In his recent book, Longing for an Absent God, Nick Ripatrazone compares the fiction of Ron Hansen to that of Don DeLillo. DeLillo uses the religious language of his former faith as a backdrop, a puzzle that can be solved through secular means but always within the control of the author. Hansen, as it turns out, is the less dogmatic writer. In discussing Hansen’s 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, Ripatrazone notes Hansen’s fiction is messy; it “seeks without needing answers.” The miracles in the novel are not explained, or explained away. Hansen is just as concerned with the nuns in Mariette’s convent who did not want to believe that a sign of God’s presence could be there now, with them, as he is with whether what Mariette is experiencing is in fact a miracle.
In an interview featured in Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir, Hansen discusses how he decided to write a novel about a nun bearing the stigmata in a Midwestern convent in the first place. “Mariette having a crisis of faith is not very interesting, but if the crisis has a physical manifestation that brings in the quarrels between science and religion, the book has more possibilities.” But more than that: the book also portrays the quarrels within religion. The stigmata do not have a uniformly positive effect on the other nuns, indeed they “awaken either revulsion or awe.” In this Hansen evokes Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel, The Corner That Held Them, which recounts the prosaic lives of a convent in thirteenth-century England. Over decades, this community experiences holiness but also some less-than-holy conduct, including hostile reactions toward the saintly—or those who try to be saintly. One theme of Mariette is what Hansen calls a “sense of ambiguity” as to whether she was in fact bearing Christ’s wounds; the stigmata present a challenge to both those who believe and those who do not. The ambiguity invites us to contemplate our own reactions to the question of whether saints can exist. Science may not quite explain what Mariette is experiencing, and while her fellow Catholics can understand it—in the sense that their faith has prepared them for physical manifestations of the divine—they can’t explain it either.
In addition to Mariette, Hansen is the author of nine other novels, several of which have been made into movies, and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Nebraska, he spent his military service in the 1970s in Arizona and now lives in Cupertino, California. His background made him a natural for a revival of the Western. As Joseph Bottum has explained, Hansen’s “outlaw” trilogy—begun with Desperadoes (1979), continued with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), and completed with The Kid (2016)—saved the Western from being a niche genre in part because of Hansen’s prose, which stripped down the flowery language of the dime-store gunslinger tale and rebuilt it around an imagined Western argot. That argot may not be quite believable by itself, but combined with Hansen’s factual research it is sufficient to bring us into that world.