A commenter on my catholic with a small c post directed me to The Abbey, a recently published book by Father James Martin, SJ, as an example, I suppose, of a true Catholic novel. And how could I, of all people, resist a book partly set in a monastery? How great a setting is that, for any kind of fiction writer: a closed, almost secretive collection of individuals with any number of longings, frustrations, inner tumult, emotional baggage and a unique outlook on life and death in general. And I had personal reasons for ordering the book, as I’m preparing to make a retreat this April at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Merton’s abbey in Kentucky, and I thought this might serve as preparatory reading. I didn’t buy it to review—Unfortunately, Father Martin, as a rather public figure, does not fit into my narrow review goal of focusing on unknown, undiscovered writers. And I didn’t really want to review it, because I didn’t know how to. As a Catholic? As a skeptical reader? As a novelist? As an English teacher? It prompts me think: What is the purpose of a book review? It used to be they served as sober schoolmasters, scolding, pointing out flaws and urging their subjects to improve themselves. But nowadays, they seem to be purely marketing tools, hit-and-run blurbs on Amazon and Goodreads which may or may not influence a readers’ buying decision. So, in that respect, Father Martin does not need any more reviews, even though the ones I’ve read seem mostly fawning and not entirely honest. Even his one-stars reveal more about the reader’s animosity and spitefulness than serving as barometer of the book’s literary quality.
So let’s just discuss it, as a kind of phenomena unto itself, and as a continuation of my blog entry on ‘Catholic’ and ‘catholic’ fiction. Yes, it’s valid Catholic fiction, with a capital C, more valuable for the spiritual lessons and values it espouses than whatever literary qualities it might possess. If you doubt this, you need only check out the copyright page, and see the imprimi potest notification squeezed in there, assuring us that this is a book that adheres to Catholic doctrine. So I should just stop right there: The book surely does achieve that purpose here, and admirably. But…
This could have been such an awesome book! It could have been the gentle but powerfully moving spiritual parable that readers would think about for years. And I know that Father Martin is capable of it: His non-fiction, particular his memoir-ish book My Life With the Saints is quite amazing. And it wouldn’t have taken much more to get it to that level: Just another few drafts, maybe a fiction-writer’s workshop or two, and a long sabbatical—for the book, not the author. The best thing the author could have done would be to place his finished manuscript in a drawer or cabinet for a year or so, and then go back to it. I understand, a man who likes to publish frequently has publisher deadlines and such, but you run the risk of cranking stuff out. I don’t think this book was cranked out, but it does have a rushed, unfinished feeling to it. By ignoring several tenets of good fictional writing, Father Martin has deprived himself—and his readers—of a possible spiritual classic. And this may not be his fault, but the fault of his editors at Harper One, who I think fell down on the job here. Do they not have any developmental editors on staff?
And here is what I mean (Okay, I guess I’m going to review it): Let’s start with the characters who drive what serves as a plot. I love character-driven fiction, but when you let your characters down, the whole book suffers. I understand he wanted to portray ordinary, everyday sort of people, and he does, in a beguilingly artless sort of way; but they are too ordinary, and as such, not really worth caring about. There is not enough essential detail about any of them up front; they seem more like quick sketches, and not real folks at all. Fleshing them out takes some bravery on the part of the author. As the author Ron Hansen says in A Stay Against Confusion, his excellent book on faith and fiction, Say the unsayable… Don’t just show us their surface actions and characteristics, show us their dark underbellies, their unlikable flaws as well as their idiosyncratic, quirky, charming, features. I’m sure Anne’s letter to God was meant to be touching, but having lost a child myself (a baby, not a grown child, but stlll…), it struck me too meek and polite. I would have thrown in some profanity and more anger, if only to underscore the raw, irrational, furious grief that emerges in real life.
Exposition is a tricky business. A little is okay, and I’m guilty of falling prey to it, too, but there’s too much of it in the novel for this reader’s liking. Show, don’t tell—that’s the fiction-workshop director’s mantra, and it’s still true. Don’t tell us Anne is ‘hot’ and good-looking. Describe her in way that allows us to judge this for ourselves. Don’t tell us Mark finds the Gregorian chant ‘beautiful’—Describe the sound of the chant itself, and perhaps Mark’s visceral, physical reaction to it: Does it make his heart arrhythmic, does it lodge a lump in his throat? These characters have been both coddled and neglected; they’re mildly likable, but not humanely real or authentic, and that sets up distance between the reader and the book, compromising the sense of intimacy every great novel should possess. And if I neglect the third main character, Father Paul, it’s only because he didn’t seem like a main character to me, only part of the supporting cast.
There are other things: The structure is awkward, and the beginning in no way draws the reader in. I wish he had begun the book at the Abbey itself, then brought in the ‘outsiders’, the characters of Mark and Anne. I usually don’t like framing devices, but this book really called out for one. Using the device of the baseball crashing through the window…I kept waiting for the book to be about the boys who threw it. But there is much to like in the novel: its quiet pace, its flashes of genteel wit and humor, and if it is truly authentic and genuine in one respect, it’s in the way it presents the best lesson of Catholic faith: That of love, the love of neighbor and each other we’re all supposed to strive for. And that is what I’m ultimately striving for here, is to be compassionate with a fellow writer, not launching an assault on a celebrity novelist. I love that Father Martin attempted to write a novel, but I wish he’d done a better, braver, more thorough job of it.
Perhaps one of the spiritual mentors we share can put it better than I: This from a letter Thomas Merton wrote to a ‘Catholic writer’ named Lorraine: “Of course, the writer has to be articulate and he has to write well. He has to take his craft seriously. As for the Catholic writer, he has got to do something better than to put the catechism in a new form that will appear ‘catchy.’ He may have to say some things that shock his fellow Catholics. I don’t claim that he says nothing but these things that shock, but sometimes he may have to.” This goes along with the Southern (and Catholic) literary writer Walker Percy’s stated intention for writing novels: to ‘kick ass for Christ.’ Be brave, go out on a limb, shock a bunch of people, go against the popular tide. Otherwise, why even bother?