Saturday, February 26, 2011

New "Jack Fiction": A Review of Brian Evenson's "The Open Curtain"

In his 1988 essay "Beyond 'Jack Fiction': Recent Achievements in the Mormon Novel," Eugene England celebrated Mormon letters' recent shift away from what critic Karl Keller had called "Jack Fiction," or Mormon-themed works that did not, by his estimation, "deeply engage the doctrines of Mormonism and therefore were removed from the heart of the faith." Today, England would still have cause to celebrate: so-called "faithful realism" remains a strong trend in Mormon fiction.

Of course, as my last post suggests, labels like "Jack Fiction" and "faithful realism" are problematic because they tend to over-simplify a text's relative position to Mormon orthodoxy. Indeed, as Keller's definition (via England) of "Jack Fiction" seems to indicate, they put a premium on faithful engagements of Mormonism--and imply, unfairly, that to doubt Mormonism is to not engage deeply with it.

("Jack Fiction," by the way, takes its name from "Jack Mormon," a slang term for a lapsed Mormon.)

I bring this up because I recently finished Brian Evenson's The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006), a Mormon-themed thriller with strong "Jack Fiction" leanings. That is, unlike the novels I've reviewed in recent weeks, this novel is not really "faith affirming." In fact, in his afterword to the book, Evenson, an excommunicated Mormon, states that its plot "charts" his own "movement from a position of faith to a position of unbelief" (221).

Evenson's story is well-known to Mormon literati. In the mid-1990s, Evenson was a creative writing professor at Brigham Young University. However, following the publication of his first collection of short stories, Altmann's Tongue (1994), he left BYU after the administration strongly censured the violent content of his book. In 2000, after trying unsuccessfully to distance himself "from a culture that objected to [his] first book on moral grounds," he requested and was granted a formal excommunication (221). Since then, he writes, he has felt "remarkably comfortable having left [Mormonism]" and is "not sorry to be free of it" (223).

With this history in mind, it is difficult not to read The Torn Curtain biographically. It is about Rudd Theurer, a Mormon teenager living in Utah valley, who becomes obsessed with a 1903 murder case involving a grandson of Brigham Young, William Hooper Young, who was eventually convicted of the crime. Assisting Rudd in his research of Young, and feeding his obsession, is his half-brother Lael, a shadowy character who bullies Rudd and often tests his brotherly devotion through brutal trials.

Throughout Rudd and Lael's research into the murder, Evenson quotes freely from actual New York Times articles on the crime, which form the basis of Rudd's understanding of Hooper Young. Evenson also quotes from Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine entry on "Blood Atonement" as Rudd becomes convinced that Young's crime is somehow connected to this alleged violent practice of nineteenth-century Mormons.

While it's never stated directly in the afterword, it seems clear from the novel's focus on the 1903 murder and "Blood Atonement," as well as through Evenson's own commentary on the events that led to his loss of faith, that The Open Curtain is--at least partially--a response to Mormonism's rejection of Evenson's violent fiction. Violence and religion are both major themes in this novel, after all, and Evenson's narrative suggests that they are irrevocably intertwined in Mormonism. Commenting in his afterword on both the 1903 murder and the famous Lafferty murders, which served as the basis for Jon Krakauer's bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven, Evenson goes so far as to state that "the undercurrent of violence in Mormon culture really hasn't changed [since the nineteenth century], that the conditions that made violence well up in earlier Mormon culture are still very much present today" (222).

With all of this, it seems, Evenson is pointing the accusatory finger back at Mormonism. Whether or not he is successful, though, is up to the reader and (I would wager) her or his existing feelings about Mormonism. As recent attention to the Mountain Meadows Massacre has shown, Mormonism's past relationship to violence remains a highly contested area of study. The Open Curtain, as a work of fiction, has much to say on the subject.

Elements of the novel remind me of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" and Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson." I also see hints of Stephen King's The Shining and even A. S. Byatt's Possession at work. History and madness, along with religion and violence, play important roles in the novel, which is divided into three sections. Doppelgangers also figure prominently in the storyline. I don't want to give anything away, but Lael is your standard evil twin. When it comes out that he's a figment of Rudd's imagination, no one is surprised.

Which brings me to my main criticism of the novel: its predictability. Like most thrillers, The Open Curtain turns on various plot twists, none of which are particularly revelatory. While the first section of the novel focuses on Rudd's obsession with Hooper Young, the second section focuses on Lyndi, a BYU freshman, and the investigation that follows after her family is slaughtered on a camping trip. Over the course of the investigation, Lyndi becomes romantically involved (kind of) with Rudd, who was critically injured along with Lyndi's family, and the two eventually get married in the temple. Following their marriage, though, Rudd's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and he starts spending more and more time alone in the backyard shed. Lyndi gets nervous. She worries. She starts investigating.

I won't ruin what Lyndi uncovers in her investigation. Chances are, you'll figure it out long before she does.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this novel, though, at least from the point of view of a Mormon reader, is its depiction of Mormon temple ceremonies. Like many works of "Jack Fiction" (or "Jack Fiction"-like works)--Fisher's Children of God, Ebershoff's The 19th Wife, HBO's Big Love--The Open Curtain takes readers behind temple walls, which is intensely sacred space for Mormons, and reserved exclusively for members in good standing. Anticipating the controversy, Evenson uses his afterword to justify his depiction of the temple ceremonies as an integral part of his novel--although, he admits that he "tried to signal" its onset in the narrative "in such a way that Mormon readers who hold the temple ceremony sacred will be able to see it coming and will be able to avoid it if they so choose." He also states that, in depicting the ceremonies, he "tried [...] to be as respectful as possible" (222).

Again, readers can judge whether or not they think Evenson's use of the temple is "as respectful as possible." For the most part, his descriptions are vague, and they generally avoid the most sacred aspects of the temple. Still, those who hold the ceremonies sacred will likely be put off The Open Curtain. Personally, I could have done without the novel's temple chapter; despite Evenson's claims otherwise, I don't think it's an integral part of the narrative. What is more, I feel that by having Rudd and Lyndi get married (what, after all, does the marriage contribute to the novel?), Evenson is stretching to get his characters--and his readers--into the temple.

But that's me.

The novel does have its merits. Its major characters, particularly Lyndi, are solid and well-developed--the exception, of course, being Lyndi's aunt, who is little more than a caricature of the selfish affluent Mormon. Also, the third section of the novel excels as Evenson weaves the various threads of the novel together into a disorienting narrative that subverts time and space. Indeed, as Rudd's life begins to intertwine with that of Hooper Young, the result is both fascinating and emotionally gripping. Oddly, though, as the book draws to a close, Evenson eases up on his exploration of the intersections between religious belief and violence. Religion, to be sure, remains a part of the novel's conclusion, but not as much as you would expect.

Ultimately, though, I feel as if The Open Curtain is a mixed bag. (I also can't help but wonder if I feel this way because I disagree ideologically with its premise. Sounds like a topic I can address in another post.) All the same, if The Open Curtain is new "Jack Fiction," then it clearly shows that a novel can be intentionally "removed from the heart of the faith" and still engage the doctrines of Mormonism as deeply as any "faithful" novel.

I guess this means we need a new definition for "Jack Fiction."

5 comments:

  1. .

    I haven't read a lot of Evenson, but the stories I have read mostly just make me tired. Take The Prophets for example. The voice is amusing and the events get genuinely shocking, but in the end, what else is there besides the desire to be amusing and shocking? I really couldn't find anything. So I left bored.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's also possible to write novels that are deeply culturally Mormon (and/or Mormon in their aesthetics) and yet that do not engage deeply with the doctrines of Mormonism.

    There are at least three ways that a story can be Mormon:
    - It can be Mormon in its characters and/or cultural setting. This has been the focus of most Mormon criticism to date, in my view.

    - It can be Mormon on a thematic level. For example, Orson Scott Card's _The Worthing Chronicle_ explores in very Mormon terms what it might mean to possess godlike power. Similarly, Dave Farland's Runelords series explores LDS ideas related to economic equality in a symbolic fashion.

    - It can be Mormon on the level of narrative pattern. Card's retellings of the Joseph Smith story and the first part of the Book of Mormon in his Alvin Maker and Ships of Earth series are perhaps the classic example, but I would also include here stories that insert modern characters into Book of Mormon times, retellings of stories from Mormon scripture/history, etc.

    I probably should also add:
    - It can be Mormon in its esthetics, by which I suppose I mean that it can follow the kinds of guidelines for "clean" fiction that are characteristic of the current Mormon market. Needless to say, a work that is Mormon in this fashion may not be Mormon in any other way, and vice versa. However, a work that doesn't pass muster in this category won't gain access to most specifically Mormon outlets for fiction. But that's an old complaint.

    ReplyDelete
  3. On that last point, I should have said: a work that doesn't pass muster in this category won't gain access to most outlets that are designed to reach large numbers of Mormon readers (e.g., LDS bookstores, Mormon Times magazine). The small magazines and organizations such as AML publicize them, of course, but the reach of those groups is very small within the LDS community.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Of course, when it comes to what makes a novel a "Mormon" novel, I also wonder how much we should take the author's relationship to Mormonism into account. For example, we could say that David Ebershoff's "The 19th Wife" is a Mormon novel because it's about Mormons, even though Ebershoff is not a Mormon and seems to have few--if any--ties to Mormon culture. Still, I see a big difference between this type of Mormon novel (I like to call these appropriations "Faux-Mo Lit")and the type that comes out of the culture.

    I also think there's a big difference between something like "The Open Curtain" and, say, any of the other Mormon novels I've reviewed recently. But we run into problems when we start drawing lines between authors and texts from within the culture. That kind of act, in my opinion, undermines the potential richness of a Mormon literary tradition.

    And, since you bring it up, I also wonder if the Mormon lit that doesn't adhere to the "CleanFlicks Aesthetic" will ever have an aesthetic apart from other contemporary literatures. Right now, I'm not sure it does. (Which, by the way, isn't necessarily a bad thing.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. You may well be right in suggesting that there isn't likely to be a distinctive Mormon aesthetic apart from the "CleanFlicks" aesthetic. And that wouldn't bother me. I'm not sure we need a distinctive aesthetic, any more than we need a distinctive Mormon science or mathematics -- or literary criticism, as I've argued elsewhere. I think what we need is LDS practitioners in those various fields, to put their own (innately LDS) spin on things.

    The only distinctly LDS genre or approach I can think of is the LDS pageant, which so far as I know has a life largely independent of anything going on outside the Mormon world at this point.

    ReplyDelete