Arts & Entertainments
288 pp., 17.84
Hold the Dark: A Novel
208 pp., 24.95
D. G. Myers
Redefining Religious Fiction
The novel of religious faith—or, rather, its disappearance—has been much in the literary news lately. Since the death of Walker Percy a quarter century ago, no American novelist of comparable stature has emerged, it is said, to pack flesh and blood onto the life-altering experience of "something beyond myself" (as the British novelist Muriel Spark shyly described the religious sensation). The last American fiction writer to shout her Christian convictions at the top of her voice was Flannery O'Connor. But now, it is said, while ordinary Christians may bellow from pulpits and political rallies, American fiction has become like the churches of Europe—hushed and almost empty of believers.
The main combatants in this cultural clash have been Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (a 2003 collective biography of four postwar Catholic writers), and Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, a literary journal founded to publish work concerned with the faith traditions of the West. A year and a half ago, Elie declared in the New York Times Book Review that religious belief shows up in contemporary fiction, if at all, merely "as something between a dead language and a hangover." Great religious novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Brideshead Revisted are barren of living offspring—except perhaps for the novel Elie admitted that he himself was in the process of writing. Replying in The Wall Street Journal, Gregory Wolfe scolded him for looking in all the wrong places for the wrong thing. "[W]e live in a postmodern world, where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive," Wolfe said. "Indeed, one of the most ancient religious ideas is that grace works in obscure, mysterious ways."
I find myself on Wolfe's side, and not merely because he quoted me in the Journal. Elie commits the error that so many commit in talking about religion: he reduces it to the confession of belief, which must be uttered in a voice loud enough to be heard over the fashionable din. But there is plenty of perfectly good religious fiction, Wolfe reminded Elie, which conveys its faith in "whispers rather than shouts." Elie was dismissive. Why the need to whisper? "It's not like we're in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted," he scoffed in a later interview. But this misses the point. Although religion in what Terry Eagleton calls its "doctrinal inflection" may once have appealed to intellectuals and writers like T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell, for whom conversion was a reawakening of the mind, it no longer does so. The generation of young Americans just now rising to notice is surrounded by an intellectual élite which jeers that religious belief is the death of intelligence. For the Roman Catholics among them, the scandal of clerical sex abuse was an occasion of profound disgust, which led even the most devout to muzzle their faith. The public display of religion has come to seem as false and insincere as public displays of affection.
It doesn't follow that provocative and satisfying religious fiction is not still being written. Perhaps the best examples are the work of two young Catholic novelists still in their thirties—William Giraldi and Christopher Beha. They established themselves immediately with first novels of extraordinary power and prowess. Giraldi's Busy Monsters (2011) chronicles the spiritual adventures of a lapsed Catholic ("the most devout Catholic of all") who crosses the "line into a whole new mode of existence"—murder, mayhem, the search for Big Foot and ghosts and ufos. Written in the facetious style of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi's novel nevertheless has a serious Christian purpose. It explores the emptiness of postmodern lives: "Our silent Savior's broken body: in that believe? How? Which way? Is it each way? But we can't hold it. So in the lifetime of our discontent we worship one another and then wither when left." Busy Monsters has already been listed by one critic among the 100 greatest Catholic novels of all time.
Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder was the best American novel of 2012, although it was shamefully overlooked by the publicists and buzz-mongers who hand out the annual book prizes. A brazen attempt to revive the saint's life as a literary genre in an age of unbelief, Beha's novel also dramatizes the enigma of Christian humility when viewed from a secular perspective. After the experience of being "taken over" by the Holy Spirit during mass at a small church, Sophie Wilder renounces her past enthusiasms and devotes herself to the care of her dying father-in-law. She is gennathei anothen—"not 'born again,' exactly, but 'born from above.'" What happens to her as a consequence is so foreign to postmodern sensibility that an alternative ending must be written. The result is a two-sided novel of unforgettable insight into the religious life.
Two years later Beha (pronounced bay-uh), now 34, has written a sequel in which the Catholic religion is an undertone, but like a ringing in the ears. Set in the Manhattan of the present day, Arts and Entertainments is a 21st-century Faust written in the style of Muriel Spark. It tells the story of Eddie Hartley, a washed-out television actor who teaches drama at St. Albert's, a prep school on the Upper East Side for Catholics who had "finally arrived in the higher reaches of society and wanted their own version of the private schools where rich Protestants sent their sons." Ten years after he himself graduated from St. Albert's, "Handsome Eddie" is married but childless, although he and his wife, Susan—an Ohio girl who works in an art gallery—have "actually been trying for a while." In desperation they have resorted to artificial reproduction, so far unsuccessfully, but since it is not covered by their medical insurance, the young couple are "out of pocket more than ten grand in the past six months," and are now broke.
Eddie's friend Max Blakeman offers to help. A "lit scenester" who performed a similar Pandarus-like role in What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Blakeman sets Eddie up with Morgan Bench, a self-described "meme evangelist" and internet entrepreneur. Bench has heard that Eddie has some old videos of his ex-girlfriend Martha Martin, the star of a five-years-running television show about a miracle-working doctor. A "real beauty, a rarity," Martha is also a celebrity whose image is everywhere—on the 24-hour entertainment channels, in newspapers and online, on the sides of buses. It doesn't take long for Eddie to overcome his initial reluctance and peddle a sex tape for one hundred thousand dollars. He uses the windfall to pay for his wife's in-vitro fertilization. Within a few weeks, Susan is pregnant with triplets.
Although Eddie has carefully removed any evidence of himself from the tape, it is quickly traced back to him when it goes viral. St. Albert's fires him. Camera crews stake out his apartment building. Susan kicks him out, flinging his belongings from an upstairs window as the news photographers click away. The scene is on the front page of the Daily News the next morning. Suddenly, Eddie finds himself in demand as he never was as an actor. Celebrity magazines and talk shows offer him five figures for his side of the story. "You've got a shot at fame here," his agent tells him—on reality tv. But only in a show featuring both him and Susan.
When Eddie balks ("I want to be on television," he says, "just not like that"), Susan does the show by herself. Desperately Expecting Susan it is called. She becomes a "darling" of the "celebrity world." And before he knows it, Eddie is cast as the unwilling antagonist of Susan's wildly popular story. He is discussed and derided on chat boards, his comings and goings reported on gossip sites, his future with Susan voted on in online polls. Magazine "spies" lie in wait to snap his picture in embarrassing get-ups and poses. He cannot venture outside his hotel room without becoming the object of public fascination. Eddie begins to feel "like a man awaiting trial in a police state."
So he decides to fight back. Enlisting a 19-year-old girl to pretend to be his new girl-friend, Eddie works his way back into the story. He is recast as the "boy toy" of a "teen tart." And sure enough, the producers of Desperately Expecting Susan react by wanting him on the show—not to reunite with his wife, which is Eddie's plan, but as a "separate storyline," the "cad and the nymphet." "It's going to be great for the ratings," Eddie is reassured. A television crew is assigned to film his every move. Eddie realizes he will now "have to stay forever in character." Although he tries to keep his "inner self" private ("they couldn't film his mind," he tells himself), Eddie soon discovers that he is "walking through a world that had been meticulously constructed only so that he could walk through it." Even when he performs the turn from cad to saint, even when he finally gets his wife back, Eddie knows he will never get his life back. Reality tv has bought it, and it belongs to reality tv. The novel ends with the reminder that Eddie and Susan will always be watched.
It ought to be clear by now that Beha serves up reality tv as a parody, or travesty, of divine providence. Eddie Hartley may exercise freedom of will, but only within the narrow limits of what reality tv will permit. Otherwise he will be banished to hell. "Do you know what hell is?" the producer of Desperately Expecting Susan asks him. "Getting taken off the air." Eddie laughs, but in an age of unbelief, the television audience is what exists in place of God: "Never visible, but always present. Many and one at the same time."
Things might have been different. Susan is a mass-going Catholic, not "ostentatious about her faith" but also not able to "enter a church without saying at least a short prayer." As a ten-year-old, Eddie himself had been an altar boy at his parents' parish in Queens. Just once,
he had experienced a single unforgettable moment of what adults might call transcendence, when his whole body buzzed with the presence of something other than himself, a moment he had never talked about to anyone and didn't like to think about now, because it still seemed unmistakably real to Eddie and didn't make any sense to him.
Instead, Eddie tries to find substitutes for transcendence in acting ("Something like that feeling had sometimes visited him while he was onstage"), and it remains without religious significance for him: "If asked, he would have said he was Catholic, just as he would have said he was Irish—it was a matter of birth, not of action or belief." Everything that happens to him after peddling the sex tape happens because of his failure to make "that feeling" the basis of action or belief. Like so many of his contemporaries, he prefers fame and the buzz to God.
Unlike Beha, who describes himself as a "believing and practicing Catholic," William Giraldi long ago "abandoned doctrinal Catholicism completely." What has remained with him is its worldview, the mythos that shapes a Catholic's vision and understanding from the cradle. Although the style of his second novel differs from his first as much as a serial killer differs from a bright ironical hipster, Hold the Dark is equally concerned with the beyond, the farthest reaches of the human experience. Giraldi, not quite 40, transplants the Southern violence of Flannery O'Connor and the late William Gay (about whom he wrote the first comprehensive treatment for The Southern Review) to the wilds of Alaska, the "edge of the interior," a place which "obliterates the imagination," where no doctrine of the soul will save anyone.
Hold the Dark opens with wolves coming down from the uninhabited hills and taking the children of an isolated village. After Medora Slone's son, Bailey, becomes the third child to be taken—so she reports—she contacts the nature journalist Russell Core, author of a bestseller about living among gray wolves, and solicits his help in retrieving her son's body. Without knowing exactly why he is doing so, Core travels to Alaska to explain the wolf attacks, if he can. "The explanation is that we're cursed here," Medora says. What she wants, she tells him, is for Core to track the murderous wolf and kill it.
After examining the scenes of the three attacks and then spending the night with Medora in his bed, Core departs the next morning to hunt the wolves. But not before he is confronted by a bent old Yup'ik woman, reputed to be a witch, who warns him that he is seeking the wrong prey. "You would bar the door against the wolf," she says, "why not more against beasts with the souls of damned men, against men who would damn themselves to beasts?" She urges Core to leave the village, but he ignores her and treks into the hills. There he locates the pack of wolves "only days away from starving." Instead of killing one and dragging it back to the village, Core fires in the air and scatters the wolves. He decides to tell Medora they have fled: "Remind her that what was done could not be undone, that blood does not wash blood."
When he returns to the village, Medora is nowhere to be found. (Scattered clothes suggest she has left in haste.) In her basement, he comes upon the body of her son, wrapped in a coarse woolen blanket. Core struggles to "remember prayers he'd discarded long before this night." He is unable to offer much assistance to the police. He has no explanation for why Medora might have killed her own son: "The annals of human wisdom fall silent," he reflects (or perhaps it is Giraldi), "when faced with the feral in us."
Two weeks later, Medora's husband Vernon Slone returns home after being wounded in Iraq, bent upon repaying blood with blood. His revenge, however, seems indiscriminate at first. He murders two policemen, then the coroner. He steals his son's body and carries it into the hills, clearing snow away from an embankment for a temporary tomb until he can bury the boy properly in the spring. He returns to his native village only long enough to murder the old witch ("Take your wrath to the gods, to the wolves," she warns him, "not an old woman," but he does not listen), and then he drives off in search of his wife.
What follows is an archive of bloodshed. Giraldi does not dwell upon the gore; he finds nothing erotic about violent death; but corpses rapidly pile up—14 in all—as if they were the tabulation of Slone's quest. Shortly before going to Iraq, Slone had tried to explain to his son that the teaching "to kill any people is bad" is in fact a "lie." "There are good people who won't hurt you and there are bad people who will," Slone says. "It's good to kill bad people?" his son asks. "If you have to," Slone replies. But good and bad, moral approval and disapproval, are not at issue in Hold the Dark. In Giraldi's telling, the Alaskan wild is marked by a "fundamental otherness." The people who are native to that land must live with the "dread that there are forces in this world you cannot digest or ever hope to have hints of."
Eventually Slone tracks down his wife, but he does not kill her. Instead he retreats with her even farther from "the annals of human wisdom." Is the curse removed from the land by their self-exile? Not even Slone is sure. Reflecting upon everything that has happened, the wolf writer Core begins to understand that "man belongs neither in civilization nor nature." The truth is that men are "aberrations between two states of being." In that "limbo between worlds where language failed," the fundamental certitude of the human experience is to be found; and the certitude is bloody. Not for Giraldi the conception of religion in fiction as advanced by Flannery O'Connor. Religious truth is not merely an "added dimension" but the substructure of reality itself. The incarnation and the broken body of the man-god are brute facts of the world, very nearly definitive of it. If Christ's blood was "shed profusely in the scourging" and "poured out on the cross" (to quote the Church's litany of the precious blood), why should anyone be surprised at the bloodbaths men create in order to seek out, again and again, the salvific torture of the flesh?
Neither Christopher Beha nor William Giraldi is a Catholic novelist in the simplistic sense of dressing up Catholic doctrine with what Paul Elie calls "the old power to persuade." Nor is either of them a Catholic apologist in any form. They are not trying to defend the Catholic religion nor even to make it plausible for readers likely to reject it. They are Catholic novelists for all that, however, with a literary project far more profound—to display religion as inextricably woven into human life, or what the great Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have described as its "inscape." They are nothing like each other, their religious convictions are nothing alike, but between them Beha and Giraldi are redefining how religious fiction, especially Catholic fiction, might be written by those with small need to shout.
Religion is not like baseball. There are no baseball novels; there are only novels about baseball. True, a novel may be about religious faith, although to say this is to say very little about it—crucially, it is to say nothing whatever about the novel's point of view toward religious faith. The greatest religious novels are written out of a religious discernment much the same way that surrealistic poetry is written out of a particular vision of reality: it soaks the work from top to bottom. Critics may go on complaining of a lack, but those who are looking for religious fiction written from the ground up should find themselves copies of the striking recent novels by William Giraldi and Christopher Beha.
D. G. Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach (Univ. of Chicago Press). An English professor for 24 years at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities, he has published essays and reviews in Commentary, Image, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, and elsewhere. He is an Orthodox Jew.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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Flannery O'Connor was not the last vocally Christian American novelist -- I'll point your attention to Madeleine L'Engle for starters. If you want to stick with Roman Catholic novelists -- and I confess that my protestant soul does love the adult-convert-to-Cahtolocism writers -- one of my guilty pleasures is the Dean Koontz Odd Thomas series.