Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Five Mormon Stories I'll Never Write...

I'm not a creative writer, although I spent at least a decade of my life--if not more--pretending that I was. During my awkward years as an undergraduate, I wrote a lot of poetry and the opening paragraphs to about four dozen or so short stories. Sometime, if I'm ever lacking something to say, I'll post one of them for laughs.

Smart alecks, of course, in that endearing way of theirs, like to say that those who can't write short stories critique and analyze them. I'm not sure this is entirely true, although it might be true for me. Personally, though, I like to reverse the formula and say that those who can't write criticism write short stories instead.

Thinking about it that way helps me sleep at night.

I place this on the table because I have been thinking lately about some ideas for Mormon fiction that would be interesting to read, if not impossible to write. Here are five of them:

1. A genuinely heartbreaking EFY love story.

I never attended EFY as a youth, but I always made fun of those kids who came back having experienced a C.O.W., or Crush Of the Week. Apparently, they are very common at EFYs--and remarkably short-lived. In fact, come to think of it, I've never encountered any married couple that first met and fell in love at EFY.

Of course, I don't get out much.

Anyway, the impossible specifications are these: the story has to be really heartbreaking (no bathos here), but it can't under any condition involve death, suicide, law of chastity violations, premortal life reunions, or any version of Chris de Burgh's "The Lady in Red." No exceptions.

Good luck, writers. If you can make this story work, you can do anything.

2. A Mormon metahistorical romance.

The principle challenge of this particular work of fiction would be to understand exactly what a Mormon metahistorical romance is.  I like to think of it this way: what would happen if Thomas Pynchon or William T. Vollmann took on the  Mormon nineteenth Century?

Personally, I think we Mormons have not yet taken full advantage of the many narratives our PIONEER ancestors have bequeathed to us. All too often, Mormon historical fiction stops as soon as it reaches the Salt Lake Valley--as if nothing interesting happened after the Saints arrived in Utah.

I also think we need to be willing to toss the history into the blender, mix in some modern-day stuff, and see what happens when it gets spilled on the counter. If I had a lot of money, I would pay promising Mormon fictionists to write good historical fiction:

"Hey kid, wanna make a million bucks? Write a metahistorical romance about Rafael Monroy."

3. The Moroni Dialogues

This is my idea for a stage play.

Ever wonder what Moroni and Joseph Smith talked about during the four once-a-year conversations they had on the Hill Cumorah? I do. That's why I want someone to write this stage play. (I'd throw in the possibility of a film adaptaion, but I've never seen a good depiction of the Angel Moroni on film. I mean, take a look at The Book of Mormon Movie and tell me I don't have a point.)

I once seriously considered writing this play. I imagined Moroni as a kind of peddler figure in ragged clothes. Rather than appear in a bright conduit, he would just show up. Of course, my idea never got beyond that point. My stumbling block was the dialogue itself. Nothing I came up with was very profound. I wanted it all to be down-to-earth and on-the-level, but my weak dramatugical skills couldn't make it happen.

So, I leave the idea to a playwright more skilled than myself. Maybe someone who has actually written a real play before.

4. The Divine Prequel

Here's another idea that fascinates me: the story of God before he became God. Who was he? What was he like? What was he in to?

I mean, we know the vague basics of his life--that is, he was like us--but this story would go into significantly more detail. In fact, I have always imagined that this piece of fiction would end with a big reveal, a (pre-Lady in the Water) Shyamalanesque twist that clued us in on the main character's future identity.

Of course, the main obstacle for this story is its potential for sacrilege. Which is kind of why it's still on the back-burner of my mind. That, and I don't want it to be reduced to a satire. I want to read this story from a writer who takes the idea seriously.

5. The Orson Pratt Cannon

This Mormon steampunk story takes inspiration from alleged accounts of Joseph Smith's prophesies about missionaries being sent to the moon in order to preach to its inhabitants.

Basically, the story would involve Brigham Young and Daniel H. Wells authorizing Orson Pratt to build his "Stratosengine"--a massive cannon he plans to use to shoot his missionary-minded brother Parley to the moon (Jules Verne style)--as long as they can first use it for a long-distance shock and awe attack on Johnston's Army.

I almost started to work on this story until I discovered that Orson Pratt was on a mission in England during the Utah War. Of course, that was not an insurmountable technicality. For a while I imagined Pratt making use of the Greenwich Observatory, or having the England mission be a front while he was down in Iron County, Utah working on the Stratosengine.

Mostly, I lacked the time necessary to do justice to the idea.

That said, I still think it's an interesting story. If someone wants to steal this idea, all I ask is that I get a substantial share of the royalties and film rights. I also want the story's epigraph to read: "To Scott--for the idea!"

That would mean a lot to me.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fenimore's Ghost

I started a new blog a few weeks ago. It's going to be more like this blog was before I started writing about Mormon literature all the time.

I'm calling it Fenimore's Ghost. Don't try to read too much into the name.

Feel free to check it out, read it, subscribe to it, comment on it, etc. There will always be a link to it on the right-hand column of this blog.

Also, you can read my rationale for creating Fenimore's Ghost here.


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.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What Do You Get When an Aztec Crosses the Train Tracks?: A Review of B. H. Roberts's "Corianton, a Nephite Story"

Sunday night, The Book of Mormon won the Tony Award for (among other things) Best Musical. I don’t really follow musical theater these days, but from what I get this was hardly a dark horse victory. People really, really seem to like it.[1]

Of course, few people realize that this isn’t Mormonism’s first appearance on Broadway. In 1912, Mormon playwright Orestes Bean’s stage adaptation of B. H. Roberts’s novel Corianton, A Nephite Story ran for six nights of Broadway. Renamed Corianton, An Aztec Romance[2], the play was a disaster. If the Tony Awards had been around in 1912, it wouldn’t have even made the long list.

In short: the Titanic wasn’t the only thing that sank in 1912.[3]

Already much has been written about Corianton, An Aztec Romance and its subsequent film adaptation, the infinitely better-named Corianton: A Tale of Unholy Love.[4] To date, I haven’t seen either production. George Lucas willing, I’ll be able to take a look at the Tale of Unholy Love next time I’m in Utah.

I have read Roberts’s novel, though.[5] Written and serialized in The Contributor in 1889[6], Corianton was later published in book form in 1902 after Bean’s play had become a hit among Mormon audiences.[7] It was also, as far as I can tell, the first novel based on a Book of Mormon story.[8]

Corianton, of course, is the story of Alma the Younger’s youngest son, whose youthful indiscretions with a harlot named Isabel[9] are matter for one of the racier episodes of Nephite history.[10] They’ve also since become matter for countless seminary or youth fireside lessons on chastity.

You know what I’m talking about.[11]

Corianton, you’ll remember, was on a mission to the Zoramites when he skipped town and crossed over to the other side of the train tracks.[12] His father’s account of the story is unsurprising in its terseness:

For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom. And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted. (Alma 39:2-4)

Readers of Corianton will quickly discover, though, that B. H. Roberts has fleshed the story out a bit.[13] It begins, to Roberts’s credit as an author, with the dramatic trial of Korihor, the Book of Mormon anti-Christ.[14] Corianton, always something of a rebel, stands with Korihor throughout the trial—much to Alma’s regret. But Corianton is a young man of strong convictions: he’s not really a flighty guy who follows every whim. His actions have thought behind them:

I think this treatment of Korihor is too harsh. Our law protects a man in his belief and in the expression of it; and though Korihor hath a proud bearing and holds what you believe to be dangerous views, still I think the officers at Gideon exceeded their jurisdiction in sending him bound to this city. (Kindle Locations 155-157).

Of course, Corianton’s conviction and thoughtfulness are matched by his brashness. Intelligent as he is, he tends to flip the egg before its fried. Time and time again, he lets himself get caught up in the moment. After witnessing Korihor’s downfall, for example, he becomes a too zealous convert. Then, as a missionary, he tosses crucial doctrines[15] aside for a self-inflating “Gospel of Me”:[16]

Indeed it was his success that began to work a great mischief; for it filled him with pride and boasting in his own strength. By the force of his brilliancy, and a kind of genius for controversy, he discomfited the Zoramites, and exposed the shallowness of their principles to the great delight of the multitude who, though they believed not the message he was delivering, were immensely pleased with the youthful orator. (Kindle Locations 358-361).

Even the Isabel incident is a result of overthinking the situation. When she comes at him with an argument about liberty and free agency, he’s at a loss for words. And it doesn’t help that she flatters better than Eddie Haskell’s sister.[17]

Like the hero of a Shakespeare tragedy, the “vicious mole” of Corianton’s fall is with him from the beginning. If Roberts’s novel does anything well, it is its characterization of Corianton. Of all characters, only he possesses anything bordering on psychology. Everyone else, including Isabel, is like the paper bag puppet your kid brings home from primary.[18]

That’s not necessarily to say that Corianton is a bad novel.[19] A better word for it would be “inconsistent” or “uneven.” Take Roberts’s writing style, for instance. It fluctuates from the sublime:

The next morning the sun shone more brightly than on the day before. Through the night a terrific storm had raged. Black clouds burdened with moisture had been split by vivid flashes of lightning, and poured down all their floods. But with the approach of light the storm ceased, the clouds parted and drifted into great cumulous heaps lightened to snowy whiteness by the glorious morning sun. (Kindle Locations 187-191).

to the Edenic:

The house of Seantum was situated at the southern outskirts of the city, in the midst of a spacious and splendid garden [….] Here side by side, and in fine contrast, were rhododendrons, with their rose-colored flowers, and the coffee shrub with its clusters of delicate white blossoms. Other flowers and flowering trees there were in great profusion—the fragrant eglantine, the elegant, airy though thorny acacia, and now and then an aloe plant, and, ah, rare sight! several of them were in full bloom; these, with splendid magnolias, mingled their odors; and burdened the air with ambrosial fragrance, which, with the chirrup and hum of insect life, the gentle whispering wind, stealing softly through shrubbery and tree, and all kissed to beauty by the glorious moonlight, made up a night such as lovers love, and love's young dream expands. (Kindle Locations 401-410).

to the Baedekeresque:

The city of Zarahemla which our party of horsemen and their prisoner had entered, was the capital and metropolis of the Nephite Republic. Its exact location cannot be definitely fixed. According to the Book of Mormon it was situated on the west bank of tho river Sidon, a noble stream, supposed to be identical with the river Magdalena. It rises in the great mountain chain of western South America, and flows directly north through an immense valley to the sea. The city Zarahemla was originally founded by the descendants of a colony of Jews that escaped from Jerusalem, after the destruction of that city by King Nebuchadnezzar, early in the sixth century B. C. With the colony of Jews that escaped was Mulek, the son of King Zedekiah, and the colony took its name from him. They landed in the northern continent of the western world and afterwards drifted southward into the valley of Sidon, and there founded a city, but what name they gave it is not known. (Kindle Locations 62-69)

to the Stan Leesque[20]:

The summer's sun was just struggling through the mists that overhung the eastern horizon, and faintly gilding the towers and housetops of Zarahemla, as a party of seven horsemen, evidently weary with the night's travel, were seen slowly moving along the foot of the hill Manti… (Kindle Locations 14-16).

Roberts also has a tendency to favor dialog over action. Open the book to any random spot and you’ll likely land on a conversation. Perhaps this is part of why Corianton made such an easy transition to the stage and screen.[21] Unfortunately, though, Roberts frequently sums up in a paragraph scenes that should be treated to a half dozen paragraphs, if not a whole chapter. For instance, gone are scenes of missionary labors, sermons, and stonings.[22] Gone too are scenes of “Aztec Romance” and “Unholy Love.”[23]

Present, though, is the ingenious euphemism for Corianton’s sin: he and Isabel are seen beside the shores of a lake “in loving converse” (Kindle Location 514).

It is definitely a Nephite story.[24]

In fairness to Roberts, though, Corianton is interesting enough for sustained reading. It’s also relatively short. Since finishing it, though, I’ve been unsure about its place in the Mormon literary canon. Obviously, as the first fictional adaptation of the Book of Mormon, it is a forerunner of the Book of Mormon novels of Robert H. Moss, Chris Heimerdinger, David G. Woolley, H. B. Moore, and Orson Scott Card.[25] At the same time, it doesn’t really have the cultural resonance of a book like Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, Jack Weyland’s Charly, or even Levi Peterson’s The Backslider.[26] That said, in its heyday, Corianton was king.

If I had to say something about the legacy Corianton—let’s say someone was making a documentary on B. H. Roberts,[27] and they wanted a sound-bite about Corianton from someone who had glasses and disheveled hair—I would say this (gesturing wildly):

Corianton is really the first time someone sat back and said, “Hey, there’s a lot in the Book of Mormon that would be great for a novel.” I mean, these were the days before movies. Wallace had just published Ben-Hur, like, maybe nine years earlier and it was a hit. People wanted Bible stories. So here comes B. H. Roberts, one of the best writers in the church, someone really respected among the Saints, who tries to do what Wallace did with Ben-Hur, but with the Book of Mormon. And the Corianton story had it all: violence, sex, you name it. And it’s not like he had to do much research. You read Corianton and you find parts where Roberts is like “…and Nephite women were known to be very modest” and you’re like, “How in the world does he know that?” Well, he doesn’t. He used the Book of Mormon’s vagueness about geography and customs and whatever to his advantage. He made it all up! Genius!

So, Corianton deserves to be read as an early indicator of at least one direction that later Mormon literature would take.[28] It’s also an interesting relic from a time when a member of the Presidency of the Seventy could publish fiction[29] in one of the many literary journals closely associated with the church.[30]

Thanks to Ben Crowder and the Mormon Texts Project, Project Gutenberg has a version of the novel that can be downloaded to your Kindle software.[31] The Internet Archive, likewise, has a scan of the original edition of the novel that you can download and read as a pdf. While you’re there you can also pick up a scan of Orestes Bean’s stage adaptation of the novel.

You don’t even have to cross the train tracks to get it.

[1] Sadly, I can’t give my opinion on it since I haven’t seen it. Around the time it came out I started a blog post on it, but I quit after realizing that my ignorance about the musical seriously crippled my ability to write about it with any sort of credibility.

[2] Presumably for the Gentiles in the audience.

[3] Here’s a random biographical note: the middle school I attended was built in 1912. My friend, who was full of crap, claimed that at midnight on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, all the ghosts of the people who died on the ship held a meeting in our school's auditorium. The purpose of the meeting was to give the Captain, also a ghost, a hard time about running into the iceberg. Here’s the thing, though: no one from Milford, Ohio died on the Titanic. I’ve never broken into my old middle school at midnight on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, but something tells me that my friend was what we then called a “Big Fat Liar.”

[4] Check out Ardis E. Parshall’s fascinating “‘Corianton’: Genealogy of a Mormon Phenomenon” on Keepapitchinin. Also noteworthy are Rory Swenson’s, Michael De Groote’s, and Eric Samuelsen’s recent reviews of the film, which was screened at an AML conference a few years back. 

[5] Purists might call it a novella. Detractors might call it something worse.

[6] Before my middle school was built.

[7] According to Parshall, Bean totally filched the plot and title of Roberts’s novel for his stage play. Smart man that he was, Roberts had his book published to cash in on the free publicity.

[8] Parshall teases us with the title of another Book of Mormon novel from the early Home Literature era, i.e. Julia A. McDonald’s A Ship of Hagoth. I haven’t poked around to see if it is floating somewhere in the cyber-ether, but if it is…I’ll find it, read it, and write about it.

[9] Funny story: as a young missionary in Brazil, I spent my first three months in the field in a fairly remote place. We had no telephone in our house, so the mission office would call the phone number of the house two doors down if they ever needed to contact us. Incidentally, that house was brothel run by a woman named Isabel. I don’t know how these arrangements came to be, but once, while we were making our way down to the church for a zone meeting, Isabel stopped us and asked us if she and her household could hear our messages. My companion took her name and number and passed it along to the zone leader. She lived in his area, after all, not ours. As far as I know she was never baptized (like in God's Army). Nor did any of the missionaries go Corianton (like in God's Army 2). Anyway, I always thought it was rather funny that there was actually a living, breathing harlot named Isabel. I probably told that story at least weekly for the first eight months of my mission.

[10] Racy episodes are suggested throughout the Book of Mormon, beginning with the rude dancing aboard Nephi’s ship. Perhaps the raciest, though, is that of the daughter of Jared, who dances for Akish in order to con him into killing her grandfather, Omer.  

[11] Lessons on chastity are an important part of the Latter-day Saint youth experience. As a youth, I remember hearing Corianton’s story one early morning in seminary. It was accompanied by a viewing of the classic 1970s LDS film Morality for the Youth, which depicts an M.I.A. group on a metaphor-laden white water rafting trip. I have since wanted to show the film to my seminary students, but I have been unable to locate it. That’s probably for the best: generally when I use videos from the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, I become subject to jokes about my age.

[12] Anachronism intentional.

[13] Without fleshing the story out, if you catch my drift. Modesty, for the most part, is preserved within the pages of Corianton.

[14] Not to be confused with the forthcoming real Anti-Christ, who, believe it or not, is neither Barack Obama nor Sarah Palin nor the people who put together the Kidzbop CDs.

[15] i.e. the atonement, resurrection, justice, etc.

[16] In his letters to his mission president, he probably made it a point to mention two or three times how many people he converted and baptized.

[17] For those of you who are unfamiliar with my allusion, I direct you to the Wikipedia page on Eddie Haskell, a memorable sycophant from the late 1950s/early 1960s television comedy Leave It to Beaver. Note that I am not referring to the twentieth century American philosopher. Further note that Ken Osmond, the actor who played Eddie Haskell, was not a Mormon, despite his last name.

[18] Paper thin, drab, not well colored, limited in both expression and speech. Maybe a little waxy.

[19] Except, by most standards, it is.

[20] Excelsior!

[21] I use the word “easy” relatively.

[22] Corianton’s older brother Shiblon is stoned after he offends some high ranking Zoramite officials. Here’s how Roberts renders the scene:
The following day when it became known that Corianton had gone to Siron with Isabel, the excitement in Antionum greatly increased. Shiblon the day before had been released from his bondage and was stoned by the people in the streets, led on by some of the servants of Seantum. He escaped them, however, and joined his father and brethren, and told them of the blind infatuation of Corianton. (Kindle Locations 606-609).

[23] When I was a kid, I called racy scenes in movies the “hoo-hoo parts.” In Corianton, the closest we get to a “hoo-hoo part” is this:
Half seating herself on the inclined tree, she raised her hand to clutch a grape vine that drooped from a branch above, and as she did so the ample folds of her sleeve slipped back and left uncovered a beautiful white arm. And now Corianton noticed for the first time that the form was supple and finely proportioned. Her head, too, had been covered with a kind of mantilla which had also partly shrouded her face; this fell back now, revealing a face of uncommon loveliness, and a profusion of brown hair. (Kindle Locations 414-418).

[24] Its focus, in other words, in on the Nephite, not the harlot.

[25] If you count his Homecoming Saga as a Book of Mormon adaptation. (I do.)

[26] I had something witty to say right here, but I forgot what it was.

[27] Fictional Mormon filmmaker S. Norman Christiansen has for some time now tried to raise money for a Roberts documentary entitled B.H. Roberts: Mormon Maverick with a Pen, Ink, and Paper, which has been stuck in development hell since before Tom Cruise and John McCain made the word “maverick” commonplace. Because neither he nor his fundraising mechanism is real, it is likely that the film will never be made.   

[28] I wonder also if Corianton isn’t a forerunner of Mormon speculative fiction. So much of the novel, after all, is based on Roberts’s own speculations about Nephite culture, mores, and customs. How different is that than, say, what authors like Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, or David Wolverton do when they create new cultures in their works of sf&f?  

[29] Let alone have the time to write it.

[30] Theoretically speaking, something like this could happen today. It just hasn’t happened in a long time. Possibly not since Roberts.

[31] This is how I read it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summertime Mormon Fiction Reading List

My quarter is almost over. I have about eight more pages to write and about twenty research papers to grade. Then I can start working on my Ph.D. exams reading lists.

I also want to use the summer to finish reading a stack of Mormon novels that I have sitting around either on my bookshelf or my laptop's Kindle. Here they are:

Nephi Anderson, Marcus King, Mormon
Marilyn Brown, The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass
Arianne Cope, The Coming of Elijah
Jonathan Langford, No Going Back
Susa Young Gates, John Stevens' Courtship
B. H. Roberts, Corianton
Douglas H. Thayer, Summer Fire
Brady Udall, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Elizabeth Whitney Williams, A Child of the Sea
Margaret Blair Young, Heresies of Nature

I've also got Terryl L. Givens' By the Hand of Mormon to read.

Once I read these, I'll need a new batch. Any recommendations?