December 10, 2009

This spring I'm doing Contemporary Christian Fiction once again, and that's both fun and weird. It's weird because somehow so many Christian writers feel obliged--because of the old Ovid, Pandarus poet-as-pimp routine--to deliver play by play sex in their works. A sign of mastering the craft apparently! Dubus was the first place I found that--I was not native to these waters.

Irritating! I don't think Catholics are free to do that: titillate. Sex is a holy part of life, but near occasions of sin don't need to be--if we can avoid them. I once had an e-mail conversation with a Catholic woman fiction writer from Ohio State. She recommended her own book, but told me I might have to skip chapter 11!

I try to start with three great short story writers: O'Connor, Powers, and Spark. Masterful stuff, right on the spiritual mark. (I was so taken with Powers early that I thought I'd try one of his novels: THE WHEAT THAT SPRINGETH GREEN. Great if you don't count chapter 2 or 3; I forget now. Pornographic stuff.) O'Connor is a marvel, witty and ruthless. Her characters pay, and she never damns any of them; then she leaves the ball in the reader's court. Where are we with the Pharisee thing? Powers, at least in the stories we've done, is wonderful as well. There's a kind of pre-Vatican feel to them. First rate stories on priests! "Prince of Darkness"! Spark on the other hand is wonderfully diverse. I once told Ron Hansen, via e-mail, that some of her difficult stories seemed almost iconic: you had to meditate on them before they unfolded. He relayed that someone had just asked him to review her latest novel. She was 90 at least then. Anyway, Hansen said that the thing just didn't make any sense at all to him! Everybody's got their own take, I guess. And while I will admit that some of them are tough, still, I like her a lot. She can do a British Jewish/Catholic O'Connor thing, scald British racism in Africa; but there are other kinds of stories too. Fun! I like to go back to the three of them several times during our novel reading.

This semester I want to go next with Robinson's GILEAD and Hansen's EXILES, just to set off Protestant and Catholic sensibilities. Robinson is a great writer, but I could never imagine having a beer with her main character. No belly laughing aloud. Hansen is so good! I'd love to do ATTICUS, because it really moved me--the thing opens up so beautifully at end to a Prodigal Son allegory. (The funny thing there is that when he came here to keynote for a Catholic Writing Festival we were having, he told us that the NY critics never got that part--because they didn't know the Bible!) But I just can't do it for some reason. I can't do "who-done-it"s: I need more symbol or something--places to hang my hat as we go through.

My standbys have been THE POWER AND THE GLORY, Endo's DEEP RIVER. and Percy's best one, prose-wise: THE MOVIEGOER. Endo is Catholic, but his book veers toward monism. (Discussion to follow.) It's a good read though. A group of Japanese tourists goes to India to visit Hindu shrines and the Ganges--which really functions like Christ for them; all of it told from a darned near Catholic POV! (It's also a nice rip on scholasticism: Euro-centeredness, that Catholic right-wing fixation. It's so EWTN, the deep rich mahogany, the smell of old European money. All brought to you by classical music. No jazz aloud: like rock its Satanic.

Now we all love reverence, classical music, but come on! Culture is not dead.)

We'll do Lewis's space trilogy. He's not as good a novelist as the others, but he is Lewis! And I love how close he gets to the sacramental in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. And then we going to do Rice's CHRIST OUR LORD. I haven't read her yet, but did catch an interview: seems a kind of squishy Catholic. Her son is/was gay, so the Church needed to rethink that.

God bless us, every one.

The students will have to pick a book to present too: Bernanos, Mauriac; there are lots of folks out there. (And please, please feel free to e-mail me with ANY suggestions, about fiction or poetry.) We've done a few Idylls writers in the past: Debra Marphy's (Murphy's) THE MYSTERY OF THINGS, O'Gorman's AWAITING ORDERS. There's Dubus, as I mentioned, Tobias Wolff, Price, Hijuelos, Hassler, Waugh, Salzman, Crace, McDermott, Betts, Wiowode, Godwin, Tyler, Payne, Thon, McGraw, Cary, Malamud (He's so Franciscan!), Undset, Cather, Malone, MacFarlane, Lagerkvist, Breslin's THE SUBSTANCE OF THINGS HOPED FOR. Who else? Tell me so I'll know. (But no LeFort or Mazoni, none of that stuff.)

Hey, it's my birthday today! Me and EDickinson. (Any port in a storm. But I do like myself. I do.)