Monthly Archives: June 2014

Review of Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers

knopfdoubleday.com

knopfdoubleday.com

When describing a novel, it’s conventional to begin with the plot, then continue to the themes found within. However, Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, do they Live Forever? warrants the opposite treatment.

Comprised entirely of dialogue, Your Fathers tackles millennial and Gen-Xer disillusionment, police brutality, societal responses to pedophilia, bureaucratic inhumanity, and the cancellation of the space shuttle program (deeply symbolic, of course, of American decline).

These themes are expounded through conversations between Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, and several people he takes captive at an abandoned military base, among them an astronaut, a congressman, and a woman he met on the beach. As Thomas takes more captives and continues to interrogate them, Eggers reveals more about what drove him to take such actions.

I didn’t find much of interest, though. Your Fathers is a mess of flimsy characters, didactic dialogue, and contrived plot. The novel’s full of clunky lines like this one about Thomas’ hometown: “This was always some kind of model for diversity and a strong middle class and all that, then the base closed and it all fell down a few notches after that.” Late in the novel, Thomas kidnaps someone who turns out to be connected to a source of his past trauma, an eye-rolling coincidence.

Eggers can do better. His 2012 novel A Hologram for the King was occasionally weighed down by his eagerness to reference current trends, but its protagonist Alan Klay was as much a human—a struggling businessman and father—as a vehicle for themes, and the plot hummed along smoothly.

There are flashes of good writing in Your Fathers, as when Thomas and the congressman argue about the way that the rules have changed for the younger generation. These moments belong in a better novel—one that can tell a story while making a point, and address important issues without hitting the reader over the head with them.

–Published June 17th by Knopf and McSweeney’s (at which, full disclosure, I’m a former intern)

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Wright’s Surprised by Scripture Triumphs in Exegesis, Stumbles Over Apologetics

harpercollins.com

harpercollins.com

In its best moments, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture rescues the Bible from the misinformed discourse that often surrounds it. Examining Biblical texts’ historical contexts and original language, Wright counters interpretations that owe more to readers’ ideologies than the Bible itself.

These essays, previously presented at conferences and often drawing on Wright’s longer works, touch on topics including the ordination of women, the problem of evil, and the Christian relationship with environmentalism. (Wright does not, however, address the controversies around same-sex marriage.)

Like C.S. Lewis, Wright guides the reader through his arguments in the stately first person, often using imagery and imagined conversations to illustrate his points.

To allow the most depth, I’ll focus on “Can A Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?,” as it includes one of this collection’s most important claims, and demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s reasoning.

“The Christian claim was from the beginning,” he writes, “that Jesus’ resurrection was not a question of the internal mental and spiritual states of his followers a few days after his crucifixion but of something that had happened in the real, public world.” The claim in question might not be true, but it’s honest, as it provides something to disagree with. Wright avoids the happy, evasive school of thought that emphasizes the inner states religion cultivates while ignoring the external reality it’s supposed to connect us to.

By grounding these claims in the real world, Wright places an emphasis on social justice: “If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in light of that future.” Throughout Surprised, Wright condemns war and third-world debt, as well as strands of Christian thought that focus entirely on personal salvation.

He goes on to compare Jewish and early Christian views on resurrection, and uses similarities between the Gospels to argue that they were written soon after the crucifixion. For one, the Gospels contain women witnesses, who were not regarded as credible at the time, giving early Christians no incentive to make them up.

Here, as elsewhere, Wright finds meaning and patterns in the Bible, then makes a leap of faith. Yes, the Gospels contain women witnesses. But how does that—or other evidence that could be used refute the claim that they’re not historical documents—weigh against the absurdity of resurrection?

Wright doesn’t deny that he makes a leap of faith, though he doesn’t use those exact words. He argues that the resurrection is not an event within history but the beginning of a new history, and that it’s ultimately known by love. Love, he says, can know objective truth: “Precisely because this is love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality.”

That’s eloquently put, and true in some situations. But it doesn’t quite prove his point. If objective truth can be known by love, how can an Anglican dismiss the literal truth of Mohammad or Joseph Smith’s revelations? The argument to knowing through love is so broad that it can’t prove one faith claim without proving many others, many of which contradict each other. This argument appears, in various forms, throughout Surprised.

Wright’s failure to justify a leap of faith—like all believers before him—doesn’t make this a bad book. A leap of faith can’t be justified (that’s what makes it a leap of faith), but Christian apologists like Wright do the next best thing by describing them and bringing skeptics as close to the edge as possible.

Surprised by Scripture succeeds in clearly and eloquently examining what the Bible has to say rather than what its loudest readers say about it. When it argues for the truth of faith claims like the resurrection, it deserves credit for placing those claims in the real world rather than the sphere of metaphor or pure feeling.

–Published June 3rd by HarperOne

 

Review: More Curious by Sean Wilsey

amazon.com

amazon.com

The essays in Sean Wilsey’s lively, often humorous, sporadically insightful collection More Curious are full of the strange: Marfa, an artist-heavy town in Texas (probably) named after a Dostoyevsky character. A cross-country trip in a truck that can’t go faster than 50 miles an hour. Brown rats, which, over several decades, have killed off most of the other rat varieties in New York City. “Obviously,” he writes in the introduction, “the title…is a play on that old saw that truth is stranger than fiction.”

The best of these essays step on their strange subjects to reach insight, achieving the depth of thought that gives an essay its strength. “Using So Little” explores Wilsey’s passion for skateboarding and bemoans the newer, corporatized form of the sport, which he finds antithetical to its solitude and minimalism. “No Work for Me,” about living in New York City as “life began, eerily, to resume” after 9/11, draws parallels between that time and post-earthquake San Francisco, and quotes a column from the time saying that people shouldn’t congratulate themselves for their bravery until the “novelty” of the disaster wears off.

More often, though, Wilsey recycles truisms or stays stuck on the quirkiness of his subject. He does so earnestly, and in clear, lively prose, but it’s still disappointing.

In “The Objects of My Obsession,” about haggling for appliances on Craigslist, Wilsey remarks that “Consumerism and the ease it promises is pagan. The purchaser becomes a sort of emperor. The Viking that serves him is a willing slave.” Okay, so consumerism, like other social vices—nationalism, religious fanaticism, misogyny—can promise us power we don’t normally have, appeal to our egos, and make complex things seductively simple. That’s true, but I’ve heard it before, from tumblr posts and moralizing speeches, and Wilsey adds nothing.

Likewise, in “Travels with Death,” a rollicking yarn about the cross-country trip mentioned above, Wilsey contemplates the point of the trip and comes off rhapsodic and vapid: “You can’t con your way to a higher place. Only a higher station. The con man does not have an eye on the long term. The long con is only so long. The length of life. Heaven or enlightenment or the weary soul’s deserved rest: non-con-to-able destinations.” It’s a fun read—particularly when Wilsey ascribes a personality to a hotel chain’s cowboy mascot—but that statement seems more like an attempt at depth in a comic sketch than part of a fully developed essay.

There’s nothing wrong with “merely” telling a good nonfiction story. But to write an essay and not an anecdote, a writer needs to find meaning behind a story. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion doesn’t just smirk at the antics of hippies in Haight-Ashbury (though she does plenty of that). She also uses what she witnesses to reflect on the social breakdowns of the 1960s, writing about something beyond herself and her immediate subject, and, when she encounters a simplistic thought, refutes or develops it until it becomes something more.

Wilsey never claims that More Curious is Slouching Towards Bethlehem. So I may be at fault here for bringing misguided expectations to a decent book. But the introduction, which opens with a quote on the dangers of utopianism and laments the fading of America’s post-Cold war potential for improvement, had me expecting more about America and less about Wilsey and his immediate surroundings (like the house he’s refurbishing in “Objects”).

The best essays in More Curious dig deep into their subjects. The worst tell a funny story, throw out some asides, and move along. While often falling short of a good essay, everything here makes for a fun read.

–Available July 15th from McSweeney’s Publishing (at which, full disclosure, I was once an intern)