Monday March 30th, 2009

Seeking Salvation

HC frontReviewed:
All the Living by C. E. Morgan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $23.00

Marilynne Robinson is the rare contemporary writer who has dared to devote entire novels largely to the question of faith. Gilead, presented as a dying pastor’s letter to his young son, sustains a subtle but tenacious momentum completely dependent on its narrator’s eloquence, insight, and complexity of thought. Yet fiction that directly engages religion can descend so speedily into sentimentality or sermonizing, or even caricature, that the stories most effective at compelling the agnostic reader to consider the possibility of God generally seem at the outset to be about something else. Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, for example, transforms from an obsessive chronicle of a jilted lover’s efforts to discover who is sleeping with his beloved into an atheist’s unwilling screed against a deity he doesn’t believe in: “I hate you as if you existed.” Peter De Vries’ brilliant The Blood of the Lamb invokes religion from the start, but with the ironic (and hilarious) detachment of someone raised in, but estranged from, the church — until he needs a higher power to lash out at when his little girl is stricken with cancer. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road depicts a father and son trekking through charred forests in a frigid post-apocalyptic world that promises a life of scavenging and likely death at the hands of cannibals, and it is only when the man kills to protect the boy, saying, “I was appointed to do that by God,” that the reader is implicitly called upon to consider what sort of creator would allow humanity to exist in a state so bereft of hope.

Although his setting is singularly dire, McCarthy is of course far from alone in tying religious concerns to nature. Last year Robinson, in a review of Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, tentatively identified an entire genre, “cosmic realism,” in which the physical world is “primordial, archaic, full of the fact of time past and persisting, unchanging, changing everything.” As Francesca Mari has observed, “Robinson’s labeling is cautious — perhaps because it approaches self-categorization. But the classification is inspired…. [Cosmic realism] encompasses a range of description-driven novels steeped in transience and obsessed with iterations of ephemerality. Their substance is more thought than action, and the thought is almost as much perception as it is reflection.” These works, says Mari, owe a great deal to the Transcendentalists. At their best, the books evoke landscapes and moods to summon questions of being at the core of us all; at worst they are freighted with false solemnity, and objects and moments too trite or insignificant to bear the weight of the symbolism forced upon them.

C. E. Morgan’s contemplative and atmospheric first novel, All The Living, is cosmic realism subtly tinged with the anger of The End of the Affair or The Blood of the Lamb. Like The Road, it edges into spiritual concerns slowly, seeming at first to be a story about a young woman, Aloma, torn between her desire for independence and her passion for a man. Love, or at least lust, is winning as the story begins. Aloma has joined her lover, Orren, at the ragged and desolate Kentucky farmhouse where he grew up and has been living since his family was killed in a tragic accident a few months before.

A steely orphan who just before her twelfth birthday was cast out of her aunt and uncle’s home, Aloma has spent her adolescence at a settlement school in a “deeper cleavage of the mountains than the one she had known at her uncle’s trailer.” There she was not particularly “good at anything — not rotten, but not gifted either — so that she was eternally overlooked” until she begged her way into a beginning piano class. Her extraordinary skill at the instrument “damped somewhat the sullen disposition her uncle had warned her teachers about.” As the accompanist at the settlement church, Aloma can barely stay awake during the pastor’s sermons, yet she stays on as the school’s staff pianist for four years after graduation “because she had nowhere else to go and no way to get there.”

During this time she meets Orren, an easygoing boy who “can see you ain’t nobody’s fool,” and soon he’s picking her up every other night, to drive and mess around in his truck. He intends to buy some land, and farm it, while she yearns to escape the mountains and their long, cold shadows, and to study music in some distant locale, but Aloma chooses to overlook these basic incompatibilities when she agrees to join him on the farm. There Orren is a changed man — withdrawn, sunken-eyed, and rough in bed. Stuck piano-less in this forlorn place, Aloma is confused. She wants to flee but also to submit, maybe even to marry. At night with Orren she feels she does not know “this stranger, not at all, but she also did not care then, stranger or not, as . . . she pressed him into her.”

Morgan’s prose can be both harshly blunt and poetic, a difficult blend to sustain: edginess tends to seem mannered in the context of lyricism, while figurative language when laid against candor can come off as mawkish or coy. At times metaphor threatens to overwhelm All the Living — which is heavy on mood and slender on plot — as when the sun does “not appear in the wound of the holler,” or the emaciated dogs running around are “just skin over legbone and brisket.” The transformation of nouns into verbs is also distracting: Aloma is depicted as “boring to sleep” as the settlement pastor preaches; the students are led “away from the raucous ecstasies of their mountain churching.” More often, though, the author preserves her precarious balance, and never more so than when Aloma feels herself drawn to Bell, the formal but kindly bachelor preacher of the church Orren’s mother attended before her death.

Aloma seeks out a job playing hymns at Bell’s church. She is initially rebuffed, as much by the preacher’s mother as the preacher himself. Soon, though, the longtime pianist retires, and Aloma is hired. On Sundays, she finds that she can’t turn away from the congregation’s “standing and undressed emotion or from Bell,” as “the rolling cadences of his voice urged them on in their own prayers.” The joy she finds in the sanctuary spills over into her life: “[b]ecause she could not help it, she sang all week.” Soon she’s practicing at the church every day. Yet her contentment, increasingly, is limited — she and Orren can’t stop arguing — and her demure composure around Bell counterfeit (“a seduction by meekness”). Although the preacher doesn’t completely buy it — “Sometimes you got a cagey thing in you. Like you can’t decide if you want to run off or get took in.” — he is moved by her beauty and her music and begins to hint about marriage.

All the Living is not a conversion story, and there is no happy ending. The author, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, may have sympathy with Bell’s conviction that fulfillment comes from surrender to God, but if so she has not imposed that epiphany on her characters. Toward the end of the book, Aloma looks up to the sky “as if her salvation were there, but it wasn’t. It was not up or down, it was not in a location. It just wasn’t like that.” The sky might look like “the palm of a great empty hand,” but it is one that never moves any closer. The sight induces not hope, but resignation.

Maud Newton is a writer and blogger who has written reviews for the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among other venues. An excerpt from her novel is forthcoming in the spring issue of Narrative.

Books mentioned in this review:

All the Living: A Novel
Gilead: A Novel
The Road
The End of the Affair
The Blood of the Lamb: A Novel
The Maytrees: A Novel