A Sunday Meditation on Faith and Fiction

Yes, I should be grading (30something more research papers to go) or Christmas shopping or cleaning, but a girl needs a break, so I drank a little vino and read my new New Yorker last night while in the background Jimmy Stewart did his thing on that movie, you know the one.

I skimmed most of the issue, though I read about Roman Polanski and the rape he got away with for 30 years, which got me thinking about being 13 again, which reminded me of the grad student I’m working with who is writing about teen chick lit focused on teen girls who are psychologically or physically damaged in some way (books with titles such as Cut, as well as that old standby, Go Ask Alice).

So it wasn’t exactly a “light” and “leisurely” night of goofing off.

Then I read this story. This story may be the antidote to my failed attempt at Infinite Jest this summer. David Foster Wallace’s “All That” is in this week’s New Yorker.  A seminary student tells the story of a toy his parents gave him when he was 5 years old, or so, a story that reflects his first recognition of his own religious faith or “impulse” as he calls it. 

Having very shaky, if nonexistent, faith myself, I’m surprisingly a sucker for literary stories that depict characters who struggle with such feelings.  I adore A Prayer for Owen Meany,  the latter stories of Raymond Carver, most of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I’ve read everything Mary Gordon has written since I was a teenager, and then the same with Mary McCarthy and Alice McDermott. And no, I don’t just read Catholics and ex-Catholics: Anne Lamott (her essays, not her fiction) and Marilynne Robinson are my Presbyterian writers.  And don’t forget the Jews: when I was growing up on Long Island I read Chaim Potok’s novels (anyone remember The Chosen?), of course Anne Frank, and later Philip Roth, Rebecca Goldstein, and much later, Dara Horn and Allegra Goodman.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

Most of these writers (with some exceptions) depict young people going through either a crisis of faith, or a struggle with a religious institution or figure, or, less commonly, recognizing the rarity of their own innate belief in a higher power–which puts them at odds with the secular world around them.

What’s so powerful about Wallace’s story (besides its “voice”: the character’s voice, deliberately un-intellectual, is exceptionally affecting) is  the man describing his childhood feelings of ecstasy as physical sensations, analogous to the physical and random but intense moments of love he felt with his parents.  The story ends with two long  nearly unquotable paragraphs (the last sentence of the story is parenthetically rich 25 lines long) that (perhaps not entirely successfully) leave us with two images the young man remembers, images that the reader assumes will restore the faith that is momentarily failing him as an adult. I’ll quote from one of them, since I think this quote can work for those who haven’t read the story yet.  By this point in the story, the reader is well aware that the boy is unusual, and he explicitly tells us that the voices he heard as a child in his head were not a sign of mental illness, but a concrete, physical manifestation of his own religious experience as a child: 

Since I have been known to write such long, parenthetical sentences, I have some affection for them, so part of my reaction to the above is aesthetic and personal.  But for me, the only way I can truly “get” religious belief is to have it explained to me in such a physical, visceral way.

And while it may not be exactly the same thing (depending on one’s definition of belief) that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating, dancing in the wind which controls it, but doesn’t, comes to mind: no, it’s certainly not a film about religious belief, but that empty bag is begging to be filled by something.

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8 responses to “A Sunday Meditation on Faith and Fiction

  1. Lovely entry, Annie Em! You are philosophical lately, and you’re making me think very hard.

    Re: American Beauty, every term, I include that in a film class. One of the best films of our time, hands down. The bag scene takes my breath away (as does the end, by which I am ALWAYS weeping). Thanks for posting this clip.

  2. Ya know, you’re right: I AM getting a bit long winded, aka meditative on this here blog—must be the end of the term/year, whatever.

    Perhaps when I’m finally done grading (I’m guessing within the hour) I’ll lighten up;-)

    Any funny, mindless movie suggestions to help me along?

  3. But I did NOT say long winded. I said philosophical. And although you can’t hear my tone, it was *admiring* of you. I can barely squeak out a complete sentence these days, and you are being so thoughtful and interesting!!!!

    Haven’t bumped into a lot of funny movies lately that I’d recommend. But…are you a Glee fan? If I had time right now, I’d be rewatching my Glee episodes on DVR. Because they make me laugh. Especially everything Jane Lynch says…

  4. Ok, you didn’t say long winded, but I know I can be long winded, so consider that more of a self criticism rather than a misreading of your very kind comment;-)

    Two friends of mine meet each week to cook and watch Glee, and I’ve been resisting it for some reason (waiting for Lost to return, which is my addiction): but ok, I’ll try it! I do love the music they sing (I do READ about Glee, of course;-)

  5. Ooh, a weekly Glee party? Awesome! I wonder if you could go back and watch the first few episodes on Hulu so that when you go for the weekly gathering, you’d know the scoop? Can’t wait to hear what you think…

  6. Lovely post. I’ve never read any Wallace but I might try that story — the quote you included was so … precise and powerful.

    I also second Ink’s endorsement of Glee. It’s often silly — and sometimes watching adults sing show tunes is a little embarrassing (to me, anyway) — but it does a great job of skewering many social conventions. And Jane Lynch is the best.

  7. Hi BS Girl,
    Let me know what you think if you do get to read the story!

    We figured out last night how to attach my laptop to my tv so we can watch tv shows on Hulu (then we watched Men of a Certain Age—a potentially excellent drama)—-so now I can catch up on some Glee!

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