Category Archives: Realistic Fiction

Being Human

I was out walking the other day when a flash of color caught my eye. Stopping, I saw a monarch butterfly lying on the pavement, its wings quivering gently in the breeze. The butterfly was either dead or dying. As the wings continued to shudder, they moved enough for me to see that not all the yellow on that bit of pavement came from the butterfly’s wings. The creature had died on top of a cigarette butt.

Of course, the butterfly could have cared less. There are no wise elderly butterflies who, by their well-timed gasps of horror, can teach the young that it is not Nice to die on top of someone else’s trash. Only a human would consider that sort of things significant.

After all, that’s part of what humanness is about. We find the abstract concept of death horrible in a way that animals don’t. And so we ritualize it. We come up with “appropriate” ways to die. We are disturbed when things happen differently. Butterflies should not die on top of cigarettes.

William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying examines some of these issues. A short synopsis of the novel: the Bundren family transports their wife and mother’s body to another town for burial. Only it’s a long trip. They get started late because the wildest son went off on a trip while his mother was dying. The body stinks. The weather is bad. The father, Anse, is self-righteous in the way only a thoroughly selfish man can be. The only really “good” member of the family, Cash, receives a debilitating injury because his wild brother wouldn’t put the coffin into the wagon according to his instructions. And there’s the reason that they went on the trip in the first place—the mother, Addie, wanted to show her dislike for her husband by requesting to be buried far away, with family members she hardly knew.

The family certainly puts out a lot of effort to follow her request. Their neighbors, however, and those they meet on the road, view the entire episode as ridiculous. The Bundrens have traded one ritual for another. In the end, their trip offers the most comfort to Anse Bundren, the person who—as the story turns out—least deserves it.

It’s easy enough, for Americans in general and some Protestants in particular, to argue against ritual. Rituals, so the story goes, keep people from being authentic and spontaneous. They stifle human expression and attempt to control human emotions. Faulkner’s story, however, shows another side to ritual. Humans are ritual creatures. We cannot be completely authentic and spontaneous. When we reject one ritual for the sake of “real expression,” we end up inventing another. The question isn’t whether the ritual in question is a ritual. The question is, What effect does this ritual have? Does it channel human emotion in healthy ways and guide human behavior in a worthy direction? Or does it damage those who follow it?

We ritualize death—and many other things. In the case of the Bundrens, they traded a healthy, well-tried ritual of death and burial for one of their own making. The new ritual—however “authentic”—justifies Anse’s self-righteousness, leads to Darl’s mental breakdown, and permanently injures Cash.

Ritual is unavoidable. Stupid rituals are optional. Sort of. (But that is a subject for another day.)


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Dostoevsky: When Mystery Takes Over

Someone told me about listening to an author discuss a book she had written some years before. The book was fairly well-received, but the author hasn’t written another one since. The reason: she based so much of the book on people and events from her life that she found herself bereft of anything more to write about.

I have some opinions on what that explanation suggests, although I’ll keep them to myself. In any case, the relationship of an author’s work to events in his own life is an interesting one. Some critics have made too much of the relationship–their evaluations of books are more like a detective’s evaluation of a crime scene than of a response to the book itself. The New Criticism sprung up in the middle decades of the twentieth century in an effort to oppose this tendency. New Critics emphasized that works of fiction are not authorial biographies. While some authors may put some of their own experiences into a book, others will not.

Flannery O’Connor, who was sympathetic to the New Criticism, is a prime example of why it can be dangerous to assume that an author’s works reflect something about his background. To read O’Connor’s stories, one might be tempted to think that she had suffered a violent childhood or something of the sort. She didn’t. Her life was not easy, but she did not usually build stories around real-life experiences. In fact, she became quite irritated when people sent her letters insisting that Georgia wasn’t filled with violent convicts that massacred innocent travelers. She hadn’t been insinuating that it was. All the letter writers had really told her was that they misunderstood her point.

480px-Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_ProjectFyodor Dostoevsky is a different story, however, as I found after finishing The Idiot and Dostoevsky’s Wikipedia article. His novels aren’t autobiographical, but certain themes from his life keep showing up. Like Dostoevsky, the main character, Myshkin, suffers from epilepsy. A major character in The Idiot (as well as another character in Crime and Punishment) dies of consumption. So did Dostoevsky’s mother. Myshkin talks about a man condemned to death whose sentence was commuted to imprisonment just minutes before his execution. Dostoevsky–who had a taste for socialism in his younger years–went through that same experience.

Fortunately, Dostoevsky never crammed all his life experiences into one novel and subsequently lost his ability to write. But, however different his writing was from Flannery O’Connor’s, they both shared an important characteristic–a respect for mystery. In Dostoevsky’s case, that respect includes an understanding that, to quote The Idiot, “the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Myshkin attempts to save Nastasya Filippovna, a woman that most people view as fallen. The church, he later notes, might forgive her, but society will not. But Myshkin’s innocent nature works against him. In his attempts to redeem her, he not only underestimates the volatility of her own nature, he fails to take into consideration another man who wants Nastasya Filippovna, no matter the cost to any of them. In trying to redeem Nastasya, Myshkin destroys himself.

“Beauty will save the world,” Myshkin asserts, to the bemusement of those around him. Myshkin is certainly better at seeing beauty than is the Russian society in which he finds himself. Yet his end is anything but beautiful. “For a long time,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything?”

Solzhenitsyn concluded that beauty might reach people who had rejected truth and goodness, the other two members of that old trinity. And something does reach out through the pages of The Idiot. There is a strange beauty in the mystery of Myshkin’s existence–however it ends. We are left with a conviction that he was more right than anyone around him understood. Whatever the problems that entangled him, Myshkin recognized the reality of transcendence. He was surrounded not only by bodies, but by souls. And he strove to value them.

Dostoevsky–epileptic or not–was not Myshkin. He made a number of mistakes in his personal life, and they were not caused by innocence. But perhaps he, like Solzhenitsyn, viewed Myshkin’s words as a prophecy. The ugliness of our best efforts may yet be turned around by mysteries beyond our ability to understand. We walk by faith, not by sight.


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A Beautiful Story

“That whole Jesus thing is really interesting, isn’t it?”

“What d’you mean?”

“All those people wanting to kill him when he hadn’t done anything to hurt them.” She hesitated. “It’s really kind of a beautiful story—like Abraham Lincoln or Socrates—or Aslan.”

… She looked at him as if she were going to argue, then seemed to change her mind. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” She shook her head again. “It’s crazy.”

I read Bridge to Terabithia this summer after seeing that an author I liked was a fan of the book. My feelings about it are mixed, and I’m thankful that I didn’t read it as a middle schooler. (Probably I would have hated it and declared it nonsense. I was an opinionated child.) I have no plans to recommend it to middle grade readers. There are a lot of complicated themes in the book—I’m not referring to Leslie’s death—and most middle schoolers do not have the knowledge necessary to appreciate them. From an adult viewpoint, however, the themes become more interesting.

Jess’s understanding of Christianity is primitive. He may live in the 1970s, but the nearly two thousand years of Christian art and culture have mostly never been taught him. Leslie knows little more than he does, but her upbringing at least has prepared her to recognize beauty. That is the reason she calls on “spirits” in the grove—contrary to the complaints of some parents, she is not practicing black magic. She is trying to make life in the grove into a work of art, and she has not been taught to see the “art” in a Christian view of the world.

It is Leslie, despite her nearly nonexistent knowledge of Christianity, who does eventually recognize what Jess has missed. When she hears the story of Christ, she hears it as a story. She sees is beauty in it along with the horror. Jess believes in its truth, but he is not prepared to see its wonder. Their views seem to be in direct contradiction.

Once, in college, I slipped a book off my English major roommate’s shelf and found The Dream of the Rood inside. It was perhaps the first time I had seen the story of Christ turned into something like a legend. “The young hero ungirded himself, Who was almighty God, strong and stout-hearted. He took his stand on the lofty gallows, courageous in the sight of many, since He would free mankind.”

Tolkien argued that the story of Christ is “true myth.” Christ fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. He also fulfilled the storytellers.

There need be no contradiction between truth and beauty—although truth may prove our views of beauty insufficient. The highest beauty form of beauty is no longer Venus, nor Freya, nor any other goddess—it is the brutal death of a Jewish carpenter.

Christianity’s views on beauty are not too narrow. Ours are.

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Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Realistic Fiction


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Progress and Poison Gas

“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. It was a war (the memory of which seems to be fading) when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.”

Who went on this diatribe? Some sort of left-wing pacifist? Hardly. It comes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton Address. It was a surprise for me to read, actually. I covered World War I in a few too many U.S. History classes, and the war just isn’t the same from an American point of view. We were involved in the war for only a year–and we didn’t spend most of it stuck in trenches. The war had a far bigger impact on Europe. That Solzhenitsyn would trace godlessness back to World War I was food for thought.

I went on to read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque perhaps exemplified his generation. At nineteen he was conscripted to fight in the war, but he was initially eager to fight: “We are going to save the world.” But war was not what he, or many other young Europeans, thought it would be. Some–J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance–emerged from the war emotionally damaged, but with their faith still intact. But for Remarque–however seriously he took his family’s Catholicism during his childhood–the war shattered his world.

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession,” writes Remarque, “and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Remarque never fought in battle, although he served very close to the front lines and was wounded by long distance artillery. The severity of his wounds forced him to give up his dream of becoming a concert pianist.

Remarque, and many other young Europeans, found the reality of war very different from what they had been taught while growing up. “For us lads of eighteen [our parents and teachers] ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity…to the future…in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But…the first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.”

Young Europeans had grown up being taught that scientific progress was going to turn the world into a better place. Then scientific progress was used to kill people more quickly. We might think of nuclear warfare after a sentence like that, but poison gas predated nuclear weapons. Some people postulated that The Lord of the Rings was really about nuclear warfare. The Ring, of course, doesn’t symbolize any specific modern weapon (Tolkien hated allegory). Tolkien was also no fan of nukes–in fact, he commented that the Allies had taken the Ring and used it–but poison gas was what he knew about. Some authors speculate that writing fiction about war in Middle Earth was cathartic for him–it was a way to deal with the horrors he had faced, dealing a blow through literature to the wartime technologies that had worsened the bloodbath.

One benefit of reading fantasy, dystopian, and science fiction literature is that such stories tend to avoid the pitfall that entrapped the young people of World War I. Many of them focus on science’s destructive power. Have we forgotten the lessons that Remarque and Solzhenitsyn were trying to teach? The way that science is usually discussed in the media and in schools makes me wonder. How is it that many of us still believe in infinite progress when we live in a post-WWI world? More to the point, why do we define “progress” as “technological progress”? If we could progress in controlling our abuse of technology, that would be progress indeed.

Remarque’s book isn’t a pleasant read: in fact, the Nazis burned All Quiet on the Western Front for being too anti-war. (Remarque was thankfully out of the country, or they probably wouldn’t have been opposed to throwing him in with it.) The book may not offer a neutral viewpoint about World War I (and indeed, what novel would?). But, if you want to understand the impact World War I had on Europe, All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t a book to pass up.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Realistic Fiction


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A Very Happy Death

Albert Camus, 1957.

Disclaimer: this is probably a very unfair synopsis of Camus’s early novel, A Happy Death. But I will synopse (is that a word?) it anyway. Another disclaimer: I am more irritated with Camus’s publishers than with Camus, who never meant the novel to be printed.

Enter Act One. Patrice Mersault is a young man who is very dissatisfied with his life. But he likes his girlfriend Martha. Make that he likes showing off with his girlfriend Martha. Or that he likes showing off with his companion—interest—image—Martha whatever. Then he finds out (gasp!) that his girlfriend has a past. The mirror smudges. He wants a list of boyfriends. Martha gives it to him. He doesn’t know one person on it. He wants to meet him. Boyfriend is a very thoughtful amputee. Mersault likes talking to him enough to come back and shoot him. Curtain.

Enter Act Two. Mersault visits Europe to find happiness. He hates Europe. Mersault visits friends to find happiness. He gets bored. Mersault goes home to find happiness. He buys a house in the country and achieves a new sense of reality. He gets sick and dies. He feels connected to Martha’s boyfriend as he is dying. Curtain. Applause.

Camus’s writing style and imagery are remarkable. And the first part of the book is fairly good—the death of Zagreus, Martha’s boyfriend, feels real. But the second part of the book feels disjointed, and Mersault becomes extremely irritating—walking around trying to achieve a higher level of reality while writing off his murder to “innocence” since it doesn’t disturb him.

The only other time that I have rooted for the death of a main character is in Macbeth. I first saw the play done as a staged reading, and all the characters wore such similar costumes that by the time I figured out who Macbeth was, he had gone bad. So I spent the rest of the play enjoying my anticipation of his death. And Shakespeare did not disappoint me.

Maybe I simply have a different personality than Camus did and therefore cannot take Mersault seriously. (Thought leaks from all corners of the novel, which does not help.) But I doubt that a personality difference is the only reason I find Mersault’s meditations (read: self-absorption) annoying. I really, really wanted him to die an exceedingly painful death—perhaps not physically painful, but painful in that all his illusions are stripped away.  But no. Mersault never suffers as a result of his murder; rather, he succeeds because “he had created his life with consciousness, with courage.”

Camus’s existentialism permeates A Happy Death in a frankly ugly way. In Camus’s later book The Plague, he suggests that fighting human suffering is the way to find meaning in a meaningless world. A Happy Death is the opposite scenario—finding meaning in a meaningless world by making choices centered around yourself. Existentialism, without a basis for morality, has room for both scenarios.

The young Camus wrote this end to his book: “The ascent stopped. And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds.”

But here is an alternate ending—if not poetic justice, the justice that suits, at any rate, this very amateur poet.

“And when Macbeth awoke from the dead, he crossed the sea to North Africa and thought to commence haunting the living. Upon looking in the phone book he came upon Patrice Mersault’s name and decided that, since it began with the same letter as his own, he would pay him a visit. The ghost found Mersault sitting at his kitchen table, breathing shallowly.

“’I will be conscious without deception, without cowardice,’ gasped Mersault. ‘I shall be the blood brother of Zagreus. I who have inflicted death am going to die.’

“’Oh?’ said Macbeth. ‘What did you do it for—power? Or money? Maybe a woman? Did the witches come to you, too?’

“’I did it in the innocence of my heart,’ said Mersault.

“’You are an idiot,’ said Macbeth. ‘Have you had last rites?’

“’I wish to return to the motionless worlds in the joy of my heart.’ Mersault laid his head down on his elbows. Unfortunately as he did so his moving elbow accidentally flung a glove that had been lying on the table into Macbeth’s face.

“’Oh, so you wish to die fighting?’ asked Macbeth. ‘Good man!’ And he promptly knocked Mersault on the head.”

If only.

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Posted by on November 14, 2012 in Realistic Fiction


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A World Beyond Healing?

Once upon a time, in a land not very far away, the thought of the Black Plague did not give me the creeps. But then one day there came The Evil Educational Technology Project. The project that I unwisely chose to do on the Black Plague. The project that required a main character (mine was a plague doctor wearing a creepy beaked mask). The project that also required a video attachment (I did not use the one that robbed me of sleep and sanity). By the project’s end, my skin crawled whenever I worked on it. If my reaction sounds extreme, I have only two excuses—an overactive imagination and the creepiness of the material itself. Few diseases have wiped out 70 to 80% of a population, as the plague did in medieval Italy. Cases of plague are today nearly unheard of, partly in thanks to better sanitation. But plague can pass from person to person as well as through fleas, and there is no absolute guarantee that it will never break out again.

Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, capitalized on that terrifying prospect in his novel The Plague, in which the disease strikes the French-colonized city of Oran in North Africa. For a year the plague ravages Oran. Cut off from outside help, the people struggle in an aloneness that Camus uses to represent a universe without God. Camus suggests that God must not exist because of the human suffering and death that the plague symbolizes.  And earth’s people, like the people of Oran, are left to decide their response. The moral of the story? Be a healer. No matter how terrible the world is, do not lose your humanity. The moral sounds very good, of course—but in a world without any secure standard of goodness, defining what true good is impossible. How can we prove that the looters aren’t right? What reason is there to heal when the world is beyond healing.

The priest Father Paneloux tells his parishioners about Abyssinian Christians who, during a time of plague, wrapped themselves in the garments of the plague-stricken to show their self-surrender. Appreciate their zeal, says Paneloux, but do not go to their excesses. Yet, contrary to Camus, Someone has already done that. Someone wrapped Himself in the filthy garments of our plague, taking it upon Himself. Isaiah 53 says he bore our “griefs,” which can also be translated “diseases.” Jesus Christ suffered with out plague, and then He died.

Like Albert Camus, G. K. Chesterton centered one of his novels around the problem of suffering. Unlike The Plague, that novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, is a detective story. Gabriel Syme is commissioned to infiltrate a group of anarchists—a difficult problem enough. But not all the anarchists are what they seem, and Syme faces fear, confusion, and betrayal before the real anarchists are uncovered. Near the end of the story Syme demands to understand why events were allowed to unfold as they did. The only answer: “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?”

Yahweh is hardly immune to suffering; rather, being a larger personality than any of us, he has experienced more of it. Given his knowledge of all things, His presence everywhere and in all times, and His deeply sensitive nature, perhaps it is more accurate to say that He has experienced all of it. Can we imagine? Do we want to?

In the end, Yahweh’s answer to our questions is found in his name—“I AM.” Toward the end of his life, even Camus found that his former answers could not satisfy him, and he began to seek the Christianity that he had previously turned away from. Some have tried to stop suffering—and have failed. Others have attempted to approve of suffering—another failure. And still others, like Camus for much of his life, have tried to transcend suffering on their own. They, too, have failed. In a world that desperately needs healing, the only solution is for us to seek our Healer.

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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Realistic Fiction


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G. K. Chesterton: Modernizing the Middle Ages

There are times when I feel very annoyed with G. K. Chesterton. Never mind that he’s one of my favorite authors. When he writes a novel that makes me want to violently reinstate some aspects of the Middle Ages—and then ends it by saying that is impossible—it is frustrating, even if I would have come to that conclusion on my own after my literary high fades.

Take The Napoleon of Notting Hill, for example. I’ve read that it was a favorite of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, and in fact was an instigator of his political activism. And up through the climax it does seem to demand that modern society is insufferable and has to be changed, even if that change comes in the form of requiring each neighborhood in London to design its own coat of arms and to walk around in medieval clothing. And then—the medievalists and the modernists slaughter each other, while the practical joker of a king who started the whole mess walks off hand in hand with the leader of the medievalists, who has discovered that he needs a less severe outlook on life. Reading it, I was prepared for a tragic ending, but the ending turned out almost inexplicably comic. Maybe I was too emotionally invested in the plight of the medievalists, but I’m more inclined to think that Chesterton himself felt the conflict between a realistic outlook on life and the desire to revolutionize modern society because of its ugliness.

I recently finished a second Chesterton book that left me with a similar feeling. It wasn’t quite as bad, since it didn’t end with only two people surviving; but I was again almost ready to take the side of the medievalists, when Chesterton started being realistic. Drat.

The book is called The Return of Don Quixote, which is a pretty accurate statement of what it is—a book about a medievalist (formerly a Hittite-obsessed librarian) who tries to bring back elements of the Middle Ages, and very nearly succeeds. Unfortunately he discovers that the modern British nobility are not actually nobles by blood, and that, after he publicly makes mention of the fact, is what does him in. Or at least what does his cause in; the librarian himself ends the book happily married (like all the other main characters). The Return of Don Quixote is not one of Chesterton’s better works, mostly because of a somewhat disjointed plot. What Chesterton gets right is his characters.

Many females in literature bore me, particularly if they are cast as introverts–the reality of their experiences and thoughts never seems to see daylight. Not so with this story’s original medieval dreamer, a young woman named Olive Ashley. It was her play about Richard the Lionhearted that accidentally initiated the whole mess. She is the one who originally believes in the ideals of medievalism; and she is the one who finds the solution to it, after it has failed as a practical way to improve England.

The solution to present problems is not to go back to the past. That does not mean some ideas of the past should not be continued in the present; but it does mean that it isn’t enough to try to copy an era. Every era has its flaws; and, although Olive does not express these, the medieval period was full of them. To speak of the medieval period simply as an Age of Faith, or of Chivalry, is to ignore the fact that it was an extremely complex time which included a lot of unbelief and needless violence. To paint the period either black or white is simply to be untruthful, and medievalizing society will not bring us into a utopia. But, according to Olive, there is one way to preserve the good things of Middle Ages.

“Don’t you see,” she exclaims, “the modern people may be right to be modern; there may be people who ask for nothing better than banks and brokers…. There may be people to whom it’s senseless to talk about a flower of chivalry; it sounds like a blossom of butchery. But if we want the flower of chivalry, we must go back to the root of chivalry. We must go back if we find it in a thorny place people call theology. We must think differently about death and free will and loneliness and the last appeal. It’s just the same with the popular things we can turn into fashionable things; folk-dances and calling everything a Guild. Our fathers did these things by the thousand; quite common people; not cranks. We are always asking how they did it. What we’ve got to ask is why they did it…. Rosamund, this is why they did it. Something lived here. Something they loved.”

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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Realistic Fiction


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