Thursday, December 20, 2012

The novel of belief

“Where has the novel of belief gone?” Paul Elie asks, spotting yet another of the dubious literary trends the New York Times Book Review is notorious for. Author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own—an appealing study of four Catholic writers in postwar America—Elie is a critic who should know what he is talking about. Where Flannery O’Connor called upon Christian novelists to shout if necessary to “make belief believable,” Elie worries that more recent novelists “with Christian preoccupations have taken the opposite tack, writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.”

The obvious counterexample is Marilynne Robinson, whose 2009 Terry Lectures, published together as Absence of Mind, established her as the most powerful and convincing advocate for religion’s place in the human experience. Her masterpiece, Gilead, would seem to be exactly what Elie is calling for. He dispenses with it, though, by placing a rigorous condition on the novel of belief. Gilead, he says, is “highly representative” of the American novel’s abandonment of religion: it is “set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”

It is not immediately clear why a setting in the past should disqualify any novel from the category “of belief.” Perhaps the greatest religious novel ever written by an American—Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop—is also set in the past. So too Vardis Fisher’s Children of God, Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre, Frederick Buechner’s Godric, Brian Moore’s Black Robe, and Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. There have been enough historical novels of religious faith written by Americans that Elie’s demand for contemporaneity begins to seem arbitrary.

The stipulation is convenient, though, in eliminating from consideration a profound novel of religious insight like Marly Youman’s Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, which is set during the Depression. Otherwise Youmans’s novel, among the best of 2012, satisfies all of Elie’s criteria. It draws on sacred texts and references, expecting its reader to recognize the Pauline theology of radiance or apaugasma. It dramatizes the encounter with a “supreme being recognized through faith” (in O’Connor’s words), whom Youmans describes as the “radiant other.” It shows how the encounter changes a person’s life: the main character, a wanderering exile, decides to make a home with his older sister and her sons. It exhibits the transformative religious event as an “individual one” rather than a “social matter” (those phrases are Elie’s). Moreover, it is not the story of a clergyman, but of a solitary young man who has never before felt the presence of God.

Elie also stipulates that the novel of belief be a novel of Christian belief, which leaves out of account the remarkable turn toward religion on the part of Jewish novelists like Steve Stern (The Frozen Rabbi), Zoë Heller (The Believers), and John J. Clayton (Mitzvah Man). I spotted the turn back in January in an essay for Commentary, and since then Joshua Henkin—himself descended from a famous rabbinical family—has explored the tension between Jewish secularism and the Jewish religion in The World Without You.

There is no possible stipulation, however, which can explain Elie’s neglect of Christopher R. Beha’s extraordinary What Happened to Sophie Wilder. I’ve called the novel a modern saint’s life. It has everything Elie is looking for—the living language of religious faith, a distinct and conclusive personal transformation under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the acceptance of religion’s explanatory power, a commitment to the established Church instead of the Do-It-Yourself religiosity that so many Americans seem to prefer, an ethical quandary that is directly caused by Christian faith, an emphatic and unembarrassed Roman Catholic character, and best of all, it is entirely contemporary in its setting—but its author is young and not yet famous (he will be), his publisher is a small house (not like Elie’s own Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and it does nothing whatever to confirm the trend away from novelistic belief which Elie is at such pains to illustrate. Even worse, Beha’s novel may be part of a countervailing trend toward a new Catholic fiction, which rejects the literary Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor for predecessors like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh instead.


scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm willing to bet that a great many more "novels of belief" are being written than are being published. Agents and acquisitions editors (and likely sales & marketing folks) aren't entirely comfortable with books that treat characters' faith seriously, with authors who allow characters to be sincerely faithful or religious without that faith/religion being a character flaw. It's acceptable to treat faith ironically or sarcastically or with pity, even. But an author who accepts his protagonist's belief unconditionally is making it hard on himself to find a publisher. All of which is to say that, given the way the publishing industry filters out a lot of voices, it might be some time before we really see what things current writers have to say about faith. The books you've mentioned this year are all encouraging, even if some critics don't find them "faithful" enough or whatever.

Doug Worgul said...

The novel Thin Blue Smoke is an example of American literary fiction that has Christian characters and deals authentically with faith, failure, loss of hope, and second chances, and yet is not categorizable as “Christian fiction” in the traditional Christian bookstore understanding of the phrase.

Thin Blue Smoke has been embraced for its gritty and realistic dialogue and characterization, and its willingness to confront doubt and despair, and the deafening silence of God.

The Englewood Review of Books named Thin Blue Smoke its Novel of the Year for 2012.

D. G. Myers said...

It should perhaps be noted that Doug Worgul is the author of Thin Blue Smoke.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

I'm generally not one to toot my own horn but this post intrigued me. Might I suggest you take a look at my debut novel "The Rent Collector." In spite of the fact that it's Canadian and distinctly Jewish, it may speak to a 'trend' in American fiction, although I might call it spiritual as opposed to religious. The distinction might be about the centrality and depiction of organized religion as opposed to spirituality in fiction.

Anonymous said...

Full disclosure: I am not an author, and I have no horn to too (or book to pimp). However, from the "for what it's worth department," I would recommend Image Journal's 100 novels; Google those final four words, and go to the website. It is a worthwhile list, and--to say it again--I have no skin in the game, so this comment has no commercial or personal motivation.

Joel said...

Good job for noting the irrational condition that Elie makes about a "novel of faith" needing to be set in the present. And I agree that Cather's novel is not only the greatest American novel about religion, but also maybe the greatest American novel, period. Speaking of Cather, I've been reading the Cather-esque Housekeeping, which is also set in the past, and not as obviously a "novel of faith" as Gilead and Home, but still infused with theological inquiry. Sometimes these novels of faith are not so obvious. Price's Lush Life, for example, is very much about religious faith, though mostly "lost" faith.

Becky said...

Looks like a great book. I am currently reading another great spiritual book, "Quest for the Lost Name" by George Makris. As soon as I am finished I plan to check out Cather's novel. Thank you for the great recommendation.

Rosalie Morales Kearns said...

Sorry to come late to the conversation--didn’t read Sunday’s NYT Book Review till yesterday. I know I’ve read many examples of novels and short stories that deal with the content of a character's religious beliefs in a non-ironic way, but it was hard to come up with titles without looking through my GoodReads and LibraryThing lists. D.G., glad you mentioned “Mariette in Ecstasy.”

Here are some others: Mary Doria Russell, “The Sparrow.” Graham Greene, “End of the Affair”; “Monsignor Quixote.” Katherine Vaz, “All Riptides Roar,” in the collection “Our Lady of the Artichokes.” Mary Gordon, “Men and Angels”; “Final Payments”; “The Company of Women.” Kathleen Alcala, “Ghostwriting for the Archbishop,” in the collection “Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist.” Gail Godwin, “The Good Husband”; “Father Melancholy’s Daughter.”

If we move away from Christianity, we can include Leslie Marmon Silko, “Ceremony”; Susan Power, “The Grass Dancer”; Nalo Hopkinson, “Brown Girl in the Ring.” I don’t know much about genre but I get the sense that sci-fi has lots of good examples. And C.J. Sansom’s detective series set in the time of Henry VIII has very interesting discussion of the narrator’s embrace of some aspects of Protestantism while becoming disenchanted with its extremes.

The most memorable “religious” scene for me is the letter to God written by the child molester Soaphead Church in Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye.”