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."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Endlessly Lost: Some Thoughts on Mormon Literary Classification

"Thus all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state."--Mosiah 16:4

In 1939, Idaho writer Vardis Fisher published Children of God: An American Epic, a massive novel that traced Mormon history from Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820 to the Woodruff Manifesto in 1890, which signaled the beginning of the end of polygamy in the mainstream LDS Church. The novel, as far as I can determine, was a moderate critical and financial success, and it later served as the basis for the Hollywood film Brigham Young, Frontiersman.

In the decade that followed, other Mormon-themed novels were released favorably by national publishers. Today, however, all of them have fallen into near-obscurity, including Children of God. Few, if any, remain in print, although a handful of them—that is, at the most, four of them—are still read and studied by Mormon literary scholars and the occasional curious library patron. They are Children of God ( Harper & Brothers, 1939), Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua (Houghton Mifflin, 1941), and Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels (Knopf, 1942) and The Evening and the Morning (Harcourt Brace, 1949).

Collectively, these four novels and their more obscure cousins are the work of a group of writers that Mormon literary studies clumps together under the title “Mormondom’s Lost Generation,” a term coined in the 1970s by Edward A. Geary, a literary critic and English professor at Brigham Young University. Of course, despite Geary's insistence, Mormondom’s Lost Generation has very little in common with its more famous namesake, the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, aside from what the critic calls its “voice of expatriation”--which is tenuous, I think, at best--and “ambivalence towards a tradition which seems to have failed.”

These writers, that is, having rejected the rural provincialism of early twentieth-century Utah and Idaho, not to mention the authority of the Mormon Church, set out on their own—sometimes physically, often spiritually—in a solitary search for something else.

And their work reflects it. According to Geary, central to the fiction of this "Lost Generation" is the “conflict […] between individualism and authority,” which plays out frequently against the backdrop of Mormon history. Children of God, for example, ends when Nephi McBride, one of the novel’s main fictional characters, angrily confronts an enfeebled Wilford Woodruff about the Manifesto and other accommodations to the “Gentiles.” In the course of their argument, Nephi monologues:

The time is coming, President Woodruff—the first signs of it are already here—when the saints and gentiles will mix and marry, dance and love together, trade votes, perjure themselves, and worship the same god—and that god will be money. This church that was to establish a new gospel of brotherhood on earth will have bigger banks and factories, its millionaires and its beggars. Some will own factories—and some will own nothing but their self-respect. There will be the same wealth and poverty, luxury and starvation, snobbery and humility that are found all over the world. And our church, the one that began in a cabin in Palmyra and was driven across a continent will be no different from churches anywhere. (764)

Of course, Nephi’s bleak vision of Mormonism’s future— which echoes, somewhat anachronistically, the leftist rhetoric of the 1930s—is not enough to sway the authorities. Heart-broken and disillusioned, therefore, the McBride family packs up and head south, alone, to remain true to the Mormonism of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—to polygamy and the economic equality of the United Order.

If Nephi McBride and his family typify these novels' penchant for individualistic heroes, then their disillusionment with the Church's accommodationism gestures towards the other main theme that Geary identifies in Mormondom's Lost Generation: the stagnation of early twentieth-century Mormonism. Indeed, while these writers and their works generally valorize the deeds of the Mormon pioneers, they nevertheless adhere to what Geary calls “a dead-end interpretation of Mormon history,” which suggests that the creativity and dynamism that energized Mormonism’s move west eventually petered out as “the heroes [of the early years] disappeared” and were “replaced by men of smaller souls and narrower vision.” In these novels, consequently, the Church is never an unproblematic entity. If it isn’t bureaucratic or authoritarian, it is weak and inefficient. Mostly, it does little more than get in the main characters’ way--like a dead horse or an irritating fly.

No place else is this characterization of the Church stronger than in Virginia Sorensen’s The Evening and the Morning, which is possibly the best "Lost Generation" novel in Mormon literature. In it, main character Kate Alexander returns to Manti, Utah after having been gone for roughly fifteen years. A lapsed Mormon and self-taught intellectual now, Kate, who had never been strong in the faith even when she lived in Manti, stands out in the pious (and often hypocritical) community, which welcomes her back cooly, with some suspicion, as a kind of curiosity.

As a rule, the Church’s presence in this novel is strong atmospherically, if not physically. One important exception to this, however, is the 24th of July parade that occurs midway through The Evening and the Morning, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. During the parade, Kate and Dessie, her grown-up daughter, watch as floats depicting important events from Mormon history are carted past them. As each scene passes, its artificiality betrays the grand intent of its designers, and the gulf between the appearance of the awkwardly constructed scenes and what the history they are supposed to represent is unsettling. For Kate, especially, this gaudy reduction of Mormonism’s heroic past to “pretty” parade floats and hollow pageantry awakens her to the ironies of her surroundings:

Kate felt small suddenly, thrown against history, against the universe, like a pebble thrown against the sky and lost. All the exalted people were thinking about anything bit the magnificence of history; they steamed in the July sun, reeked at the armpits, wiped their noses and ate ice cream encased in chocolate squares. Why not? This was a play arranged for their benefit along with the ice cream concessions on the corners. (213)

Of course, this image of the steaming, reeking descendants of Mormon pioneers, which is so typical of "Lost Generation" novels, ultimately calls into question the adequacy—or accuracy—of Geary’s “Lost Generation” moniker. “Lost,” after all, carries with it decidedly negative religious connotations—such as "lost sheep" or "lost souls"—especially when applied to a religiously-themed literature. In a sense, then, the name implies a kind of Judgment Day pronouncement on these writers and their headstrong protagonists--a subtle, self-righteous dismissal of what they have to offer Mormon readers. Ironically, such a name even enacts the same kind of provincial attitude against which these authors wrote. As the resolute characters of Nephi McBride and Kate Alexander suggest, though, it is the Church and its members, not the apostates, who are lost in these novels.

Likely, until Mormon literary criticism becomes more established and conceptualized, names like the "Lost Generation"--and the equally problematic "faithful realism"--will continue to divide unnecessarily the sheep from the goats. What Mormon literature needs, if only for critical or pedagogical purposes, are literary classifications that accurately represent stylistic or thematic similarities, yet refrain from casting anything out because of its "lost and fallen state."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fissures and Feuds: A Review of Todd Robert Petersen's "Rift"

I spent the last week of last year visiting relatives, eating too much junk food, and ignoring emails from an architect who wanted me to proofread and edit a series of personal statements he wrote for a prestigious academic job in California. I also read Todd Robert Petersen's collection of fifteen short stories and one novella, Long After Dark (Zarahemla, 2007), which offers, I hope, a glimpse of what direction Mormon fiction will take in the twenty-first century.

So much of the serious Mormon fiction out there, after all, is anchored in Utah, the Mormon homeland, where a majority of the Mormon population no longer hangs its hats. In Long After Dark, however, we get a more global perspective; Utah is represented, of course, but so is South America, Africa, and the Pacific Northwest. The collection's novella, Family History, in fact, which has the odd distinction (along with The Backslider) of being both offensive and inspiring, takes place in three different settings outside of Utah: Las Vegas (showing, by the way, that not everything that happens in Vegas stays in in Vegas), Canada, and Los Angeles. Considering the international make-up of the church, that's the kind of direction Mormon literature needs to be taking.

I finished Long After Dark with a high opinion of Todd Robert Petersen' writing, so I was excited to read his next work, Rift (Zarahemla, 2009), which has won the prestigious 2008 Marilyn Brown Novel Award and, more recently, a 2009 Association of Mormon Letters Award.

Rift is about Jens Thorsen, an aging Mormon who, along with his wife Lila, first appeared in the inaugural story of Long After Dark, "Thorsen's Angle." Jens is the chronically cranky type, but he's also a good-hearted old man with a predilection for theatricality and storytelling. When he's not breaking down screen doors or shooting at crows with his shotgun, he's serving those who have have fallen for one reason or another off the radar of the local Priesthood leadership. While these acts of service are an important part of the novel, it is Thorsen's long-standing feud with his bishop, Darrell Bunker, that gives the book its main driving force. As the title suggests, Rift is about the fissures, often tragic, that open up between people and within families and communities.

Indeed, along from Thorsen's feud with Bunker, the most significant fissure in the novel is between Bunker and his backsliding daughter, Angie. When Rift opens, Angie has just returned home from years of prodigality, and her father puts on a big show of welcoming her back in his fold. The problem is, Angie wants nothing to do with church. And it soon comes out that she's pregnant. And unmarried. And unrepentant. Rift.

A lot of ugly things happen in Rift before it's done, but it isn't a a tragic novel. Indeed, aside from some morosity that forms the narrative's emotional core, it's a very funny novel. Thorsen is full of old man wit and grit, as are his friends who hang out at the local barber shop, so there is no end to comical banter and wry observation. Thorsen's long-suffering wife, too, is a humorous presence, although in a quieter, more severe way. Like many Mormon women from her generation, she puts dinner on the table, but doesn't take her husband's crap. When Thorsen's out of line, she lets him know--like when she scolds Thorsen for telling an "inappropriate" mission story at their grandson's missionary farewell:
"Brandon was crazy to ask you to talk. I'm not sure whether to be more worried about you or all those foolish kids you inspired to break their mission rules."

"I didn't inspire anyone. I just told a sober tale, Mamma."

"Sober? I'd have sworn you were drunk." (122)
Of course, this novel's strength is not so much in its humor, but in it's wrestle with the uncertainties of faith. One of its themes, enduring to the end, is popular in Mormon discourse, but Thorsen's experience with enduring hasn't given him much reason to take comfort from it. In fact, he frequently rails against "all this enduring-to-the-end garbage they throw at you in church," since those who talk most about it usually fail to mention "what it takes to endure like that" (169). But Thorsen is no quitter. For him, enduring to end is about pushing on ahead, not giving up even when God and His people aren't making much sense.

Like many Mormon novels, Rift is set in rural Sanpete, Utah. In some ways, this is a step backwards from the global canvas of Long After Dark, yet I think Petersen's choice of setting is justified if we look at Sanpete as a microcosm of the wider Latter-day Saint community. Indeed, like many Mormon communities, Sanpete has a tendency to mark its boundaries, close itself off, and stand guard against The World. The irony is, of course, that the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is not really supposed to work that way. Faith, Hope, and Charity don't have much influence behind closed doors. At least, that's what Thorsen would say.

Without question, Rift is a strong addition to the Mormon canon. While it occasionally dips too deeply into farce--when the various fissures in Sanpete finally burst, for example, Petersen lets it play out too comically--it nevertheless addresses issues and attitudes about community and neighborliness that are becoming increasingly more relevant and unavoidable to Mormons as the Church becomes a visible presence on the national and international stage. Of course, in addressing these attitudes, Rift doesn't end neatly, like the tidy denouement of a church video. Rather, it concludes with a whisper of possibility that space can be opened up within Mormon communities for people like Angie, the bishop's pregnant daughter, who frequently struggle to find their place.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Modern Mormon Family: A Review of Angela Hallstrom's "Bound on Earth"

You can learn a lot from the Old Testament. For example, if you ever get stopped in a dark alley by a bunch of Gileadites with switchblades, DON'T call them "fugitives" because they take that kind of talk personally. More importantly, if they ask you to say "Shibboleth"--and, trust me, they will--DON'T forget to pronounce the "sh," because if you don't, it's a dead giveaway that you're not one of them. Gileadites, it seems, take their voiceless palato-alveolar fricatives very seriously.

Of course, Gileadites are rare in these parts, but I occasionally find myself occupying their role (sans weapon) when I read novels about Mormons by those who have not come out of the culture. Mormons, after all, have their own way of saying and doing things (Google the phrase "nourish and strengthen" and you'll see what I mean), so when novels about Mormons fail to capture these cultural nuances accurately and effortlessly, they can come off sounding as empty as a Church parking lot on a Monday night. Much like the gang of Ephraimites in the Bible who couldn't pronounce their "sh" sound to save their lives (literally), these novels betray their outsiderness with every syllable of cultural mispronunciation.

(By the way, if you'd like an example of a novel overflowing with Mormon Shibboleths, check out Jacquelyn Mitchard's Cage of Stars, which proves that it takes more than Wikipedia research and a dependence on protestant stereotypes to write convincingly about Mormons and their culture.)

Now, I'm not saying that Mormon are the only ones who can write about Mormons. That would be absurd. Nor am I saying that good novels have never been written about Mormons by non-Mormon authors, since it takes more than the occasional Shibboleth to ruin a novel. What I am saying, though, is that the telling of Mormon stories requires that you create characters and situations that are more than just Mormon in name. Indeed, for Mormon novels to ring absolutely true, they need to ring effortlessly.

That's no easy task, even for a Mormon writer, but Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth (Parables, 2008) proves that it is possible.

In fact, it's Mormon fiction at its finest. To paraphrase the old youth fireside cliche: if this novel was arrested for being authentic Mormon fiction, there would be enough evidence to convict it. That said, it doesn't club readers over the head with Mormonism. It's characters happen to be Mormon, who speak and act and think like Mormons, but it never belittles readers by explaining to them, as some Mormon novels do, what that's supposed to means.

Bound on Earth is about a modern Mormon family, the Palmers, who have been bound together for eternity by Mormon temple ordinances, but who are mostly struggling to make it through the day. Their problems are not unique, of course, but they are the kind that no one likes to talk about in Sacrament meeting or Sunday school. Rest assured, no one in this novel is whining about "Dear John" letters or home and visiting teaching appointments. In the first section of the novel, for example, the Palmer's youngest daughter, Beth, is dealing not only with her estranged bi-polar husband, but also with her family's refusal to talk about him. Everything about the situation tells her that she needs to cut ties, leave him and start her life over, but she remains uncertain about the choice. "I've been digging and digging," she says at one point, comparing her husband to a skier buried in the snow. "I don't know how long I'm supposed to keep digging until it's okay for me to stop trying to find him" (8).

At 197 pages, the novel is a quick read. Each of its fourteen sections is like a short story or vignette that touches on one or more incidents from Palmer family history. Most sections cover a time between 1981 and 2007, although two important sections cover 1857 and 1969 respectively. No section, I think, is inferior to the others; Hallstrom, whose writing style reminds me of what I like about Bobbie Ann Mason's, has ensured that every piece of the novel is engaging and has purpose. By the time you finish reading it, you wonder how so much complexity can be crammed into something that seems so simple.

Bound on Earth, of course, isn't a perfect novel. While reading it, I occasionally felt that a few of the stories being told (emphasis on few) required more emotional intensity and grit. This is especially true in one section, "Who Do You Think You Are?," about what happens when Beth, as a freshman in high school, falls in love with her liberal, non-Mormon English teacher. While much about the story works, particularly in its characterizations of conservative Mormon students and parents, it pulls some punches when Beth visits the teacher's house to apologize for her community. Everything about the visit is creepy and disturbing, and it comes across that way, but in a slightly restrained way.

Still, despite its restraint, "Who Do You Think You Are?" is a memorable part of the novel. So too are the sections "Thanksgiving," "Accusation," "Trying," "Mission Call," "Birthday," and "Faithful." Each of them tell modern Mormon stories effortlessly, without the distractions of Shibboleths. Indeed, if Mormon literature is going to get anywhere, it needs more writers like Hallstrom. Bound on Earth, with its authentic Mormon voice, should not be overlooked.