Thursday, June 23, 2011

Going In and Out in a Novel of Ideas: A Review of Jonathan Langford's "No Going Back"

If you want to get beat up at a writers convention, make a habit of telling every writer you come across that his or her work is “didactic,” “sentimental,” or “preachy.”  Writers generally don’t like it when those words are attached to their handiwork.  Even if their handiwork is, well, didactic, sentimental, or preachy.

Which is strange since literary history shows us that such works have left no small footprint in the wet cement of history.  Think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the novel suffers now because of its problematic depictions of race, it was nevertheless instrumental in galvanizing opinions of Northern readers against the evils of American slavery.

Then there’s The Grapes of Wrath.  John Steinbeck’s novel is highly didactic, frequently preaching, and occasionally sentimental.  During the final years of the Depression, though, it gave upper and middle-class America (what was left of it) a much-needed window into the plight of migrant workers in California. 

I could list other examples, but you get the point. Didacticism, sentimentality, and good old American preachiness can be powerful tools in the right writer’s utility belt.

The problem is, too often bad writers make use of these tools when they haven’t much to say.  Lacking adequate skill, proper training, and a good cause, their work comes off as hackneyed and contrived.  If Steinbeck is the Batman of preachy fiction, these kinds of writers are the Inspector Gadgets.

But without Penny and Brain.

Mormon fiction, of course, is frequently accused of being didactic, sentimental, and preachy. Thirty-five years ago, Mormon critics blasted Home Literature—Mormonism’s first genuine literary movement—for its tendency to rise up on its soapbox and preach, teach, expound, and exhort.  Rarely did they question the purpose behind the preaching. For them, it was simply bad art.

Something of this way of thinking continues strong today.  Again, this is undoubtedly because so much of Mormon fiction is sentimental, didactic, and preachy without good cause.  But we would do well to remember, dear reader, that there are Batmans among our Inspector Gadgets—writers of talent who are willing to break a few fiction faux-pas to make important points about the issues of the day.

Such is the case, I think, with Jonathan Langford and his recent novel No Going Back, which was published by Zarahemla Books in 2009. The novel is about Paul Ficklin, a better-than-average Mormon teenager who attends early morning seminary, serves as his ward’s teacher’s quorum president, reads his scriptures more-or-less daily, prays, and wears his Boy Scout uniform on mutual night—even though he’s at that age—fifteen—when the khaki has quit being cool.

But Paul is also gay.  As in: he likes guys.

This makes Paul a little different from the average better-than-average Mormon teen.  In fact, for some, it makes him an aberration.  A free radical in the carefully diagramed model of the Plan of Salvation.

As you may or may not know, there is currently an emerging genre of artistic works devoted to the gay Mormon experience. Some notable works from the genre are Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner’s novel Dancing Naked, C. Jay Cox’s film Latter Days, and David Ebershoff’s bestseller The 19th Wife.  In these works, the main character—or, at least, a major character—is typically a closeted gay Mormon male with deep feelings of guilt and alienation. Frequently, the character becomes depressed as he comes in conflict with parents and unsympathetic Church authorities, sometimes leading to the tragedy of suicide or attempted suicide.  In more optimistic works of the genre, though, the gay Mormon leaves the Church (in a sense) and finds a measure of peace in his new lifestyle.

In many ways, No Going Back is like other works in the genre.  As a gay Mormon, Paul has to deal with guilt, depression, and alienation—and Langford fully implicates the members of Paul’s LDS ward in contributing to these feelings.  At church, for instance, Paul is shunned by the youth and is frequently called “faggot” by the members of his priesthood quorum when the adult leaders aren’t around.  To make matters worse, he also becomes the subject of merciless Relief Society gossip.  

But No Going Back is also very different.  For one, while it remains aware of how the fundamental teachings and policies of the LDS Church concerning homosexuality can be misconstrued as justification for hate, it refuses to vilify them.  Instead, it asks readers to take them seriously.  Paul, after all, has no desire to leave the church or compromise on its strict moral code. Indeed, the title No Going Back refers not only to Paul’s inability to go back into the proverbial closet, but also to his unwillingness to go back on his testimony and faith in Mormonism.

For some readers, this is a rather hard thing.  Several unfavorable reviews of the novel on Amazon.com, for instance, take issue with the choices Paul makes about his faith and sexual orientation.  Some of them warn gay teens about it. One goes so far as to say that the book could lead a gay Mormon youths to despair and suicide.

That seems a little extreme to me.  I also think it reflects an unfortunate misreading of the text.  I can’t speak for the author, but I get a sense that the last thing Langford wants is for conversations about No Going Back to get bogged down in debates over whether or not Paul makes the correct choice about how to deal with his same-sex attraction. Moreover, I don’t think he wants his readers to get a sense that the situation Paul faces can’t change for the better.  Rather, I think he wants his readers to interrogate themselves—both their reactions to Paul’s choice and the assumptions underlying those reactions. Then make some changes in the way they act, understand, and treat others.

One way to read No Going Back, after all, is as a novel of ideas—a roundtable in book form. In his narrative, Langford has included the perspectives of a variety of people, each of whom has a different opinion about Mormonism, homosexuality, and the choices Paul has to make. So, while Langford has obvious sympathies for the LDS Church, he also recognizes and values the opinions and contributions of other organizations, like the Gay-Straight Alliance club in Paul’s high school, which is depicted as one of the few places where gay teens can go for acceptance.  At the same time, Langford refrains from creating utopian spaces, which are annoyingly prevalent in the worst of idea novels.  In this novel, all organizations—the LDS Church, GSA, Boy Scouts of America—have their problems, all fall short of creating safe places for guys like Paul. 

In a sense, what Langford does with No Going Back is show that the issue of Mormonism and homosexuality is complicated—and every voice at the roundtable discussion needs to be heard.  Sadly, he also strongly suggests that these discussions aren’t happening.

Let’s face it: no one in the Church really likes to talk about homosexuality.  Unless they  have to.  Part of the reason for this, I think, is the general avoidance of most issues dealing with sex.  I mean, no one I know jumps at a chance to give the biannual chastity lesson to the youth.  Especially when you have to explain long-antiquated slang like “necking” and “petting.”  

What is more, we Mormons tend to be non-confrontational with each other, especially in Sunday school classes, where debates over controversial issues are usually dropped before things get too heated and good feelings leave.  As a generally non-confrontational person myself (at least in person), I like this aspect of Mormon culture—I like it when people get along.  But I also recognize that it keeps certain conversations from happening.

Of course, Mormons aren’t the only ones guilty of avoiding issues.  Across America, homosexuality is a divisive issue—especially when election season rolls around. Then it becomes brick and mortar for the walls we build around ourselves.  Consequently, we shut up about it to keep things from falling apart. Meanwhile, resentment festers in silence—until something pops.

So, I think it’s no accident that No Going Back is so interested in the ramifications of silence.  The novel begins, for instance, when Paul breaks his silence about his sexual orientation to Chad, his best friend, and much of the novel deals with the consequences of that action.  But there are other silences in the novel as well.  For example, Paul’s bishop, who plays a major part in No Going Back, struggles with speaking his mind, and it affects both his work and family life negatively.  For much of the novel, therefore, his ineffectual approach to conflict is to put it off, wait till it cools down.  His wife, Sandy, likewise suffers in silence: weary of her husband’s calling, and tired of family responsibilities she’s ill-suited for, she expresses herself not with words, but with angry outbursts.  Like Paul (and us), she and her husband have to figure out how best to use—or not use—their voices. 

Interestingly, at the end of the novel, Langford encourages his readers to “Join the Conversation” about Mormonism and homosexuality.  He provides a web-address (www.langfordwriter.com) where readers can go to respond to the book and the issues it brings up.  It’s an open invitation to end the silence.  I don’t know how effective it’s been, but it certainly underscores the novel’s plea for more open communication in and outside of the Church about issues like homosexuality.

As a novel of ideas, No Going Back is surprisingly void of sentimentalism—probably due to its avoidance of utopian spaces—but it has several moments of didacticism and preachiness. At times, for example, certain scenes, characters, and situations in the novel seem designed to make a point or raise a question in the debate over Mormonism and homosexuality.  At the same time, though, the novel never seems too heavy-handed to me. For the most part, Langford tries to approach every idea in the novel evenly and sympathetically, although some points-of-view and organizations come out less scathed than others.  This seems to fit with his larger agenda for the book.  Langford’s after conversation, not conversion.

Aesthetes may have a problem with this aspect of the novel, but as I’ve already indicated, it doesn’t bother me.  As a writer, Langford demonstrates that he knows how to keep the pace of a novel moving. Moreover, his characterizations of Paul, Chad, Bishop Mortensen, and Sandy show that he is capable of creating interesting, realistic characters even within the framework of a novel of ideas.

Of course, the novel has its stutters. At times, for instance, the teenage dialogue between Paul, Chad, and their friends doesn’t quite ring true. Langford seems very hip on teen culture from the last decade (video games, films, music), but not so much on the slang. I find this to be a common hiccup in a lot of novels about teenagers. It’s hard to capture their distinctive voices just right.

The novel also pays too much attention to the kinds of gestures that work well in face-to-face conversations, but not in prose fiction. It has too many grins, snickers, and eye-rolls for my tastes. 

Overall, though, No Going Back is an important contribution to the genre of gay Mormon fiction. If anything, it brings new voices to the table that are begging to be listened to and understood, if not accepted.

For these voices to be heard, though, the book needs readers. Unfortunately, I think finding them might be the biggest challenge No Going Back faces. As a work of Mormon fiction, it already faces the limitations of a small readership base. Added to that is its subject matter, which is enough to turn away some readers who are uncomfortable with its frank depictions of homosexuality.  What is more, its realistic depictions of intolerance may unsettle readers and leave them feeling guilty, uncomfortable, or even defensive. Finally, it asks readers to take a big risk and grant legitimacy to ideas they may find wholly incompatible with their world views.

For some, that’s a big strike against it.   

It’s also a good reason to pick up the book and read it. It will challenge you. It may offend you. Likely, it will give you something to talk about.

And that’s kind of the point.  

5 comments:

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful review. Some thoughts in response:

    Several well-meaning people have praised No Going Back for not being didactic. I've always been a bit uneasy about this (though I'll gladly take the intended compliment), because it seems to me that in many ways it *is* didactic, though hopefully in a mostly balanced way.

    I don't remember if I had consciously in mind at the time of writing all the connections with silence that you mention, but it's definitely something I was thinking about. If there's anything I'm militant about related to this subject, it's the importance of talking about it. Hence my invitation at the end of the book, which sadly has not yielded as much direct response as I had hoped, largely because of the many challenges you noted to the book finding an audience. My experience makes me less sanguine about the chances of small-market fiction getting much notice by LDS readers--though the reactions I have received have been mostly positive, when people can be persuaded to read it...

    Thanks again for taking my novel seriously enough to both read it and talk about it.

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  2. No problem. Since writing the review, I've taken a look at other reviews written on the book. I had no idea you were a modern-day Korihor. :)

    I guess the didactic thing has been on my mind a lot lately. I've been reading a lot of "activist fiction" from the 19th century right now for my ph.d. exams, and something about your approach in NGB reminded me of works like "Life in the Iron Mills" and "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Both of these works are very didactic, but in a powerful, thought provoking way. That's not a bad way to go about things, even if it isn't the most artistic. Sometimes, there are more important things than art.

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  3. Yes, well, I didn't know I was a modern-day Korihor either. Fortunately, some reactions are so far out there that it's easy to discount them...

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  4. Jonathan this was a great review on your book. You know though that I loved your book and think that more people should read it no matter how uncomfortable it might make them feel. There is so much more for us to do in life than spending time judging others for the decisions they make in this life. Their choices are their own. They know what is right and what isn't, just as Paul did. He knew what he felt was wrong, but he knew what he had to do was right. Having someone in my life with the same tendency, but choosing to live that life makes it difficult. Her decisions are her own, but it doesn't make me love her any less. I don't have to like her choices, but love is unconditional. Thanks for the courage to write this book. What's next?

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  5. I read Jonathan's book when it first came out. I thought it was wonderful, and still do. Blazing trails isn't easy. I've told Jonathan he should just keep writing because he's a superb story teller.

    This is a very perceptive review. I think you've captured its strengths and weaknesses perfectly--though I personally find very little that's "weak" about it. The "problems" of its finding a wide audience I think arise from its strengths: that is, from its being an open and honest portrayals of an issue that disturbs most "active" Mormons.
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

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