ISSUE 2 — September, 2005
Our Lady of the Forest— David Guterson
The finest reward a great novel can give, after the pleasure of living inside its world, is its “afterimage,” the resonance that arises in the days after reading it. Sometimes the psychic echoes return as full-blown images from the author’s descriptions; sometimes you find yourself pondering the ideas or moral issues woven into the plot. In the ideal case, of course, it is both pictures and that kind of mental “nourishment.”
I read Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars a few years ago, and it was a beautiful piece of work, but Our Lady of the Forest tops it in every way. More than a week after reading it, I still carry scenes in my mind’s eye, and find myself reviewing and analyzing the issues it explored. One of the great strengths of fiction is its ability to “show, don’t tell” — to portray deep and complex subjects by demonstration, rather than exposition, and allow the readers to weigh the implications and judge for themselves.
Our Lady of the Forest tells the story of a homeless, wraith-like, teenage runaway, Ann Holms, who walks into the damp forests of Washington state to collect mushrooms to sell. Among the dripping conifers and spongy moss, Ann has a vision of the Virgin Mary, appearing in a ball of light. The Mother of God speaks to Ann, telling her what the world must do to stop her Son from destroying them, and commanding her to build a church on that site.
Mary promises to appear to Ann in the same place four more times, and Ann tells her friend at the campground, then visits the local priest. The story spreads, and the pilgrims gather. No one but Ann can hear or see the Mother of God during her apparitions, but people are galvanized by their belief in the girl who becomes known as Our Ann. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people arrive, some of them simply choosing to believe, others taking advantage of that gullibility to turn a profit, while some, like the local sheriff, just try to deal with the phenomenon.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote, “If the art is concealed, it succeeds.” It is wonderful to finish a book and only then reflect how much thought, how much research, how much work went into creating that smooth and effortless reading experience.
Our Lady of the Forest is blessed with so much art — in its very conception (dare I say, immaculate), its themes, its intricate details of background and the richly human characters — people who are not just described, but felt. Guterson takes the trouble to get inside the complicated lives of out-of-work lumberjacks, aging barmaids, and hard-working immigrants, just as deeply as the trailer-park priest with a wavering vocation, or the young girl haunted by her past, and by the intensity of her belief in what she sees and hears.
Of the last ten novels I’ve read, this is definitely number one on the charts right now.
Critique of Religion and Philosophy — Walter Kaufmann
Coincidentally, I was reading this at the same time as Our Lady of the Forest, alternating fiction and non-fiction as I sometimes do, and in this case, there was definitely some common ground. Again, Guterson sifted his themes through fiction, while Kaufmann was a philosophy professor at Princeton for many years, and his book is a scholarly investigation into the natures of faith and philosophy, where they meet, and where they divide.
It was given to me by my friend Chris Stankee, from the Sabian company, following a discussion we had over lunch one day about my struggles in writing Roadshow, of determining how to treat the theme of Middle America’s in-your-face Christianity. As I saw it, the choice was respectful silence, or polite protest.
This book helped to steer me toward the latter notion, of making a polite stand for the much-beleaguered faith in reason.
Critique of Religion and Philosophy is not an easy read, especially at the beginning, for it is essentially a textbook of philosophical essays, However, working through it is a worthwhile challenge, for the rewards are commensurate with the effort.
For me, the pace seemed to pick up as it went along, once Professor Kaufmann had laid his groundwork to allow you to understand what follows. I especially loved Part VII, “Satanic Interlude, Or How to Go to Hell.” It includes “Dialogue between Satan and a Theologian,” “Dialogue between Satan and a Christian,” and “Dialogue between Satan and an Atheist,” all of which are clever, witty, entertaining, and profound, but they do depend for their depth, their resonance, on the comprehension of all that is presented earlier.
In the preface, Professor Kaufmann specifically requests the reader not to “browse,” in a charming passage, which exemplifies his erudite, yet occasionally playful style. (Bear in mind it was written in 1958, hence the male-default gendering.)
The arrangement of this book with its many sections with individual titles may suggest that it is meant for browsing. It is not. Superficially, each section can be understood by itself, but many, including the three dialogues, are likely to be misunderstood out of context. If it were not for that, they could and should have been developed separately.
Emphatically, this book is meant to be read in the order in which it is presented. Those who merely wish to be diverted may disregard this counsel. But serious readers and all who care to understand the author’s views should heed it.
For the curious. The godly reader who disregards the sentence in italics in the previous section may soon find his charity endangered. But if he follows the path mapped out for him, he may well find himself in basic sympathy with what he reads, although scarcely in complete agreement.
For those whom a prohibition tempts to sin, like Eve in Eden, there is this provision. Though it were better if they did not peek — if peek they must, let them steal a glimpse, not immediately but when temptation has become too great, at the long Biblical quotation in Section 79. And if that does not suffice them, let them read Section 25. “But,” as St. Paul says, “I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.”
There are many passages from the book I could happily quote, but I’ll stop here, with a hearty recommendation, whatever your faith or creed, to do what the professor says, and read this book.
More Die of Heartbreak — Saul Bellow
My friend Brutus first introduced me to Saul Bellow, with the wondrous Henderson the Rain King. A couple of Bellow’s other novels, The Adventures of Augie March, and Humboldt’s Gift, turned up in Ghost Rider, when I was reading them during my travels.
There is no one like Saul Bellow — his novels are unbelievably deep in characters and ideas, the characters moving quickly through their worlds, and the ideas passing quickly from Saul Bellow’s teeming mind to yours.
Personally, I dislike the plot summaries you find on the backs or inner flaps of novels, mainly because they usually give too much away — destroy the pleasure of discovery in the reading. These days I carefully avoid reading them until after I read the book, and the same with the advertising blurbs at the front, and especially the kind of “introduction” you find in “classic” editions. They all give too much away, and should come after the book, not before. (Definitely true for Martin Amis’s entertaining introduction to More Die of Heartbreak.)
Anyway… suffice to say that Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize was richly deserved, and this novel sustains his usual uniquely high standard. I am glad that Saul Bellow is one great writer who still has a few books I haven’t read, and can look forward to — the kind of thing that makes life worth going on for…
A Long Way Down — Nick Hornby
In contrast, the four main characters of this novel all have nothing to live for. In fact, they first meet each other on the roof of a London apartment block, on New Year’s Eve, each determined to end their torments by jumping off.
Nick Hornby is among the finest modern writers, in every sense of that word, his characters always engaged with today’s world, and today’s problems. I had enjoyed each of Hornby’s previous novels, High Fidelity, About a Boy, and How To Be Good, and his non-fiction books as well, Songbook (quoted a few times in Traveling Music, in which his Fever Pitch is also mentioned), but when I read a review of this latest, I was a little doubtful (again, those darn plot summaries giving too much away).
However, my concern that the story sounded dark, morbid, and possibly depressing was unfounded. My quote from Ovid, “if the art is concealed, it succeeds,” applies equally well to Nick Hornby. The reading seems so effortless that only later do you reflect how much thought he gives to designing his characters and their destinies.
The four main characters in A Long Way Down are each so different, and yet such modern “types” — the disaffected, fragmented teenage punk girl, the shallow, emotionally-crippled television personality destroyed by a sex scandal, the spiritless middle-aged mother of a handicapped son, and the failed American rock musician. Hornby’s skill draws their stories together, and makes their relationship the main character of the story, from their first encounter on the rooftop, humorous and poignant, to their gradual forming of an unlikely bond.
Like all the novels I have celebrated in these reviews, A Long Way Down changed my perception of the world, and introduced me to the lives of other people — who, if imaginary, are no less real — and I think that very quality might be one distinction between art and entertainment.
Art has the power to change you, or at least the way you see the world, while entertainment has, at best, a transitory effect.
Certainly I am not immune to the charms of reading purely for diversion or escape, but with an adventure or mystery book — or movie, TV show, or sports event — you feel temporary, vicarious feelings, and carry away little or nothing from the experience.
A Long Way Down is an enjoyable read, but it also made my world just four stories larger.