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The New Catholic Fiction

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.



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