The Oracles Fell Silent
Wiseblood Books, 2013
262 pp., $13.33
Gerald J. Russello
The Oracles Fell Silent
At the heart of Lee Oser's new novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, is a mystery. How did 1960s British rocker Johnny Donovan die? Ted Pop, his rival, friend, and bandmate in the rock sensation The Planets, was the only witness, and he has not spoken of it in the intervening decades. Whether Pop was responsible for Donovan's death has hung over the now-aged star ever since. The narrator, a low-level employee at a publishing company named Richard Bellman, is engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with Pop's daughter Lexie. Through her intercession, he is invited to meet her father (born Theodore Pappas, Jr., to an immigrant to the United Kingdom) and eventually becomes a hanger-on and memoirist over a summer in Southampton.
Oser's book comes at a turbulent time for the "Catholic novel," whose fate is again in the news. The current debate started about a year ago when Paul Elie wrote a cover story in the New York Times Book Review about the fate of the "Catholic" (and, by extension, religious) novel and its place in a larger culture hostile to faith. Elie found that "Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time as something between a dead language and a hangover." This argument is not exactly new; Richard Gilman had made a similar argument, also in the New York Times, thirty years ago, stating "that the religious spiritual novel is in some sense only a memory." As possibly the strongest exponent of mainstream secularism, one might almost think the Times has a vested interest in declaring the end of religiously inflected fiction.
There were energetic responses from Gregory Wolfe, the editor of Image, a journal that covers faith and the arts, among others. Wolfe argued that the religious literary imagination was still there, and in force, if one only knew where to look. Catholic writers may no longer be shouting, or writing in the wrenching language of a Flannery O'Connor, but they remain a "a still, small voice" writing about God and the world. The respected poet and writer Dana Gioia joined the argument in a long article in First Things, mostly taking Elie's side. He too lamented the decline of the Catholic literary imagination in America, which he traced to a combination of circumstances in the middle of the last century. "Stated simply," he writes, "the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting."
At one level, these arguments miss a larger cultural point. For surely part of the reason for the decline of the religious novel in a secular culture has to do with the decline of the novel in a non-reading culture. People do not read or care about novels in 2014 the way they may have in 1960 or 1950 (though how popular some of even the great Catholic novelists were is not self-evident; as J. F. Powers' recently published correspondence indicates, the sales of Morte D'Urban were tiny even after it won the National Book Award.). Literature's moment - in the sense of large-scale novels that form the basis of as common conversation about things that matter and are considered part of an educated person's self-culture - is almost completely past. The most influential religious artists today are not novelists. One can look to a Terrence Malick for an example of a religious-inspired artist, with a close (but very different) second in Mel Gibson, whose Passion of the Christ was a very personal encounter with the Christian mystery. And as writers like Mark Judge have noted, the larger popular culture is awash in confused notions of grace, redemption, and forgiveness. Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia focus primarily on literature, and mostly non-genre "literary" fiction at that. But although understandable, this necessarily is an incomplete picture. A creative young person with a literary bent these days is much more likely to write screenplays, create video games, or develop "apps" than write novels or go work in the publishing industry. Better perhaps to ask who is the contemporary Malcolm Muggeridge, the "man on the telly" who evangelized in the most common medium and was well-known outside religious audiences.
So, the audience for a religious novel, let alone one from a Catholic perspective, is diminished, and the culture is conflicted about religion and how it should be represented in art. Ironic knowingness seems to be acceptable, sincerity (even sincere doubting), not so much. The question facing those authors, however, is the same as it was for Walker Percy or O'Connor. Include too much religion in a novel and the story becomes preachy and uninteresting. But too little risks reducing religion to a plot element rather than an animating perspective.