic (Conversations 75), but in an interview with Don Swaim, Heller said about God Knows: “It’s not an atheistic book; it’s not even an agnostic book.”
 L’Engle was born in 1918 and Heller in 1923.
 For Certain Women, see for example Carolyn See’s book review in the Los Angeles Times. For God Knows, see Kirkus Review and Potts 101-04.
 Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller famously responded, “Who has?”(Severo and Mitgang). Certain Women was described by Publishers Weekly as a “disappointing novel by the Newbery Award-winning CK author of A Wrinkle in Time.”
 Concerning God Knows, Potts mentions “redundancy and length” among the issues which surface most frequently in negative reviews of the novel (101). A review in Publishers Weekly describes Certain Women as “heavy-handed.”