Monthly Archives: December 2014

Starving Among the Stars

sarah-gerard.com

sarah-gerard.com

By the time we meet her, there’s not much left to know about the nameless narrator of Sarah Gerard’s debut novel Binary Star except that she has an eating disorder.

She hates her body, too flabby compared to those of the celebrities who condemn her from magazine covers. She eats and purges. She substitutes coffee and Red Bull for sleep. She stays in a relationship (and goes on a road trip) with an alcoholic and indifferent boyfriend who feels passion only for vegan activism. She counts every calorie: “I eat four banana chips and regret it because they’re cooked in coconut oil and sugar. I feel like a failure.” She wants to punish herself through painful sex and food that stings her insides.

We also see that she’s studying education and astronomy, hoping—or having once hoped—to be a science teacher. She occasionally flashes back to her practice lessons, in which she describes how stars move, burn, and fade away. Burning stars have been used as metaphors for burning people countless times before, and Gerard makes the point bluntly here, but it still works.

Ultimately, this slim, tragic, beautiful novel is powered not by its wisps of character or plot but by its intimate portrayal of a self-hatred that threatens the narrator’s sense of self and reality.

“I pull the sheets over myself and stare at the dark, I stare at nothing,” she writes. “I pant. I’m falling through space. I fall through a void without coordinates.”

–Available January 13th from Two Dollar Radio. 176 pages. $16

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“Tesla: A Portrait with Masks” by Vladimir Pistalo

graywolfpress.org

graywolfpress.org

In this novel, Pistalo’s first to be translated into English, Nikola Tesla is not only an inventor but a prophet as well, as inspired, fervent, and (unfortunately) unheeded as any in the Old Testament. Throughout his boyhood in the Serbian countryside, his student days in Graz, and his career as an engineer and inventor in New York City, Tesla is deeply aware of the universe’s natural phenomena and imagines their application toward the betterment of humanity. His alternating-current motor makes him a celebrity, but his greatest hopes are never fully realized, as his fickle benefactors—including J.P. Morgan, one of many historical figures to appear here—reject his ideas or lose patience with his research. While Tesla’s indifference to romance and wealth spares him the petty angst he ignores in others, his devotion to science doesn’t prevent him from struggling with debt and despair. Pistalo’s third-person narration moves seamlessly between Tesla’s psyche and the world around him, between reality and vision: “He walked on water and danced his mental waltz. His elfish ears touched heaven. Stars revolved in his hair. The walls and frames that provided worldly limitations disappeared in those moments of creation.” Tesla leaves this reader hoping that more of Pistalo’s works will be available in English soon.

–Available January 6th from Graywolf Press. Translated by Bogdan Rakic and John Jeffries. 472 pages. $18.00

And That’s the Gospel Truth

harpercollins.com

harpercollins.com

I

The phrase “Good News” evokes more unease than joy, at least in a reluctant Christian such as myself. It brings to mind the secular caricature of a Christian, which the faithful often prove true: a small-town preacher waving around a Bible, telling people to forgo fun and freedom and the wrong kinds of sex so that they can reach a palace in the clouds.

So it’s indeed good news that celebrated Scottish theologian N.T. Wright has written Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. Here, he sets the gospel in its proper context as the fulfillment of God’s promises recorded in the Old Testament, and refutes both those who see it as a key to an entirely personal, otherworldly salvation and those who emphasize Jesus’ earthly works at the expense of his divinity. (By the gospel, Wright refers not as much to the four stories in the Bible as to the events at their center.)

Wright makes clear that the goal of Christianity is not to escape into heaven, but to begin God’s work of rebuilding earth in the image of heaven, without the violence or hatred or corruption that plague it today. “We cannot stress too strongly, or too often,” he writes, “that the whole message of the New Testament—the whole point of the mission and message of Jesus, of his life, death, and resurrection—is the coming together of heaven and earth, not their separation.”

This “coming together,” he continues, was made possible by Jesus, particularly in his resurrection, which was a sign of a larger defeat of death to come. He was not the sacrifice demanded by an angry, “quasi-pagan” God that many imagine, but an agent he sent into the world to take up its sins and inaugurate the work of rebuilding.

Wright wisely refrains from trying to prove the truth of the resurrection on purely historical grounds. The resurrection was not merely an event within history, but a starting point of a whole new history: that of earth being prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven. “[T]he good news,” he writes, “comes knocking on doors we didn’t even know we had; it flings open the curtain on windows we didn’t know existed to reveal the rising sun flooding the room with glory when we had imagined that all light came from candles.” (Wright makes this point with greater depth in his essay “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?” from Surprised by Scripture.)

Like C.S. Lewis, Wright lays out his arguments in clear, friendly prose, striking a good balance between the abstractness of theory and the condescending simplicity of much Christian writing. He spends a long and fruitful passage unpacking common phrases, like “Jesus died for your sins,” which represent only part of the gospel but are often taken as its entirety. He makes liberal use of images, anecdotes and imagined dialogue to strengthen his points, and occasionally takes a turn for the rapturous, as in the quote above.

II

Wright’s emphasis on the gospel’s transformative nature has forced me to confront a part of my faith I’ve been embarrassed to acknowledge despite its obviousness: It’s not rational. I believe in something supernatural, which cannot be proved through science and reason, and is no less absurd than the innumerable faith claims I reject.

My love for and knowledge of Jesus has tended to focus on his teachings and subversive actions, and downplay the miracles and resurrection. It’s tempting to see him as a liberal table-flipper who, as an afterthought, just happened to be the Son of God. That way I can tell my inner atheist, he was a community organizer! Like Obama without the drones! Sure, he calmed the seas and rose from the dead, but that’s not the important part. Don’t worry; I’ve just made some minor modifications to our materialist worldview.

But Jesus’ this-worldly significance is inseparable from his divinity. He was not a human revolutionary, because human revolutionaries, even at their most idealistic, use power and coercion. By contrast, Jesus’ revolution comes through love, and, if only for now, is left to humans to carry out voluntarily. The final coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, though, will not be a human accomplishment. Faith without works is dead, but works without faith—faith that God will eventually finish the job—are vain.

Now that I’ve said that, my inner atheist asks, Are you really waiting for a hand to reach down from the clouds and set things right? Are you eagerly anticipating doomsday? No. I’m pretty sure any magnificent intervention is a while away. In any case, it doesn’t relieve humans of the responsibility to work for change. And I’m looking forward not to the end of the world, but a better world—one where people are provided for and stand together, much like the imagined utopias of both left and right which have failed under human control.

Okay. But all this “Kingdom of Heaven” talk recalls Christian fundamentalists’ efforts to prevent gay marriage and the teaching of evolution—or, on a more awful level, the Islamic State’s efforts to establish a caliphate in the Middle East. Like I said, the Kingdom of Heaven will not come through human actions, though we need to set its foundation by working for justice and charity. Anyone who says the Kingdom of Heaven begins with theocracy is after power, not justice.

I’m still a very this-wordly, pragmatic Christian. But Wright reminds us that the Christian faith is not merely in a set of teachings, nor in the works of a social reformer rabbi, but in his divinity, and in the new relationship with God that he made possible.

It is liberating. And it is crazy. And it is true.

–Available January 6th from HarperOne. 198 pages. $25.99

“How to be both” by Ali Smith

knopfdoubleday.com

knopfdoubleday.com

Smith’s latest novel plays freely with time, language, and narrative voice, but contains unpretentious pathos amidst its experimentation. Its rambling halves tell the respective stories of George, a girl in modern-day London trying to cope with the death of her mother, and Francescho, a brickmaker’s daughter in 15th century Italy who’s disguised herself as a man to pursue a career as a court painter. The two are linked by a bizarre but effective plot device: Francescho observes George through one of her (largely neglected) paintings hanging in a gallery. (It would be inaccurate to label the halves “first” or “second;” they appear in either order in different copies.) Smith and her characters are attentive to the triumphs and vagaries of the creative process, particularly how a work of art can survive and be celebrated in a way an artist herself can’t. Smith also portrays the pain of her characters’ losses, as when a young Francescho crawls into her late mother’s trunk, with “the kirtle and sleeves and everything empty of her still smelling of her.…Over time the smell of her faded, or my knowing of it lessened.” Exuberant if occasionally muddled, How to be both is ultimately a compelling portrait of relationships across the veils of time and death.

–Available December 2nd from Pantheon