Monday, January 21, 2013

Read This Book: A Review of Theric Jepson's Byuck

ByuckHow do you review a book that can’t hold still? This has been my dilemma this morning. I’ve already tried four or five times to write this review, and each time I’ve written about two hundred words before the inkwells of my brain dry up and my fingers stop typing. Part of me, the half prone to guilt and other matters of the spirit, blames my struggle on the fact that I started it Sunday morning when I had more important things I needed to be doing, like reading my scriptures or listening to conference talks. The rest of me blames it on the book itself. Why else would I be wrestling to get words on the page. It’s not like I’ve never written a book review before.
I guess part of me also wants to throw in the towel, forget all of the analytic crap that goes with being a critic, and write what I want to say: THIS BOOK IS HILARIOUS! READ IT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! READ IT!! READ IT!!! YOU WON’T REGRET IT! IT’S FANTASTIC!!!
But that wouldn’t really preserve that cool objective tone I like to use so much.
And I hate when people write in all caps. It’s so tacky.
Anyway, the book is Byuck (Strange Violin Editions, 2013), Theric Jepson’s debut novel about two college roomates, David Them and Curses Olai, who resist the thrall of matrimony and adult responsibility by writing Byuck, a rock opera about resisting the thrall of matrimony and adult responsibility. If that sounds like a screwy premise, it’s because it is. Byuck follows in the long tradition of Mormon screwball comedy. Like the films Napoleon Dynamite and Unicorn City, as well as David Clark’s recent novel The Death of a Disco Dancer, it orbits around the antics of a likable loser—in this case, Dave—whose ill-fit in the world prods him ever onward toward the ridiculous and absurd. If you like any of these comedies, you’ll like Byuck.
But it’s worth mentioning that Byuck isn’t just another instance of Mormon screwball realism, which is basically a genre that tends to hide its Mormonness as much as it flaunts it. For one thing, it’s more kinetic, more flighty than these other works. Rather than staying more or less grounded in the oddities of this world—which is essentially what Napoleon DynamiteUnicorn City, and Disco Dancer do—Byuck is frequently interrupted by scraps of English major Dave’s idiosyncratic writings: lousy rock opera scenes, short stories, numbered lists, and short autobiographies of his friends. These interchapters, which seems the best word for them, compliment the main narrative and offer a much-needed window into the psyche of Dave, who isn’t the most self-aware character in Mormon fiction. They are also pretty fun. Like “The Mysterious Game,” the short story Dave writes about a game female BYU students play with the ward directory. It’s chuckle-worthy, like practically everything else in the novel.
Have I made my point yet? You need to read Byuck. You need to stop reading this review right now and buy the book. Or borrow it from someone else who has already read it. Because you need to read it.
Do I need to bring out the caps?
Like Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in HellByuck isn’t your parents’ Mormon novel. For instance, you can see the influence of postmodernism on it--yet Jepson never lets the novel feel like some rerun from the tail end of the twentieth century—which is remarkable considering how important nostalgia for that era is for Byuck and its characters. (Fans of Billy Joel and long-distance calling cards might shed tears for days gone by.) I prefer to call it (let’s aim high here) paradoxical realism—nay, Mormon Paradoxical Realism—for the way it constantly tries to undercut and contradict itself. Byuck, after all, is absurd realism, a celebratory critique of Mormon sexual mores. It champions artistic creation with a crappy rock opera. It parades as light reading in order to posture as literary fiction.
And Dave?
Dave is a Byronic hero without any shred of Byron to his name. (Or soul? Byron resides in the soul, right?)
Which brings me to the next thing I wanted to bring up about Byuck. There’s a great scene where Dave, Curses, and Ref—Dave’s sort-of love interest and friend since childhood—attend an MFA opening at the HFAC. At the opening, the central piece is a giant painting of a thumbtack entitled Of International Significance #45, which meets Dave’s bare minimum standard for good art—it features “neither eye trauma nor naked people”—yet “[does] nothing for him.” It is another painting—a “triptych of Washington, Lincoln, and a jack-in-the-milk-jug”—that he prefers. “Not only was it kind of funny,” we learn, “but the strength of the colors made it rise above the silly.” I like the scene because it explains what’s great about Byuck. So much of what tries to pass as significant art is…
Maybe I’m trying too hard with this review. Byuck is simply a great book. A pleasure to read. It might even be the funniest novel about Mormons writing a rock opera that you will read this year. Unless teenagers start writing Byuck fan fiction that’s better than the original. Which isn’t likely since Byuck is nothing like Twilight.
Put simply: Byuck is its own review. In fact, it wrote its own review. You can find it (according to my Kindle) 5% of your way into the book:
“What’s Byuck?”
“It’s like BYU, only it’s Byuck.”
“I don’t get it.”
Dave looked at Curses and Curses shrugged. “No one does,” said Dave.
“Then why are you calling it something no one gets?”
Dave opened his mouth a few times. Finally he said, “Simple faith.” 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Personal Mormonism: A Review of Stephen Carter's What of the Night?

The personal essay and Mormonism go way back. Joseph Smith wasn’t much of a writer, but he took every opportunity to dictate his life story to his scribes. More often than not, these dictations were rather mundane and clerically impersonal, revealing a life spent in meetings and councils and conferences. Occasionally, he would strike an anecdotal note, particularly when he wanted to set the record straight on his story. He would then narrate fantastic events and give them meaning. He would endow a common grove of trees with light or a brilliant meteor shower with apocalyptic grandeur.

At these times, Joseph Smith wore the hat of a personal essayist—and he wore it well.

Stephen Carter carries on this tradition with What of the Night? (Zarahemla Books, 2010), a rare collection of personal essays about Mormons by a Mormon—mostly for Mormons. Many Mormon readers already know Carter’s work, of course, from Sunstone magazine, that bastion of alternative Mormon thought that Carter has edited since 2008. Most of the essays in What of the Night?, in fact, first appeared in Sunstone or its bastion-brother Dialogue, which is not surprising considering the alternative Mormon story they tell.

Or seek to tell. Like Joseph Smith, Carter finds meaning everywhere—in the dead husk of a gutted fish, in the smoke circles of his brother’s cigarette habit, in the solid aftermath of a digested habanera—yet the conclusions he draws from these meanings are never as cocksure and conclusive as the Prophet’s. Joseph Smith wrote with a certainty that bordered for many of his contemporaries on righteous arrogance. Carter writes in an opposite vein, however: a kind of doubt fueled by wicked humility. Here, for example, is his take on the Priesthood and the weight it carries:

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have this weight. Sometimes I wish I could drop it: the power, the responsibility, the tradition, the expectations. I wish I could cut all the ropes and just fly for a little while, scope out the scenery and choose a nice place to visit. Sometimes I envy the people who can leave the Mormon church, who can forget about their priesthood, who can find a new tradition that suits them better, or create their own. What would happen if I didn’t have to wrestle this angel anymore? (Kindle Location 462)

Honest admissions like this are scattered throughout What of the Night? They give the collection a vulnerable voice that is all but absent from the writing in mainstream Mormon publications. In essays like “The Weight of Priesthood,” where the above quotation comes from, and “The Calling,” an account of Carter’s last month in the mission field, this vulnerability seems particularly gutsy because it exposes the often unspoken chinks in the armor of Mormon masculinity. Carter, in a sense, presents himself as a Thayeresque hero. Burdened with the legacy of Mormonism, awed and alarmed by the responsibility of manhood and priesthood, he struggles to reconcile the real of his experience with the ideal of his religious education. Like Harris Thatcher, the protagonist of The Tree House, he feels the vague presence of truth constantly, but never succeeds in holding it in his hand for very long. As he notes in “Writing as Repentance,” the last essay in the collection, this constant—sometimes futile—grasping for truth has placed him in the relatively unexplored canyon between the mountains of Mormon and anti-Mormon orthodoxy.

Despite its honesty, however, I felt that What of the Night? was missing something. In his essay about the priesthood, for example, Carter has much to say about his early experiences with the Priesthood, yet becomes vague when he describes his post-mission shift from orthodox belief to doubt. “Doubting is a difficult business in Mormonism,” he writes, “especially if you were raised in the church.” This is true, of course, but Carter largely leaves you to take his word for it. What is missing, in a sense, is the narrative of Carter’s own descent down the mountain of orthodox Mormon belief. As readers, we know that Carter doubts, but we never get the specifics of why. What happened in the “five years after [his] mission” that led him to doubt? What doctrines or ideas troubled him the most? What were the effects of this changes on those he cared most about? Detail are surprisingly few, especially considering the standard transparencyof the personal essay genre.

Lacking as well are other, less personal details. While I enjoyed his essays on Eugene England, I felt that they needed to supply more background on England himself, especially since the pre-Bloggernacle England and his legacy are becoming increasingly more distant as the years pass. Moreover, I felt that the collection was altogether too short. Carter is a fantastic writer who has a keen understanding of the American Mormon mind and culture. By the time I finished What of the Night?, I was ready for more.

Which is to say: What of the Night?, despite its unfortunate omissions, is worth your time. In fact, it is worth more time than it actually demands from its readers. It is, after all, a fairly quick read.

Finally—and I invoke the language of testimony—I would be ungrateful if I did not mention “The Departed,” the essay from the collection that resonated most with me. It is not, to be sure, the best essay in the collection—that would be “The Calling”—but it is the essay that speaks of what I value most in Mormonism outside of my own personal commitment to its doctrines and teachings: the Mormon artist. In this essay, the Artist is Mormon filmmaker Richard Dutcher, but Dutcher functions for Carter (and the reader) more as a symbol for Mormon creative potential in the essay than as a living, breathing artist. As Carter observes, Dutcher stands apart from his contemporary Mormon filmmakers—the Hesses, Ryan Little, Neil LaBute—because he “took Mormonism seriously in all its peculiarity, in all its promise, in all its paradox,” yet was met with a deaf ear by the Mormon community. Carter asks:

What can you do when a huge part of your community can’t or won’t hear the unique voice you’ve cultivated? What do you do when parts of your community condemn you for exercising your talents? What do you do when your community ignores or reviles the stories that nourish you? (Kindle Location 947)

As usual, Carter doesn’t give us the pleasing answer. The title of the essay—“The Departed”—references a kind of historical exodus of Mormon artist away from the community that nurtured them—a perpetual Lost Generation that includes not only Dutcher, but also poet May Swenson, Carter’s great aunt.  “Maybe one of Mormonism’s roles in the world, beside producing FBI agents, is to export artist to the world the way the Soviet Union used to,” Carter suggests. The notion troubles me immensely, but with Carter I regret that “the field of Mormon arts has been left to hard-working but only semi-talented artist [or, in my case, critics] like me.” I’m optimistic that the situation will improve—in fact, I’ve seen a lot of work lately that gives me great hope—but I still think we have miles and miles to go.

The good news is that we still have Stephen Carter. And that means we’ll likely have more books like What of the Night? in the future.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beyond Faithful Realism: A Review of Steven L. Peck's A Short Stay in Hell

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.