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.