Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Top Ten

News travels slowly around here, so it took two years for me to discover, courtesy of the Internet, a top ten list of novels assembled by the author of a book called, wait for it, “The Top 10.” The author, J. Peder Zane, polled 125 world-renowned authors, including Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon and others, and asked them to name a personal top 10 list. Their lists was then squeezed through whatever weird algorithm of literature was at Zane’s disposal and out popped a master list.

As you might guess, Shakespeare comes out well represented among the individual author suggestions, as does William Faulkner and Henry James. A few of our authors, such as the late Wallace, decided to have fun with their lists. Wallace stuck C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters,” Stephen King's “The Stand " and Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears,” on his hit parade. This clearly gave the author of the Time magazine article I read hives.

The big time, tip top list that emerges is:

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

A few thoughts:

This isn’t my personal top ten, but mine might look a little similar. I’ve read half of these, I think - my uncertainty comes in that I’ve read some of the stories of Anton Chekhov, though there are several collections. And strictly speaking, “Hamlet” is a play, so it’s inclusion here is somewhat problematic. (I will say that if it wasn’t here, I would be ready to grab a sword.) One wonders why nothing from the whole of Dickens made the list, (perhaps a problem picking one representative work) and I might have expected something from Joyce though that’s only because of his appearance on similar lists. We have three Russians, two Americans, two English writers (and only one woman), and two Frenchmen. Only Count Tolstoy gets a repeat performance, and only he would deserve it.

What also stands out is that one can assume from a few of these titles that adultery makes for the ripping good beginnings of a plot. At least seven contain one extramarital affair, and most of the action in these books hinges on one. (Of course, in “Hamlet,” the affair is implied as having happened before the action of the play.) That leaves Huck Finn and Marcel as the adventuring boys who stand out, one going down the Mississippi and the other venturing into one of the longest multi-volume fictional works in history. Find out for yourself which one had it easier.

But what is more - nearly all of them involve some form of deception - a character concealing his or her true nature or identity in order to either exact revenge or leapfrog status. Figures outwardly do that which is most loathsome to themselves - or are liberated to act as never before - in order not to be discovered. The humiliation, or realization, that results from their lives can terrify, inform, and inspire us into hoping nothing similar happens in our own personal stories.

We see the thing we would avoid, and we inevitably fall into it, despite our worst fears and our best intentions. Conflict is the stuff of fiction, and the stuff of our lives, until we close the books.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

It took Leo Tolstoy more than 1,000 pages to give an imaginary tapestry to the same question it takes Thornton Wilder barely 100 pages to quickly sketch: How much control do human beings have over their own lives, and how do those lives touch one another?

Granted, “War and Peace” is epic storytelling, and perhaps the greatest novel ever written. But whereas Tolstoy’s magnum opus tries to supply an answer, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” merely poses the question in such a way that two different readers can come away with vastly different ideas about what the author intends, and what the answer may be.

Five people are killed on a July day in 1714 while crossing an Inca bridge in Peru when it suddenly collapses. The event is spectacular enough to be called an act of God, and one of its witnesses is a man of God, the monk Brother Juniper. He begins an investigation into the lives of the five victims, believing he can scientifically pour over the events of each life and determine whether there is a divine plan at work in their deaths, or whether it was merely an accident, as some say existence itself is. Were these people innocent victims of a random accident, children called home by God, or were they being punished for the wrongs of a lifetime? The imagery is both obvious and ingenious - a bridge spanning a great abyss, with lives looking out into the expanse and hoping to make it to the other side intact.

As Wilder himself explained, “Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God’s Caritas’ which is more all-encompassing and powerful. God’s love has to transcend his just retribution.”

Notice that the entire exercise, at least from the author’s point of view, presupposes the existence of God. Indeed, Christianity hangs over the events of the novel in both its cultural presence and the absence of it, felt in the individual lives. There is the Marquesa de Montemayor, a manipulative woman who covets the lost love of her daughter and only wants to begin her life again with a servant girl to watch over; Estaban, a suicidal man still mourning the loss of his twin brother; and Uncle Pio, a wandering cad who perishes along with the young son of his theatrical protégé, a boy he hopes to educate.

The victims inevitably shared connections with each other through characters both inside and outside the church. Almost all of them, as is said of Pio’s young actress, thought they “were going to be happy forever.” But the individual weight of their lives puts them in motion, inevitably toward the doomed bridge. And the misfortune isn’t over after the bridge collapses. The survivors must cope with the missing lives in their worlds, and even Brother Juniper’s investigations into their lives leads to both he and his book being burned by the Inquisition.

Throughout the story, one of the recurring motifs is that of the stars - impassive witnesses to the follies of mankind. One can look at the sky and see either the hand of God or the insignificance of mankind. And some see both, though those who do not believe look on the heavens and long for an affirmation of some reason behind the seemingly random. Another image reiterated is that of the ungrateful child who shuns a parental figure to exert some measure of control over his or her life, leaving the parent (or surrogate) to grieve like the shepherd for a lost sheep.

Wilder said many years later that people of faith found the book to be an affirmation, while those without it remarked at the book’s unblinking despair. That is a testament to the book's objective power, written in an almost King Jamesian style yet lacking a self-important or overly wise tone. Wilder said he considered himself part of the second group of readers who found despair in the book, but that sometimes he felt closer to the first. It’s interesting that one of his inspirations for the story came from the Gospels in Luke 13:

“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

This is not usually the stuff of Sunday School class, with Jesus breathing fire at the punishment awaiting those who sin. We prefer the open handed Jesus, welcoming, heart full of love. One of the book’s obvious messages is that people die, and we attach meanings to their passing that may or may not be true, but help us, the survivors, to cope. Jesus’ words remind us that only God’s meaning, inscrutable as it may be, should be sought for one's life, since it is the only meaning worth considering. Skeptics may be moved to say, “Tell that to Brother Juniper.” His message from the scaffold would doubtless be, “Maybe you’re better off not seeking a meaning at all.”

And maybe that is more of a consolation, that answers to life’s agonizing questions are better sought elsewhere than in looking for our fathers in the dust. The book’s closing offers both questions and consolation, so much so that Tony Blair quoted it when remembering the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks:

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough…There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Salman Rushdie: Found in Translation

Yesterday Sir Salman Rushdie gave a lecture at Emory University on adaptation - specifically the process of transforming a book into a movie, but also stage, opera, musical, etc. It was a typically illuminating talk from Rushdie, who is a visiting scholar at Emory after allowing his private papers to be housed there.

We live in an era of easy adaptation between the media, he said, with differing results. “Good movies are remade as bad movies. Bad movies get remade as worse movies.” It results, he said, in “a culture that endlessly cannibalizes itself” until we are all swallowed up in the maw.

There were a few surprises in his remarks, perhaps the most surprising that Rushdie hated “Slumdog Millionaire,” (“piles impossibility on impossibility”) while still predicting several hours ahead of time that it would sweep most of its nominated categories at the Academy Awards. He also revealed he had been asked to appear on “Dancing With the Stars,” but declined, fearing it would be a “career ending move.”

The process of adaptation, he said, is determining what is essential in a work and then capturing its essence in a new medium. After a few minutes, though, Rushdie made a few steps in a metaphysical direction, speaking of adaptation in terms of the transition from life to death - “human beings migrating across frontiers.” This is a natural transition for Rushdie, whose novels have always dealt with issues of the immigrant, the fish out of water, the mind finding its way in unfamiliar territory.

When we determine what the essential is in our lives, he said, “life has a way of making us rethink.” Then we adapt to whatever changes happen, to find “the thing that keeps us going.”
Rushdie, of course, has made it clear on several occasions that he has no religion, be it Muslim, Hindu, Christian or otherwise. In fact, he drew an obvious parallel with natural selection - how when animals adapt into new species, what is essential remains. But he did not give in to the temptation to marginalize the religious instinct in his remarks, speaking of the challenge of adapting to a new life or holding to beliefs and risking the label as an “outsider.”

“These are the oldest questions - who are we? How shall we live?” he said. He drew a contrast between those who become rigid in old beliefs with those who “do not know who they are.” There are things which cannot be compromised without losing the essence.

It’s worth noting that Rushdie, as he gave these remarks, was one week removed from the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence on him for writing “The Satanic Verses.” After a period of exile, Rushdie has emerged to become perhaps the world’s most famous author, an international personality who has appeared in movies, co-written a song with U2, and is sought out for his opinion on issues both east and west. Yet curiously, his fame derives not from his words but from the effect his words have had on others. Most people, it is safe to say, have limited or no exposure to his novels. The man sitting next to me at the lecture had to ask me, for example, what Rushdie was famous for.

Yet, he has adapted not only to fame but also living 20 years under a death sentence which technically cannot be suspended. He has responded with a life of investigation, no small amount of courage, and humor. There is a lesson for us. Christians are instructed to live their lives with the certain knowledge that we entered the world under a death sentence, yet Christ saved us. We are to live our lives seeking out His will and others to share Him with. We are to abandon fear in light of His redemptive power, and be a light to those around us. Though something will ultimately be lost of us when our lives are over, what will be gained in the translation will be, strangely enough, incomprehensible.

The power of adaptation, across cultures, across lives, across existence, is a story worth telling.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Serve the People! By Yan Lianke

One trait of dystopian novels - We, Anthem, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale - is the idea that certain behavior is out of bounds in a dictatorship. Certain images, words, books become sacred, and there is a corresponding need to outlaw other images, words and books. In the era of politics as a surrogate for religion, such a thing becomes even more vital. To control the behavior of its citizens, the state has to control thought - and since the mass production of information began, images stand in for thoughts.

Serve the People! was one of many slogans of Mao’s Chinese government, and is the ironic title of this underground novel from Communist China. It follows Wu Dawang, a Red Army soldier who soon finds himself involved with Liu Lian, the wife of a division commander. Wu Dawang is only an orderly in a sleepy little post in Mao’s China, but in the arms of his mistress, he becomes for just a few sweet moments a man of power.

This shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to anyone who has read “1984.” In a repressive culture, illicit sex becomes a way to express subversive behavior. Usually in books of this type, it’s the main vehicle for the hero - or heroine - to realize just how stultifying their life has become. Sex is a threat to order, and in a repressive society, even the most private behavior can break faith with the state. In this novel, the twist is Liu Lian uses the communist apparatus to her advantage. In a house strewn with revolutionary slogans, the most prominent is the Chairman’s directive to “Serve the people!” Wu Dawang learns that when Liu Lian wants a rendezvous, she uses the sign. He must serve her, “the people.”

What’s interesting is how the state co-opts even the highest ideals of human civilization, twisting them:

“’What,’ he asked, ‘is the first, and only principle of Serving the People?’
‘To serve others as you would wish to be served yourself,’ Wu Dawang replied.
‘How do we give our lives meaning?’
‘By bringing glory to the enterprise of Serving the People every day of our lives and by devoting ourselves as absolutely to serving the needy as a son should devote himself to serving his parents.’”


Pretty words, the political instructor tells Wu Dawang, though he dislikes the parent analogy. Of course. There is no parent other than the state. In the end, Wu is only saying what he thinks the state wants to hear. It doesn’t matter that it’s the golden rule. Serving the people is saving your skin. As is said later, “the meek shall inherit the Revolution.” Everything is collective, all suffering together.

The affair continues, as it must. And yet, this is the sum of Communism - or any totalitarian movement that subverts life - every institution inevitably becomes corrupted. When Wu realizes what fate awaits him when the affair is inevitably discovered, he momentarily thinks of killing her. Both of them realize that deep within them is anger - rage looking for a direction, though neither knows where it comes from nor why it touches every aspect of their lives. “Wu Dawang, we’ve become animals,” Liu says.

Wu and Liu discover the depth and source of their anger when she maneuvers him into accidentally destroying the bust of the Chairman - “an accident of incalculable counter-revolutionary enormity.” And yet, the two of them begin rampaging through the house, destroying anything having to do with the state - pictures of Mao, slogans, yet they stop short, just before Liu is set to smash the Serve the People! sign.

Wu’s marriage - as well as Liu’s - is a lie, but then, everything is in the world of this novel. How far is it from our world? Not politically, but morally. For the Christian, sin is slavery, not freedom. Yet in a sinful state apparatus, virtually everything is colored with sin - either morally or politically. Every lie becomes deeper, until even the truth we must have to survive seems like a lie. In a world where the only meaning comes from an illicit love affair, what ultimate meaning is there? But how different is that from life in any government, even one with absolute freedom?
The truths we cling to - apart from the Eternal - are so many icons, waiting to be smashed.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Why a graphic novel? Not every graphic novel makes Time Magazine’s 100 best novels list, and there’s room for debate about that list anyway. A much longer argument could take place about whether graphic novels - basically comic books, don’t kid yourselves - belong in any discussion of literature, since they technically qualify as a different medium. The question of how much power the words would have without the pictures is in the same ballpark with that endless discussion of how good a poet Bob Dylan would be considered if he didn’t set his verse to music. But we obviously digress.

For the record, “Watchmenisn’t my favorite Alan Moore work - that distinction would belong to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” a work dense and pleasing enough to satisfy after several readings. However, “Watchmen” is on tap for an eagerly awaited motion picture, and worth a look because of what it says about the nature of power and relationships.

“Watchmen” takes several tropes of the superhero genre and turns them inside out. The Watchmen is a group of costumed crime fighters like any other one might remember from a shared multi-media childhood. At a glance, some of them look slightly familiar - the Nite Owl resembles the Batman (Adam West vintage, given his middle-aged paunch) in hardware, though the masked Rorschach mimics the Caped Crusader’s dark vengeance.

But Watchmen isn’t about the reunion of a superhero group to fight some common evil. The only time the reader sees them together is in flashback, or on the cover illustration showing them all in some idealized past. Their heyday is over, and it’s at this point that the story starts.
Part of the genius of this book - and it is pure storytelling genius - is that everything that should normally be familiar in a comic book fantasy is rendered nearly unrecognizable. After only a few pages, one realizes immediately that the Watchmen is how a superhero group would be if such a thing existed - outsize egos, ancient grudges over real and imagined slights - in short, human, all-too-human ambition, naked and uncompromising. Imagine your favorite legendary rock group with unlimited power, carrying into combat all their old, selfish wounds.

The Comedian is the least funny of the group, and the catalyst for the journey the heroes make. The Nite Owl seems like an eccentric man with a curious hobby. The Silk Spectre, a heroine forced into “the business” as her legacy, flits between affairs as though looking for the father she never had. Ozymandias has cashed in on his past. Dr. Manhattan, the most powerful of the group, has grown detached from the affairs of men. Rorschach, haunted by the past, is determined to learn the truth at the brink of sanity, indeed to find any kind of truth.

Moore fleshes out each character and creates the towering personas, retracing their steps through a dystopian America (readers of Moore’s other dystopia, “V for Vendetta,” will recognize his anarchist sensibilities) and making you mourn the association they used to have - one which we are denied witnessing. Each hero is rendered less heroic and more human, more approachable and less sympathetic. And the heroes confront that question that predates the comic book - who am I? Am I who I grew up as, or what I grew to be?

Why do our costumed heroes fight in our stead? We know the familiar origins - Superman is a visitor from another world; Batman, an orphan; Spiderman, the wimp rendered omnipotent - but these “origins” only serve us as a catalyst. Only rarely do we see the hero question the quest, when crime, lawlessness and sin continue.

Costumed heroes were invented to give children and adults the surrogates for their deepest fantasies of power and empowerment - we all want to knock the block off the man keeping us down. That fantasy takes many forms - the man of shadows, the merciless killer, the hero living by his wits, the conjurer with gadgets, the discoverer of the dark secret, the captain of industry, the woman of power and beauty, the god on the mountaintop. We want to be them - or secretly, the one opposing them, just as we secretly pick which side we fight on each day. You gotta serve somebody, the aforementioned Mr. Dylan once reminded us, be it the devil or the Lord. And true to form, the villain is always closer to home, much closer than some external force that comes to destroy. The rot always begins within, Moore reminds us.

But as with all power, it corrupts, it changes, it curdles in the belly. Moore's heroes are filled with the kind of self-loathing we expect from our celebrities. And as the heroes are denied the chance to be themselves, (superheroes are either working for the government or have been driven underground) we see them doing what any normal person would do when they are denied their passion. The passions become aimless, and turn within.

As I said, this is not a conventional novel. Big deal, though. Along the way, the reader is also treated to several stories within stories, such as a pirate-themed tale and various prose pieces. These couldn’t have occurred in a novel. And "Watchmen" has had a decidedly dark effect on the comic book world, as Moore himself has observed. Everyone is trying to "out cool" each other by paying attention to the sordid world the heroes are trying to clean up, and the various writers and artists seem only too happy when the heroes inevitably fail. It has also given birth to an entire generation of politically charged comic fiction which shows the unfortunate limitations of the genre. It's hard to take seriously agitprop in tights. I did find myself slightly disappointed by the end of "Watchmen," but that is a testament to the quality of what led up to it.

But “Watchmen” shows us one of the possible futures of storytelling, though it is by no means the only future. And Gibbons’ art perfectly complements the moment when Dr. Manhattan, conversing with his unfaithful wife on the surface of Mars, contemplates the nature of life:

“But..if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle…” Silk Spectre says, “I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!”
“Yes. Anybody in the world. …But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget…I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

John Updike: 1932-2009

When John Updike died last month of lung cancer, I saw this quote from an interview where he described his most famous creation, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom:

"He is...a Protestant, haunted by a God whose manifestations are elusive, yet all-important."

I thought perhaps those words might also describe the author. I've read 18 of Updike's novels, including all of the Rabbit cycle, all of the Bech books, and various other novels from his considerable career. At some point in the future, I'll write more about my favorite novel of his, "In the Beauty of the Lilies." Updike was many things - miraculous prose stylist, keen observer of modern life, and indefatigably prolific. But we touch on him here because of the reoccurrence of Christian themes over the course of his work. To go any further frankly would require several pages and several years.

In "Too Far To Go," Updike's wonderful series of short stories about the Maples, a couple whose marriage is collapsing, comes the line: “Ah God, dear God, tall friend of my childhood, I will never forget you, though they say dreadful things.” This line sums up much of the Christian consciousness of Updike's fiction - the idea of an embattled Christianity surviving in spite of the rationalist, agnostic spirit of the times. Or as the Wall Street Journal observed: "He deplored 'today's easy knowingness and self-protective irony' while gently mocking 'religious aristocrats, for whom God was a vulgar poor relation with the additional social advantage of not existing.'"

In “Roger’s Version,” we see two different sides of Updike’s Christian sensibilities - when one character observes that the devout have a perplexing rudeness about the surety of their beliefs that might offend them were they to encounter it in anybody else. At the same time though, Roger Lambert, the book’s narrator, speaks about Tertullian’s observation that the Resurrection - indeed, the Incarnation - is to be believed precisely because it is - so out of place.

There you have Updike in a nutshell. He is polite, the Yankee reserve that one would expect from a Pennsylvanian who spent most of his life in New York and New England. But on the other hand, he is the scamp who enjoys the mere scandal of Christ’s existence in a world that would rather just move on. This allowed him to capture, like no other author, manifestations of the Almighty in day-to-day routines of his everyman characters. Let's be honest though - there is a mocking sensibility present in Updike's settings, a sort of intellectually aristocratic eye looking down on these "little" people. And yet it is, perhaps, the eye of God, celebrating the little walks in the woods, the routines of the job, the familiarity of the home.

And the sex. Updike lingers lovingly on the sex, too lovingly for some readers. My female friends always remark on Updike's sex scenes, as the years and the novels piled up, as being slightly creepy wishes set to prose. Updike, like Roth, continued to celebrate the social upheavals of the sixties, seventies, eighties, etc. by the quality of adulterous affairs his God-haunted men sought.

A recent entry, "Villages," a good example of his later novels which tended to run together after a certain point. This one melded the rise of computer technology with the ubiquitous educated urbane dude on the prowl for a quick tryst, while the events of American life sail by. A typical sentence might read, “As he unhooked the luscious abundance buried in her bra, he thought of JFK, Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC, Reagan, yadda yadda yadda....”

Owen McKenzie’s one-volume life strikes one as a smaller replay of Rabbit Angstrom, Piet Hanema with a little longer time on stage, the same male on the prowl, dancing over hordes of women and obsessing over God, only to be slapped on the wrist, again and again. Oh sure, there are the inevitable moments where the outraged wife, or girlfriend, whoever, rages at the injustice of it all. There’s a breaking up, an abortion, maybe even an accidental death, but the hero is soon restored in the end to pad around the kitchen in search of a snack, trying to stave off contemplation of death and fill that God-shaped hole. “How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women.” The women’s protestations don’t seem so loud, not as loud as the sounds of the lovemaking, so joyous and carefree and endlessly evocative of coral and fruit and whatever other natural adjectives Updike could pile on, to the eye-rolling wonder of the reader.

For myself, the Rabbit books are among my least favorite. "Rabbit Redux" is an embarrassing hodge-podge of sixties stock characters. Even as the books grew in quality, the characters' behavior became steadily more appalling, especially Rabbit himself. My favorite entry is actually his coda, "Rabbit Remembered," which reunites us with all the characters after Rabbit's death as the millennium approaches. One can look at the sins of these characters and for a moment, as I said, envision the eye of God.

The anger or revulsion or frustration we feel for these characters' sins should be counterbalanced when we realize that God Himself finds the same sordid rust accumulating in our own lives and yet somehow finds a way of loving us. The religious aspect of his work though is the most puzzling, since Updike’s faith at times doesn’t seem very lived in as much as observed. I don’t mean that for him personally, but the way his characters are. The ones that stand out are the ones who believe vividly, devoutly, because the rest of them seem so bored with thousands of years of Christendom. One longs for Job’s Jehovah, wrapped in the whirlwind, to suddenly arrive unannounced. But perhaps, Updike longs for Him as well.

From Updike's "The Future of Faith":

"My father...was the son of a minister, but he felt his father had failed in the ministry, having lacked 'the call' and, perhaps accordingly, the necessary devoted energy. Where many fathers - some of them described in late-Victorian novels - conveyed to their sons an oppressive faith that it was a joy to cast off, my father communicated to me, not with words but with his actions and his melancholy, a sense of the Christian religion as something weak and tenuous and in need of rescue. There is a way in which success disagrees with Christianity. Its proper venue is embattlement - a furtive hanging-on in the catacombs or at ill-attended services in dying rural and inner-city parishes. Its perilous, marginal, mocked existence serves as an image of our own, beneath whatever show of success can be momentarily mustered."

I struggle with wanting to agree with this, and not wanting to. In this essay, Updike was commissioned at the turn of the millennium by the New Yorker to argue that faith still has a future. And at times, reading this, I think he pitched it to the intended audience, like a grade schooler at a talent show about to perform a tune he learned on his guitar, sort of embarrassed, secretly hoping to really sell it but giving off a shrug as though, if this fails, he won't be surprised at all. In this estimation, faith in some ways (always the wonderfully vague, inclusive "faith") is just a habit, like smoking a pipe after supper or a worn wool cardigan that one wears because it's familiar, in spite of whatever allure it once might have had. And yet, there is nothing in this excerpt, and indeed, in the entire essay that addresses the fundamental, almost organic need we have to sin, and the same hard-wired agony we put ourselves through over those sins - the sense of being fallen, of needing redemption.

In the essay, Updike tours the old churches and museums of Italy looking at various sculptures and paintings representing the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Christ that stares back from behind his paragraphs is just as flat as the frescoes he sees. There is no attempt to see Jesus - and seemingly no recognition that He can be found in the one place where He said he would be - in the other. No visits to the sick, or those in prison, not even a cup of water for a little one. In one respect, you can almost imagine Updike saying, "I never knew you."

In one sense, he's right - Christianity is embattled, and it always will be in this life. It is the one unbent and unbowed constant, the unmoved mover that continues to bewitch the eastern and western worlds. Christ inspires the Richard Dawkins' and the Billy Grahams, the Stalins and the Churchills, the silent masses and the careful murderers, all in His own way, running to and running away from Him. Perhaps the most dominant image from all of Updike is Piet's catching sight of the church steeple at the end of "Couples" above the smoke and flames.

But to say this ignores perhaps my favorite piece of Updike writing, a poem I once found in a collection edited by Calvin Miller, "The Book of Jesus." In it, Updike, alone among his contemporaries, makes perhaps the most unabashed case for unabashed faith, in all its ramifications:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino
acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable,
a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the
miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What I Like

If I had to pick a few novels that I’d recommend in a heartbeat, they would have to be, in no particular order (and as only the beginning of a discussion):

“Juneteenth” by Ralph Ellison. He set out to put the American experience all into one book, and even though this is a posthumously published part of an unfinished novel, it’s still pretty doggone close.

“Miss Lonelyhearts” and “The Day of the Locust” by Nathaniel West. A teacher in college recommended this book to me, fascinating in itself and makes you wish he’d lived longer and written more.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth. This is an awesome book. Everything is a Chinese box, with characters within characters. Everyone’s a stereotype, and yet they’re not. Best American novel written in the last ten years, for me.

Three way tie: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, “Less Than Zero” by Bret Eason Ellis, “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney. They’re hyperbolic, manic, mannered, and yet they perfectly sum up a time and a place. And very funny, and appalling, and appallingly funny, and funny because they’re appalling.

“The Dogs of Babel” by Carolyn Parkhurst. I laughed when I heard the premise of this book, chalking it up to the idea that a publisher will print any novel as long as it’s not mine. But I loved this book so much.

“In the Beauty of the Lilies” by John Updike. I loved this book the most of all of his, because it weaves the movies and religion into a rich generational tapestry.

“Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie. I thoroughly enjoyed this book last year, not just for the story, which was very riveting, but the long prosy riffs he unravels so effortlessly.

“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. I read this one afternoon at the river and could smell the wind coming off the Keys. When I finally went to Key West, I felt like I had already been there.

“Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow. He was another that I had to read everything he’d written. This is his best, though “The March” was as good a book as I’ve read in the past five years.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It’s unfortunate that Steinbeck’s critical reputation has fallen down, because this is a wonderful work that unfortunately gets typecast as Depression era agitprop. Instead, it’s ageless, sweeping, and compulsively readable.

And for my money, the greatest American novel ever is “The Great Gatsby.” I wouldn’t have said that necessarily 10 years ago, but I’ve reread it at least three times since then, and it gets better every single time.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

I would never have heard of The Taqwacores were it not for a story in The New York Times in December which referenced it. The book has an underground reputation as an Islamic “Catcher In the Rye,” and at times it reads like just that. The title comes from the mixing of the word hardcore with Taqwa - an Arabic word meaning “fear of the Divine.”

The book’s narrator, Yusef Ali, is a Pakistani-American college student living in Buffalo, N.Y. in a house full of Muslim punk rockers. Yes, you read that correctly - Muslim punk rockers. Burqa-wearing feminist Muslims. Gay Muslims. Hardcore punk rock mohawked Muslims. Muslims who wear the Star of David just as Sid Vicious wore the Swastika 30 years before - to provoke. The language is hardcore - profanity and obscenity on virtually every page, drug use, graphic sex. There are passages that are funny but most of them are obscene, even if you’re not a Muslim, and profane if you are.

The plot of the book basically revolves around the interaction of the characters to Yusef, who comes from a much more conservative Muslim background than his friends and fears his interaction with these characters - Rude Dawud, Amazing Ayyub, and Jehangir Tabari, the tragic character who comes back from “Khalifornia” with tales of hardcore Muslim punks and how they will remake the face of Islam:

“I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way - the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again.”

The book reads sometimes a little too much like a copy of Salinger’s legendary tale of “phonyism.” In fact, Muslim punk bands like Osama bin Laden’s Tunnel Diggers and Bilal’s Boulder didn’t exist until the novel began making the rounds of young Muslims across America. But the familiar story - a detached narrator viewing various mixed-up young lives as they riff on the system they both love and despise, an idealistic loner who dreams of something new “out West” - will end all too familiarly for anyone who’s read “Catcher,” “On the Road,” and various other works of this stripe.

What sticks out most in the characters’ discussions of Islam are its boundaries, and the endless questions that followers have about what they are allowed and what is forbidden - whether it be food, or tattoos, or alcohol, or drugs, or contact between the sexes, or thoughts. Rather than a positive expression of God’s love through action, the characters seem obsessed by a more negative pursuit, namely, what is permissible - how much can I get away with and still be submissive to the will of Allah? That leads to discussions, such as this one between the novel’s narrator, Yusef Ali, and Jehangir, about the how men and women interact within Islam. Yusef asks if men can really be innocent around women, the basis for separation of the genders:

“Maybe, maybe not, who knows. But if you believe that you can’t, and you live like you can’t, it messes you up inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“The more you accept man’s intrinsic weakness, the easier it is to hate girls. Suddenly all your bad thoughts are their fault since they should be known how weak you are and not take advantage of it…”


And much of the novel is caught up in this question of whether these people really are Muslims, by either their definition or the one Yusef learned in his home.

I found myself remembering a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, on why he believed there might never be a Muslim Reformation:

“God has given His word to Muhammad, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through his creatures...there’s inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations.”

The author, an Irish Catholic convert to Islam, spends a great deal of time on the sins that his Muslim characters commit, but not much time on why they are doing these things - other than “man’s intrinsic weakness.” What I dwelt on, as I read it, was the mixing of Western culture with Islam, which at times bordered on simply finding an excuse, looking for how far one can go. As with much in life and literature, that question - how far can we go? - is couched in the positive but finds application in the negative. We don’t necessarily want to get any closer to God. We want to talk about it while we get further away from Him in spirit.

And what happens when we get there? How do we get closer to God? The idea of submission to Allah somehow gets lost in the submission part. When one character calls Islam not a religion but a perfect system of life, one longs for a whiff that one can even approach God. One longs for grace.

Alfred Kazin, in his 1997 study “God and the American Writer,” observed:

“Starting from embattled lonely beginnings, each church in America was separate from and doctrinally hostile to others. The individual on his way to becoming a writer was all too conscious that it was his ancestral sect, his early training, his own holiness in the eyes of his church that he brought to his writing. He became it’s apostle without having forever to believe in it, in anything - except the unlimited freedom that is the usual American faith.”

If Knight truly believes, as one of the characters says, that Islam will find its true voice in America in the nation’s mixing of cultures, races and thoughts, then its worth noting that Christianity at the same moment is, in large part, doing the same thing: trying to tailor its message to a shifting culture that puts a premium on blurring lines. But the only way Christianity can maintain itself, and its appeal, is by remaining different, by remaining itself. It’s interesting that this requires an act of faith, and trusting that Jesus will be sufficient to draw all to Him. History shows He has been more than sufficient.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima

This may seem an odd entry to begin a discussion of Christian themes in world literature, but it happens to be what I just finished reading.

The Sea of Fertility was written in four parts in the late sixties by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, a highly-Westernized writer whose works still enjoys wide acceptance and translation in the West. The four volumes of the series are:

Spring Snow
Runaway Horses
The Temple of Dawn
The Decay of the Angel

The title of the series comes from the area on the surface of the moon, The Sea of Fertility, and is meant to conjure up a lifeless, stark, cold area of mystery and dark grandeur. It is believed this was Mishima's feeling on his homeland. The last volume of the work takes on added significance when one considers that Mishima turned in the final manuscript for the novel on the same day he and his followers stormed the office of a Japanese general and forced him to assemble the men of that particular detachment of the Japanese Defense Forces. After giving a speech from a balcony urging the men to reject Western values and embrace Emperor worship, among other things, Mishima committed ritual suicide.

This last act, the significance of which is still debated in Japan, becomes even more incongruous when one reads the four parts of this work, which doesn't seem to spring from the same mind that committed that last act.

The four-volume work follows the life of Shigekuni Honda, whom we first meet in 1912 as a student through his association with Kiyoaki Matsugae, the son of a baron who falls in love with the daughter of a titled family. "Spring Snow" shows how this love affair touches the newly Westernizing families of Japanese aristocracy and the royal family, eventually ending in Kiyoaki's tragic death. However, in "Runaway Horses," Honda, now a judge in the 1930s, believes he encounters the reincarnation of his friend in the person of the young Isao Iinuma, a right-wing fanatic who blames Japanese capitalism for the country's decline in morals. Honda reaches this conclusion because of Kiyoaki's last delirious words to him, and the sight of three moles on Isao's chest that perfectly match a set Honda saw on Kiyoaki's chest.

The first two volumes of "The Sea of Fertility" are easily the best, the first a passionate love story while the next one is a celebration of doomed Japanese nationalism. The writing is, at times, poetic if a bit grandiose and lingers all too lovingly on a vanishing idyll. What struck me the most as I was reading them were the moments where Mishima came very close to Christian iconography - even in the midst of what is a nominally Buddhist social setting. “How strange man is!” one character observes in “Spring Snow,” echoing Hamlet. “His touch defiles and yet he contains the source of miracles.”

By the time of "The Temple of Dawn," Honda is now an old man whom we follow through various vignettes from the beginning of World War II into the late 1950s. This is the most obviously Buddhist of the series, where Honda begins to meditate on the implications of Buddhist theories of reincarnation. He takes a trip to Benares, to the Ganges in India, a city he describes as a place of extreme holiness and extreme filth.

This pilgrimage comes after he encounters a seven-year-old Siamese princess who believes she is the reincarnated Isao. However, Honda is unable, until late in the novel, to confirm whether this is so. By this time, Honda's character has become a much more Westernized, much more culturally and intellectually lax individual, and begins to indulge in voyeurism and an easy corruption. We feel in watching him that Mishima is commenting on how Western virtues have corrupted the purity of Japanese life at virtually every stratum of society.

The final volume, when considering that Mishima was planning his own end while writing it, feels rushed and thinly sketched when compared to the other volumes. By now, Honda is approaching eighty and believes he has found the latest incarnation in a student named Tōru Yasunaga. However, instead of encountering an innocent boy, an idealist, or a beautiful princess, our latest incarnation is overtly, consciously evil. Honda, believing he can somehow entwine himself in the boy's life, adopts him, hoping to somehow short circuit what he believes to be "destiny." In the end, he can't actually be sure of what his life means, or even if he was correct in any of his assumptions. How much did he have to do with these previous "incarnations" and the ends they met?

What can we glean from this work, so ambitious and uneven that we aren't even sure if the author was secure in his intentions? After all, Mishima gives Honda a fully-realized consciousness of reincarnation, yet by all accounts, Mishima himself didn't believe in the transmigration of souls. Instead, he is aiming at what he believes is happening to Japan - that in the middle of Coca-Cola advertisements and the Western Constitution and its mass entertainment culture is a feminizing slackness that is robbing it of knowing what it once was, and could be again. Are any of Japan’s endless incarnations still “Japan,” or has something been irrevocably lost?

One could make a case that Honda learns that no matter how much one is willing to superimpose a theological template on some events, the outcomes almost certainly undo our expectations. Life is more complicated than a narrative, as Mishima himself illustrated not just with his art, but his life. The dominant image of the novel cycle is that of a waterfall - “the direction of uncertainty, the realm behind this clearly defined world, a realm whose phenomena were flowing over a waterfall.” What one finds from that image is a rushing current of events with no discernible recognition of their meaning, or source.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

The Purpose

My idea for this blog is simple - I will be looking at contemporary and classic literary fiction through the lense of Christianity.

To understand this, I'll have to disclose my own background. I am a born again Christian who was saved at the age of seven in a Southern Baptist Church. I am an ordained deacon and a Sunday School teacher. My theological background would probably be considered "fundamentalist," though I think that term has been largely demonized.

But to sum up - I believe the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ are accurate. I believe in the tenants of what is known as the Apostle's Creed - the virgin birth of Jesus, His earthly life and ministry, His death and resurrection, and His return. I accept the Bible as God's written word. I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, to forgive sins, and to give peace. I also believe that we, as Christians, are taught to "be transformed by their renewing" of our minds. (Romans 12:2) In so doing, we can better understand God's perfect will for our lives.

But I also enjoy literature - specifically its power to conjure up a particular time and place and help us inhabit the minds of others. As a character in the movie "Shadowlands" observes, "We read to know we're not alone." I think it's worth studying, this difference between literary truth - made up stories - and literal truth - the facts of daily life. What literature aims for is essentially what Picasso said of art, that it is "a lie that tells us the truth." What I hope to accomplish here is to share some of my own thoughts in reading, mixed with a lifetime's study of the Bible. That doesn't always mean I'll be studying books that would be considered "Christian" in character or worldview - in fact, it may mean the opposite. I do not mean to say we can understand God better this way - but we may understand mankind better, and how it tries to understand the world apart from Jesus Christ.