Jamie Quatro’s first short story collection, I Want to Show You More (2013), was remarkably good. Her first novel, Fire Sermon, is even better. Both books explore those dramatic experiences—the beginnings and ends of affairs; visionary moments when the world seems on “the cusp of cataclysm,” revelation, or both—when the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal, touch one another. Quatro is a true cartographer of desire, showing that the longings of the body and the soul aren’t two autonomous states but constitute a singularly vast and singularly wild territory. Her fiction is sexy, it’s theological, and it’s consistently and surprisingly both at the same time.
The main character and narrator of Fire Sermon, Maggie, is a writer. She’s also a wife, a mother, a lover “of the Christian mystics and quantum theory and Moby Dick”—and, first in letters and then in person, the lover of a poet named James. Maggie loves James’s poetry before she meets him, in part because of its ability to discipline chaos into form, making energy more fully alive through its ordering: “He’s a formalist. Writes in a hyper-regular iambic meter, but with all this, I don’t know … riot inside the lines.” Quatro’s novel does the same. There’s riot everywhere: passionate letters, intense and transgressive sex, long-held and long-loved relationships put into danger. But this riot lives within Quatro’s exquisitely controlled prose. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, Fire Sermon is a marvel, sharp and musical, imaginative and intelligent. The riot also lives within, depends upon, the ordered structure of marriage. As Maggie puts it, “unless something is forbidden I cannot want it with any intensity.”
Fire Sermon takes its title from the third section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (It also comes, as did Eliot’s section title, from a sermon by the Buddha about self-emptying.) Eliot’s poem provides one of Fire Sermon’s epigraphs as well: “To Carthage then I came // Burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest // burning.” The selection is a perfect choice for Quatro’s novel, which like Eliot’s poem is a compressed and daring work that burns burns burns on every page. Fire Sermon is about adultery and all that drives it: the desire for ecstasy, for self-abandonment, for temptation, and the motorizing force of guilt. Yet it’s also about the burning desire for God, and for poetry—even, paradoxically enough for a novel whose plot revolves around extramarital affair, for the slow burn of a loving marriage, all those “gathered years: grains of spilled salt brushed from a table into an open palm.”
I spoke with Quatro recently by e-mail.
Anthony Domestico: Let’s start with the obvious question: why a novel? What was it about this particular story that asked for the longer form?
Jamie Quatro: I’ve been getting this question a lot lately! When I started drafting, I didn’t know Fire Sermon was a novel. I was sneaking off to write these little prose poems and hotel scenes and letters from one imagined character to another, all to avoid working on another novel that was under contract. There was something deliciously subversive about cheating on the contracted novel. It was my secret, no one would ever know—or so I thought. I think the intensity from that sense of rebellion translated itself into the narrative, and into the novel’s formal structure.
A. D.: This novel centers on adultery. So too did many of the stories in I Want To Show You More—and, of course, so too do many, many works of fiction, from Flaubert to Franzen. What is it about forbidden desire that proves such fertile imaginative territory for you, and what are some of your strategies for making new this traditional driver of narrative interest?
J. Q.: Yeah, there are six or seven infidelity stories in that collection. But the couple in those stories never touch. Their affair is one of word and imagination only. When people called the book “shockingly erotic” and “darkly sexual,” I was thinking, But they don’t even have sex! Which just goes to show that eroticism is in the build-up, not the consummation.
Now that I’ve finished the novel, I can see that one thing I’m doing in Fire Sermon— without claiming any conscious intention (I don’t think writers ‘intend’ things when they draft; at least, I don’t)—is taking the infidelity theme more deeply into the realms of both body and spirit. Pushing, hard, on the sexual/sacred connection. Why? Who can say, really. Maybe to find out what I believe or don’t believe about fidelity and infidelity. Maybe to experience on the page something I’ve never experienced—or would never allow myself to experience—in real life. Maybe to take a road-not-taken.
A. D.: A panel moderator asks Maggie, “point blank, if [she] was a believer.” Are you? How would you being to answer that question?
J. Q.: These kinds of autobiographical questions are tricky to navigate. The implication is that Maggie is a stand-in for me, the author. While Maggie in some ways resembles me, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation. Maggie is navigating a set of experiences radically different from my own, both within her marriage and in her relationship with James. Her theological and philosophical perspectives are also different from mine on a number of levels. I suspect that her answer to the question “are you a believer” would likewise be different. In fact, I wonder what her answer would have been! I never wrote the panel scene, of course; Maggie only mentions the question in a letter.
But I’ll give this one a try: Yes. If “belief” often means only the intention to believe; if “faith” often means a desperate faithfulness to a faith I used to have, in the past; if “being a Christian” feels, to invoke Wendell Berry, like being “out on a wide river in a boat, in the fog, in the dark” (without a paddle, I would add); if “identifying with Christ’s sufferings” means recognizing that the pinnacle of his suffering was the experience of God’s total, annihilating absence (“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken”)—then yes, unequivocally I’m a believer.
A. D.: In C. S. Lewis’s “Is Theology Poetry?”—a lecture mentioned in Fire Sermon—Lewis writes, “Theology is … poetry to me because I believe it; I do not believe it because it is poetry.” Do you agree with Lewis here, that “Christians … enjoy their world picture, aesthetically” primarily because “they have accepted it as true”? Can theology be aesthetically pleasing without the warrant of belief? What role does aesthetic pleasure have in your own sense of belief?
J. Q.: I think Lewis also says in that lecture that if the theological worldview is poetry, it’s bad poetry. There’s nothing “poetic,” in the classical sense, about an all-sufficient, all-powerful, all-knowing deity who has always already rescued creation from an ultimate evil.
A non-theological worldview, what St. Athanasius (I’m currently reading On the Incarnation) calls the Epicurean one—all things coming into being by chance, with no divine intention or providence—that’s the more poetic idea, Lewis says. The fragile cell dividing and dividing, developing gills and fins and climbing up onto land and into reptilian and mammalian life, up into the primate and the homo-erectus and homo-sapien. And then the tragic self-awareness: the great heaving struggle through millennia is for naught, the sun will flare and go supernova and the whole thing will burn out and all of it will have been without meaning. And yet we go on in the face of it all. The existential Sisyphean heroes. That’s poetry.