This book was on loan to my human from another human’s collection, and I have half a mind to leave a hairball on her lap if I ever get the chance. I am not one prone to fits of pique, but I will say that she should keep her shoes far, far away from me.
What has provoked such ire? Two words: “BAIT” and “SWITCH”!
I saw this book on my human’s bedside table, read its title, and immediately resolved to read the book itself. But then I noticed the cover art:
I have to say, I did and still do admire the simple, minimalistic design. Sleek, stark & bold. How positively feline! I registered, immediately, that these weren’t the paw-prints of a cat – that they were, in fact, the paw-prints of a dog – but thought perhaps that the artist responsible for the cover simply didn’t know the difference. My human also noticed the odd contradiction, a book about a being with nine lives marked with decidedly canine tracks, but he thought perhaps one of the nine lives of the presumably-titular cat would be lost to a dog; a chilling thought, but certainly representative of the threat posed by canines to all felines at some point in our lives. And the book does appear to be self-published, so that might also have explained the odd incongruity of those paw-prints. One rarely expects as much from a self-published effort as a book produced by a major publishing house.
Alas, both my human and I were too optimistic. Those paw-prints were a warning neither of us could fully comprehend until after we had read the offending work.
I ask you, friends: if you picked up a book called “The Nine Lives of Clemenza”, what would you expect? Wouldn’t you expect a book about a cat? “Clemenza” is a very feline-sounding name, after all, and those nine lives? Certainly it would have to be about a cat! Or if not a narrative about a particular cat, then a book which explores feline themes. Even if it were a book about reincarnation, wouldn’t you expect at least ONE of the titular “nine lives” to be spent as a cat? At the very least, I would expect a tale of human reinvention which somewhat mirrors the structure of our legendary nine lives, much as Joyce’s Ulysses mirrors the structure of Homer’s Odyssey.
Would you, however, expect a book in which there isn’t a single cat at any point? A book in which, in fact, there isn’t even a mention of a cat?
I am not sure if the catlessness is supposed to be the point – if the author was hoping to subvert expectations in a fit of hipsterish irony. But, really, in this book the protagonist experiences existence as everything BUT a cat!
The basic and bewildering premise of the story is laid out for the reader quickly and clumsily: Heaven & God exist on the utmost fringes of the universe and all things within the universe are composed of a type of all-purpose living energy. Balls of this energy possess consciousnesses and amount to what we might consider “spirits” or “souls” – and each one has 9 chances at living a productive, happy existence. Everything, both matter and energy, is composed of these energy balls, and after their 9th incarnation has ended, the good energy balls are offered a chance at one of three final existences: 1) as an eternal angel in God’s service; 2) as an inhabitant of Heaven’s “10th Life Retirement Community”; or 3) re-inhabiting one of their previous incarnations for a final time (and then, presumably, being snuffed out of existence). The protagonist begins as a disembodied ball of non-specific living energy, reads travel brochures about the various existences she can experience and, in consultation with God, decides on the following order: an oxygen molecule; a part of the Aurora Borealis; an American bald eagle; a rubber tree; a female human; cancer cells; a male human; a DOG (!!!!); and a guardian angel. I will leave the actual details of Clemenza’s journey, as well as the final existence to which she is delivered, unmentioned. Should any of you choose to read this book, I would hate to spoil all those twists and turns. But know this! Never once does Clemenza choose to be anything that approximates, approaches, or even thinks about a cat.
While my human enjoyed the book rather more than did I, we both had some problems with its theology and theodicy. He describes them with unwonted generosity as “unorthodox”; a truer descriptor would be “incomprehensible.” It’s an odd hodge-podge of Western and Eastern, ancient and modern – that syrupy, befuddling patchwork spiritual-but-not-religiosity so popular nowadays which swirls together entirely incongruous ideas and principles to create a conceptual reality uniquely offensive to any actual adherent of a religious tradition yet which is so gratifying to the lax and the lazy. In this book, no human is ever fully responsible for their actions or their choices; God is ever smiling, never wrathful; and a reincarnation of the Buddhist or Hindu variety is posited alongside the Heaven, God and angels of Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition.
The energy balls seem aware (but only situationally) of temporal and mortal things that they can never have known; and God often appears to Clemenza as things of which she can have no knowledge, yet which she immediately recognizes. All the energy balls have names of their own which transcend their various incarnations, but they are average mortal names (eg: “Sally”, “Winston”, “Justice”) and this is never explained. We are told there is no such thing as gender, yet God is decidedly male, Clemenza is decidedly female, and many of the other energy balls she encounters likewise seem to be one gender or another even though they are temporarily incarnated as the opposite sex or as sexless beings. This is further complicated by the fact that the concept of genderless/sexless spirits and a sexless or hermaphroditic god are in reality the product of Greek language and pagan Greek philosophers – since the Greek language possesses a “neuter” form, in addition to the “masculine” and “feminine”, it was possible for the pre-Christian Greeks to envision an ideal god as a being which transcended the animal limitations of sex. Hebrew and Aramaic lacked a “neuter” form, so the concepts of divinity which those languages permitted were uniformly male or female, and it was only after the intersection of Hellenistic culture and Judaism that the concept of God or angels or spirits as sexless/genderless was ever contemplated by followers of the Abrahamic divinity – and it only became institutionalized after the Greek-speaking Christians sought to follow Philo Iudaeus’ example and fuse pagan Greek philosophy to their own spin on Judaic theology. This particular fusion of Hellenistic-pagan and Judaic theology has been repeatedly refined and revised over the centuries, as some old ideas were jettisoned and some new ones were grafted on, eventually leading to that theology laid out in this book.
Why the specific number of incarnations for the energy balls is limited to 9 is never explained, but there’s no real judgment, no overarching threat to one’s existence until one reaches the end of the 9th life – and even then one isn’t truly held accountable! Those who live badly and waste their various incarnations are not sent to Hell; no matter how horrible or cruel or evil they are, the author assures us that there is no such thing as Hell. Such energy balls are instead merely snuffed out of existence…but only after the end of their 9th life…and only if they haven’t somehow turned things around in a later incarnation. So in her cosmology one could, theoretically, choose to be a sadistic monster in one’s first eight incarnations but somehow make up for it and go to Heaven by being a pretty okay being in one’s ninth incarnation. Imagine it: as long as Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dhamer, and Elisabeth Bathory donate to Greenpeace and tend to kittens in their final incarnations, they will be rewarded with an eternity of bliss in Heaven! How comforting. This is the sort of cut-rate theodicy that appeals to the individual when considering their own lot but which is revealed as immediately objectionable when applied to others!
Also, according to the book’s theology, all things vividly remember their past lives and their time in Heaven with God… except for humans, who remember nothing. Furthermore, the author has her characters assert that among all living beings, only humans kill their own kind. What utter nonsense! Has she been living in a bubble in a basement her entire life? Creatures kill members of their own species, their own colonies, their own families with utter impunity! A chimp tribe will make war upon one another and then devour the losing tribe’s offspring! The wars between ant colonies or bee colonies, etc. are extensively documented! A certain species of penguin will rape its own hatchlings to death and then proceed to rape the corpses! Goodness, even plants routinely strive to kill one another! This rubbish is explained away as a product of God’s desire for humans to have complete free will, but at no point in any of the non-human existences do any of the energy balls seem beholden to God’s will, so I’m not sure what the difference is between their free will and the free will humans experience sans knowledge of Heaven and God. All the human lives we are shown seem decidedly miserable and unpleasant, but the knowledge of the eternal certainly doesn’t seem to do any of the non-human incarnate energy balls any good either. Nevertheless, in the reality this book posits not only can one make up for eight existences of intentional, conscious evil by a single later existence of moderate good behavior, but if one is a monster in one’s human life that is completely mitigated by the fact that humans are somehow uniquely murderous — which is in turn blamed on the fact that they have no knowledge of God!
This lack of a final (or, indeed, ANY) judgment, the author states, is because the God of this book is a decidedly non-interventionist being. He’s an absentee god, more a Prime Mover who sets things in motion and doesn’t interfere in their courses or their outcomes because he is explicitly incapable of doing so. This God doesn’t judge, doesn’t guide, doesn’t really DO anything beyond the act of creation and a bit of light advisement during the between-incarnations interviews the energy balls have with him. He isn’t consciously limiting himself, but rather by the fact that he lacks the power to do any more than he’s already doing. And far from being eternal or outside of time, God is presented as aging and beholden to the linear progression of time. He’s a rather pathetic being, all told, harried and haphazard and absurdly limited in his scope. Yet the author clearly intends for us to marvel at what she evidently envisions as a wise, compassionate, subtle being!
So again, the theology is extremely modern, extremely inconsistent and extremely disorganized. The theodicy is…bewildering. Much of it seems to be the product of contemporary human wish fulfillment – there is a Heaven, but no Hell; reincarnation is real, but karma is not; rewards are granted but no real punishments are levied; and in many ways the author’s God is more genie than judge, observer than executioner.
This last element is part of what made the book so frustrating even beyond its lack of felinity! It’s clearly intended as a feel-good, spiritually-uplifting, semi-comic explication of the author’s own spiritual beliefs, but she comes across as rather more of a poor man’s Paulo Coelho (who is himself a poor man’s George MacDonald). The lack of judgment offends me personally as a feline — even setting aside matters of religion, theology, and spirituality, judgment is fundamental to the nature of my entire species! No self-respecting cat would consent to live in a reality in which judgment is not passed!
There are technical problems with this book as well. A better editor would have served author and reader alike. The author confuses tenses constantly, confuses punctuation (“The Gordons” is repeatedly rendered “The Gordon’s”, for example), confuses words (“predecessor” when “successor” is meant, “veracity” when either “vigor” or “ferocity” is meant, “peak” is twice substituted for “peek,” “attributed” is used in place of “caused”, and “shined” is used when “shone” is intended).
But all of this — the bizarre theology, the ridiculous theodicy, the absent editing — could have been forgivable, were the book not such a colossal deception!
A catless “Nine Lives”?!?
The title promised something it could not fulfill, and I may never trust again.
 Well, except for the lion that eats her in one of her human incarnations. But that was mentioned only once, in a single sentence, and that so offhandedly that I nearly forgot about it until my human (reviewing this article before publication) reminded me. And even he barely remembered whether it had been a lion or some other animal. We had to review the book again twice to figure it out! Besides, everyone knows that the big cats lack the nine lives possessed by felis silvestris catus.