Sometimes I worry about Mormon fiction. Thirty years ago or so, when I was still a toddler haunting the playgrounds of BYU married student housing, writers like Douglas Thayer and Levi Peterson were reinventing the Mormon novel and short story with Summer Fire and Canyons of Grace. These works, perhaps by design, were unlike anything written by Mormon writers before. Welding the unflinching realism and literary craft of the Mormon Modernists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s with the faith-affirming perspectives of the Home Literature writers, Thayer and Peterson showed that Art and Faith could work together to create something as appealing to the spirit as it was to the mind and heart. In the years that followed, their work inspired a whole generation of faithful realists—from Margaret Blair Young to Todd Robert Petersen—to push the boundaries of Mormon storytelling. Today, literary Mormon fiction is better because of their pioneering work.
But it is also getting a bit tired.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the past few years have given us excellent new works of Mormon fiction—like Long after Dark, Bound on Earth, and The Death of a Disco Dancer. However, I’m beginning to get over the novelty of seeing American Mormon life realistically played out in literary fiction. Yes, yes, I want Faithful Realism to continue as long as it can, or as long as it ought to, but I think Mormon literary fiction needs some variety to keep it vibrant. Something that isn’t so by the book, so Faithful Realist. It needs something a little off-kilter.
Something like Steven L. Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell.
For a long time I have harbored the suspicion that Steven L. Peck is staging a kind of coup d’etat within Mormon letters. In 2011, he published the AML award-winning The Scholar of Moab and was anthologized in both Monsters & Mormons and Fire in the Pasture. Last year, he followed these successes up with A Short Stay inHell (more about this in a moment), TheRifts of Rime (a YA fantasy novel about warrior squirrels), a practical sweep of the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest (read his stories here and here), and a series of off-beat blog posts chronicling the career of fictional Mormon writer Gilda Trillim. While I haven’t read all of Peck’s work, what I have read of it screams something fresh. I hate hyperbole, but Steven L. Peck might be the Moses of Mormon Letters in the Twenty-First Century. Aspiring Mormon fictionists need—I repeat: need—to pay attention to his exodus from Faithful Realism.
In my opinion, A Short Stay in Hell (Strange Violin Editions, 2012) is a good place to start. A deliberate homage to Borges (with a bit of Kafka and Book of Mormon thrown in), the novella centers on Soren Johansson, a Mormon geologist who dies from cancer and ends up in a Zoroasterian hell rather than the spirit paradise of Mormon scripture. For Johansson, the realization that the afterlife is not what he always imagined throws him into an existential crisis that is only exacerbated by the nature of the hell he finds himself in: a seemingly endless library wherein every book that has ever been written or could have been written can be found. Johansson’s task is to find the one book that describes his “earthly life story (without errors, e.g., in spelling, grammer, etc.)” and feed it through a designated slot so that he can gain entrance into heaven, which is lorded over by the Zoroasterian god Ahura Mazda. The task seems simple enough, but the simplicity of this hell is deceiving. A Short Stay in Hell is only 108 pages, but it covers billions of years.
Johansson’s search takes a long, long time.
The book, however, is not about Johansson’s search—not entirely. Upon arriving in hell, he is informed that he is there “to learn something,” but warned that he shouldn’t “try to figure out what it is” because doing so would only be “frustrating and unproductive” (19). A Short Stay in Hell, therefore, is partly about finding meaning after every traditional framework and superstructure of meaning has been exploded. Johansson and his fellow hellmates—all of whom are white Americans from the post-war era—grasp for meaning at every opportunity, wresting the least bit of sense from the absurd gibberish contained in most of the books in the library. To a certain extent, they bring some meaning to their lives by organizing exploratory expeditions, holding award ceremonies, creating makeshift Zoroasterian religions, and founding a university. For the most part, though, these efforts are futile and hollow. As one character notes:
The absurdity of it has never left me. We can’t care about anything here. We can’t make a difference—all meaning has been subtracted, we don’t now where anything comes from or where it goes. There’s no context in our lives. We’re all white, equal ciphers, instances of the same absurdity repeated over and over. We try to scratch some hope or meaning out of it with our university, but ultimately there is nothing to attach meaning to. We’re damned. (65)
But the lives of those in A Short Stay in Hell are not always as bleak as this character makes them sound. True, much of what Johansson experiences in hell lives up to its name. (While there is no fire and brimstone—no real fire and brimstone, that is—there are plenty of bad people in hell, including a demagogue named Dire Dan, who terrorizes its inhabitants with a sadistically corrupt religion.) Even so, Johansson still finds friendship, love, and hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. In the end, these glimmers of light may not add up to much against the absurdity of hell and the despair it cultivates, but the novella seems to suggest that these good things matter, regardless of how small or weak they may be.
A Short Stay in Hell, therefore, is not just about one man’s journey through hell, but our journey through life—which itself can seem absurd and meaningless at times, particularly when super-storms wreck cities and lone gunmen massacre movie-goers and schoolchildren. If anything, it asks us to consider how we make meaning out of the chaos God gives us—and how we make God (or variations of God) out of the chaos. This, I think, is where A Short Stay in Hell departs from the realm of Faithful Realism. It is not the novella’s fantastic setting or implausible premise that separates it from so much of literary Mormon fiction, but the ambiguous stance it takes to faith, belief, and other such things we Saints hold dear. It is heretical, in a sense, but in the same way the Book of Mormon or the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes are heretical. It breaks firmly anchored paradigms in order to clear the way for something deeper and more meaningful to emerge. It gets us thinking about what we can do to make better meaning from the meaning we already have.
And that is what we need more Mormon fiction to do.