Paul Elie on fiction without faith
Paul Elie has a cover essay in today’s New York Times Book Review in which he posits that contemporary fiction has lost its faith.
[I]f any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would be successors are thin on the ground.
So are works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in theUnited States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.
It’s not stories of Catholic upbringings or knuckle-wrapping nuns that he’s seeking (“even today, there are as many novels of religious childhood as there are parochial schools and Bible camps”), but work that plumbs the deeper question of belief and how belief “can seize individual lives.” Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” meets this criterion, in Elie’s opinion, as does Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But not much else, maybe not even Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which Elie calls “representative… set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”
Is Elie overlooking anyone? He mentions Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, but gives short shrift in my opinion to DeLillo’s story “The Angel Esmeralda,” speaking of it only in the context of Underworld, the huge novel into which it was eventually absorbed, and boiling it down to the scene in which its nun protagonist sees the vision of a murdered girl on a billboard in the Bronx. The standalone version of the story (originally appearing in Esquire and later included in Best American Short Stories) lays much more groundwork for this climactic scene, with belief and faith in action at the forefront, not with what Stuart Dybek might think of as the “primitivism, incantation and metaphor” suggested by a paraphrase of that ending. Dybek himself is not mentioned in Elie’s essay, nor is Robert Stone (Damascus Gate and A Flag for Sunrise both come to mind). Nor is Richard Bausch’s “Design,” about the relationship between a Catholic priest and the dying pastor of the neighboring Baptist church, or Lydia Davis’s “Pastor Elaine’s Newsletter,” in which a non-believing narrator fastens on to a quote from Paul in Romans: “ ‘I do not understand what I do; for I do not do what I like to do, but instead I do what I hate. What an unhappy man I am.’”
I don’t cite these as a way of suggesting Elie is purposely or neglectfully leaving anyone out, but rather as a way to continue the discussion. Are there writers out there today who make faith central to their fiction? Perhaps like Elie, I don’t read contemporary fiction with the expectation of encountering themes of belief, but when those themes are present I do find myself engaged in a deeper way, if at first only out of surprise. And Elie himself reveals that he is about to “get some skin in the game”: he’s at work on a novel “with matters of belief at its core.”