Review of The Sparrow: Does God give a damn?

Warning: Don’t read this review if you want to read this book (which I cannot recommend more highly if beautifully crafted, humane stories about cosmic theology and intergalactic travel interest you), because spoiler alerts.

“The Sparrow” is a novel by Mary Doria Russell and was described as “a startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction” by the New York Times Book Review. My friend Stephanie who knows me well and has the best taste gifted me this book, so I knew it was going to be good.

I am an official Religion major, unofficial philosophy minor, seminary drop-out, a woman who is always feels a couple of weird events away from actually joining a novitiate. That is to say, this ain’t the first time I found myself exploring questions about the existence and nature of God, but the novel plunged me deep into the heart of the question as if for the first time.

Here’s what happens. (I’m serious, stop reading if you want to read the book!)

We are introduced to a certain Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, academic linguist, dark and handsome, Puerto Rican in origin. There are two storylines unfolding at the same time. We are introduced to his life, the sensitivity, devotion and human conflictedness with which he meets his various missions across the Americas and Africa, learning over a dozen languages along the way. We are introduced to the charming, fiercely intelligent, multi-talented, service-minded (and agnostic!) friends he picks up along the way, whom he brings to settles down for another mission in La Perla, the slums of San Juan. An astronomer in the crew makes a groundbreaking discovery of music (!!!) from another, distant planet. Long story short, Fr. Sandoz and his crew embark on a journey to find these music-making, sentient aliens, feeling encouraged by the very providence of God himself.

And then things go horribly wrong. Then some more things go horribly, horribly wrong. Then even more things go horribly, horribly wrong until you’re on the last page with your jaw dropped, stunned, devastated. At the end, we are left with a physically and spiritually ravished priest, who may have convinced himself that God — if He exists — lured him into this mission with sparks of divine possibility, inspiration and cosmic love, only to make him the punchline of an immeasurably cruel joke.

Mean, mean Mary Doria Russell!!

I’ll be honest; I had so wished that there was a happy ending. Well, okay, if not a happy ending, at least some kind of resolution, some tying-of-existential-loose-ends-together. How could I not? I felt so vulnerable at the end. Most days, I feel the awareness of God all around me and inside me. I am not young enough that I believe in a God who actively interferes in human affairs, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, but I thought I had deeply contended with a degree of suffering and absurdity inherent our lives. I had room enough in my soul to contain paradoxes. God’s vastness made it increasingly easy for me to accept His mysteriousness; the inevitable ebb and flow of life softened me to the reality of grace. I had lain it all down at the feet of Christ, the central agent of redemptive suffering, the reverser of Original Sin, divine love made bruising and vulnerable flesh.

After digesting the initial shock of finishing the book (and making a cup of tea, and staring at the wall blankly for an hour), it occurred to me that this is by no means the first time a story like that had been told. What is so different about Sandoz’s journey from those of early Christian martyrs, or even the Jesuits who sailed across the Atlantic for the first time to entirely foreign and possibly hostile lands to win souls for God? Many of whom, as the novel mentions, met violent and homicidal guests, were tortured, maimed and killed? (One such priest,we are told, made it out alive and made his way back to Europe, only to return out of his own volition.) What’s different about it from the countless stories of ordinary people and saints who went intrepidly in pursuit of discovery, a great knowledge of God’s creation, singing of the Creator’s glory, and met nothing but senseless tragedy? How many such stories have we told?

As Sandoz languished alone in his cell with a devastated faith, surrounded by jeering, skeptical colleagues, Jesus Christ hung on the Cross, asking, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

Not that my fate has ever challenged me with rape by aliens or a public execution, but countless times, I have thought the same thing in the privacy of my own sorrow. “I thought I was being good, I thought I was loving you. You created me soft, yielding, weak. Why punish me for the way I was made?”

In a little interview with the author who was included at the end of the book, it was revealed that Russell had, after a Catholic childhood and more years of searching, converted to Judaism. Ah, of course. Though she painted such a loving and meticulous portrait of Christian faith and the Jesuit tradition, the central question of the book to me seemed appropriately, rigorously Jewish: is there a God who, frankly, gives a damn about you? After the Holocaust, theologians and philosophers had to contend with the question of a loving God entirely in a new way.  It always seemed to me that the Jewish tradition is less preoccupied with answers than questions, a quality I’ve always admired.

There is no way to interpret the tragedies of our lives as a personal insult from God if we don’t also interpret the blessings as a sign of favor. As Anne Edwards, a physician in the book says, “you can’t thank God when all goes well, and blame the doctor when it doesn’t.”

When I used to work in a nonprofit surrounded by lots of Christians, it drove me up the wall when something good happened and people would profusely thank God. “NO,” I would think. “God is not responsible. The volunteers stayed up until an ungodly hour, forsaking their own priorities and families, and busted their asses making this happen. Don’t turn it to God — turn it to these selfless, loving individuals. Don’t pray for God’s providence, acknowledge and take care of the people around you.”

I always felt strange giving thanks to God for my health, material prosperity and intelligence without also thinking of those who were not granted them. Surely I am not more deserving of such good fortune than the literally billions on earth who have less than I? If it is not based on merit, then the fact of my good fortune is arbitrary. I can feel grateful  — and I do! — without feeling it was ordained.

So, perhaps Sandoz’s error was to have had the arrogance to believe his equal to God’s will. He felt miserably abandoned when he met an unexpectedly horrible fate, but perhaps, the fact is that God was never holding his hand in the first place. He interpreted the moments of mystical joy along the path as signs of approval and blessing.

This thought does not leave me comforted, however. Who would not? What man would not follow the trail of his noblest courage and curiosity and not be tempted to believe the path blessed by God?

When I was cradling my cup of tea and staring at the wall after having finished the book, my mom came over and asked me what’s up. I gave her a 15-second summary of the book, and told her that I am struck with the question of God as though for the first time.

She told me of a story that she read in the final days leading to her baptism at age 36. Was it from St. Thomas Aquinas? She couldn’t remember. But it was some saint who was struggling with trying to understand God. During a walk on the beach, he saw a child who had dug a little hole in the sand and was busy spooning the seawater into it, using the half shell of a clam. When asked what he was doing, the child replied, “I’m trying to get all the water in the sea in this hole.”

My mom said, “after that story, I let go of the compulsion to try to make sense of God in my mind. How could I, with my little brain, one among billions, an infinitesimally small part of creation, dare to try to contain the intelligence of God? To make sense of it, to understand it, to pick it apart? It’s impossible. That story gave me peace to live each day without such arrogance, give thanks for the small things and remain in the awareness of the mystery.”

My mom always says that maybe she ought have converted to Judaism instead. She loves an omniscient, omnipresent God but never had much conviction about the whole Jesus thing. Was there really a virgin birth? Were you there? Neither was I. Who can know, and who gives a damn? She has this faith in a Creator that is unwavering but comfortably agnostic — in the sense that she has more questions than answers, and is okay with that.

The only thing I know — which the Jewish people know — is the line that is repeated in the novel: God will not come and save you. At least, not from earthly dangers. You cannot ever know what will happen: it is very possible that neither the blessings nor the curses are personal, that you may encounter both in ways that are beyond comprehension. Jesus’ life teaches that God does weep with us in moments of tragedy and that, in enduring, boundless agape, our salvation is made whole.

Within the novel, it is very strongly implied that, if there were ever a candidate for sainthood, Fr. Sandoz was (supposed to be) it. It is also strongly implied at the end of the novel that his efforts of trying to understand alien life had not been in vain, that his science would be useful for the new generation of explorers.

It occurs to me that there might be a container for Fr. Sandoz that is bigger than his suffering; if he were indeed called to sainthood, God would know and love him even/especially in his desolation. As Jesus reconciled with his Father for having nailed him to the cross, perhaps Fr. Sandoz would reconcile with God.

For a novel that so loved its Catholic protagonist and the Jesuit environment around him, there was a curious absence of Christology, when the outlines were obvious to me. This is the unflinching complexity of religious faith, and never did the narrative voice waver away from the heart of paradox. Hats off to Ms. Mary Doria Russell.

 

 


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THE NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW: “How to See,” David Salle

Check out my review of David Salle’s How to See on the National Book Review.

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Review of John Irving’s “Until I Find You”

It may be pertinent that I was an Irving virgin. I was resentful most of the time I was reading this book. The first third, I was annoyed at the improbable weirdness of the characters and events (a tattooist who is dragging a four-year-old all over Europe, including Amsterdam’s red light district, in futile pursuit of a man.) The second half, I was irritated by the relentlessness of the ordeals that the protagonist, Jack Burns, endures with maddening passivity. In the third half, I couldn’t believe the novel was still not over. This may be the longest novel I’ve read that wasn’t by a long-dead Russian.

Yet, a day after I’ve finished the book, I find myself a little weepy, even in tropical paradise (hi, writing from Sri Lanka!). I am increasingly in awe of the success of Irving’s vastly sprawling but tightly constructed storytelling. I cannot quite believe it, but in the end, not a single one of the trillion pages feels extraneous.

The story, as much as a synopsis could be meaningful, is as follows: William Burns is a church organist who knocked up a woman called Alice (a tattoo artist) and deserted both of Alice and child, Jack Burns. Alice is permanently scarred by this desertion and brings Jack up alone(-ish). Jack gets molested and statutory-raped a bunch. Then he becomes a Hollywood star. Then something else happens. Make sense? It will.

I feel haunted by the intensity of Jack’s character, which is to Irving’s great credit, given what an unrelatable kind of person Jack will be to the vast majority of readers: devastatingly attractive and weirdly hollow. I am overcome with relief at the novel’s resolution — a relief whose dimensions are equal to the grief that preceded it. Really good, intellectually and emotionally satisfying redemption — deeply cathartic but also authentic to life — is hard to come across nowadays. Irving pulls it off.

The loss of innocence isn’t necessarily an event characterized by visceral and cataclysmic discomfort. It could sneak up on you quietly, lullingly. Consent requires a self solid enough to be aware of what there is to protect, a soul capable of drawing a permeable boundary around itself. Before the violation of innocence, the self is liquid, spilling, trusting, at once with the happiness and thrill and sadness and grotesque of the world, moving between it all smoothly, unflinchingly, as tiny hands go from grabbing fistfuls of dirt and caterpillar and snail to the dry, fragrant warmth of a mother’s hair. In that liquid world, innocence that does not yet know itself as a precious and fragile quantity. After the violation of innocence, all that one can do after is to watch the rest of one’s world unfold in the pattern of that original wound.

Pain and grief come later. Maybe they do not come at all, not acutely, not in neatly articulable color. You cannot say that you would have preferred to encounter your sexuality in a context that is developmentally appropriate, or merely non-criminal. You cannot go back and inject the grief of a fully measured loss, magnified by the response to injury that ripples out in time, into your younger consciousness. You can only measure extent of damage done by the counterfactual: what your life and idea of self and body and self-respect and the primal trust in your own judgment (taken for granted by others) may have been like if they had been left intact.

This is part of what accounts for the infuriating darkness of the sin of sexual abuse, and “Until I Find You” illustrates this with unsparing brilliance: one cannot easily articulate its damage except through the ponderous work of imagining what may have been instead — a task that can require the very faculties that the abuse compromised — and to bear the awful psychological weight of this awareness in order to properly indict the perpetrator.

This is a hard point to make, and Irving’s tremendous imagination and virtuosity succeeds. A+.

 


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Remembering my Italy, Elena Ferrante and female violence

I am ashamed that I never read Ferrante’s work until the recent media brouhaha over the self-appointed sleuth who went after her “real” identity and “found” it. Especially ashamed because I was a student of the Italian language, spent 5 months in Bologna and was well-acquainted with her stature on both Italian and the international stages.

I rarely did my homework, though.

Most of the time I spent in Italy, I was crying to my boyfriend on the phone, fighting with a certifiably crazy Brazilian roommate or — the worst — swallowing pasta that tasted under-sauced and under-boiled to my Korean palate.

I probably avoided Ferrante and other major Italian writers because of the emotional muck surrounding the self-pity I’ve felt regarding my time in Italy. I hated the thought of disappointing other people who assumed that I’d spent the entire semester in bella italia being serenaded in a gondola by men with honeyed words on their tongues and pomade on their hair, lost in dreamy contemplations of Petrarch and gorging on prosciutto e vino (well, that last part was true.) I couldn’t tell them how much time I’d spent in bed, hiding, how terribly afraid I’d felt of everything, how unreasonably alone, unable to adapt, failing to thrive, and blaming myself for it harshly at the same time.

That doesn’t exactly make good chitchat, and I had a peppy and blustery exterior to maintain. So I kept lying when people asked; “Oh yes, Italy was just amazing!” Lying compounds shame, but only 100% of the time.

But really, that was a long time ago.

Long after leaving Italy, after enough new traumas had replaced the sepia-tinted spectres of my semester abroad, I found myself fondly re-creating the tuna and cream pasta that my other, non-crazy Pugliese roommate taught me to make; making confident pronouncements about the legitimacy of potato slices and rosemary leaves on pizza; missing the simple and hard-to-explain pleasure of a pappa al pomodoro, a soup consisting of tomatoes and stale bread.

I thought food may have been the only thing that can bypass my strange, selective Italy aversion. And by far, I cannot find a single other victim of such an affliction, past or present, which makes me feel even more like an maladjusted freak.

But, alas, nothing like a feminist, philosophical and literary quandary to stimulate my bullshit ego-drama to take a back seat. Who dares violate the privacy of an author who took great pains to guard it? Especially for a woman!

I picked up The Days of Abandonment because, um, it was the first book that I found on Google that was available as a PDF. There, I admitted it. (I support the writers and artists I love by paying for their work! After ascertaining that I do, indeed, love them, through the means easily available to me! What I did was akin to reading a Kindle sample! Sue me for the sins of the internet age!)

All I knew about the book was that it was a story of a woman who was abandoned by her husband — with whom she had two children — for a much younger woman, barely in her 20’s. Good times.

Themes of heartbreak and abandonment hit me still a bit in the tender spots (two giant breakups in one year!) but I trusted a skilled writer enough to have me reach beyond the shallowness of my own pain-narrative.

I had judged well. Tragically, I was halfway into the volume when I realized that that is all that the PDF contained. Deceptive file! Half of the book! I hurried to purchase the Kindle version.

My hunger to consume the book was due to passages like the following. Here is a scene in which our protagonist, Olga, is on the street, trying to quiet her dog, Otto, who is barking aggressively at some neighbors:

By not lying down quietly as I had ordered, and continuing to bark, complicating the situation, he had — I was convinced — committed an intolerable act of disobedience […] When he didn’t stop I raised the branch that I had in my hand menacingly, but even then he wouldn’t be silent. This enraged me, and I hit him hard. I heard the whistling in the air and saw his look of astonishment when the blow struck his ear. Stupid dog, stupid dog, whom Mario had given as a puppy to Gianni and Ilaria, who had grown up in our house, had become an affectionate creature — but really he was a gift from my husband to himself […] spoiled dog, dog that always got his own way. Now I was shouting at him, beast, bad dog, and I heard myself clearly, I was lashing and lashing and lashing, as he huddled, yelping, his body hugging he ground, ears low, sad and motionless under that incomprehensible hail of blows.

Wow, okay.

Let’s count the things Ferrante accomplishes here. For context, Olga is a thoroughly average suburban housewife. We know this from previous passages. The tension builds when the dog does not stop barking, but don’t tell me that you’re not thoroughly jolted when the frustration actually explodes in physical violence.

We are not spared the sudden agony of the blow, knowing precisely where it landed; I felt the stinging in my own ear. Maybe even a ringing.

Ferrante introduces the symbolism forcefully. Olga sees the dog, and sees the husband that betrayed her. The dog quickly becomes an emblem of his selfishness, and her assault of the dog is her retribution to Mario. He, who left his whole life, wife and children behind, and took his grandmother’s earrings for his new lover. He, who offered some lukewarm half-apology with a puzzling half-smile. The beating builds into a frenzy — “lashing and lashing and lashing” and how much does this nakedly incriminate our narrator? Who can possibly be less sympathetic than an abuser of dogs?

How many first-person narrators — women, no less — do this? Displaying an utter lack of moral approval-seeking from the reader? A wife? A mother?

(Aha, and what is Mario, the cheater, the coward, but a dog? The symbolism goes both ways. The dog stands in for Mario, and Mario is no better than a dog.)

Then, without skipping a beat, from frenetic cruelty we move to a kind of horrible denouement. Our minds move with Olga’s eyes, in real time, down to the terrified, defeated, pathetic dog. In another instant, we see Olga through Otto’s eyes; the “hail of blows” could not have been comprehensible since no, dogs cannot understand cause and effect.

Senseless harm, gratuitous cruelty — it is what Olga suffered at the hands of her husband with his sudden, swift and cavalier abandonment of their nearly 20 year union. The same cruelty is what she had inflicted on the dog.

For the second time, the narrator incriminates herself. She has been horrific, yes; what is more horrific than someone who abuses a dog is someone who possesses the faculty to be able to see and feel from a dog’s perspective, and did it anyway.

So, Olga. There she is for you.

I marvel at Ferrante’s psychological daring. She crafted an utterly compelling narrator (a woman!) who easily transforms into a villain, and not the sexy, mysterious kind, either. The inexcusable kind that beats small animals. Then, she dares us to continue sympathizing with Olga.

And we do — or at least I do, because Ferrante skillfully introduces us to every single layer of despair and malice inside our own selves without denying us the grace of humanity.

Sopratutto per le donne.

… more on The Days of Abandonment next time.


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What I’m reading now: pretty buildings and feminine meltdowns

Yes, I am actively reading all four. At the same time. If you had ADD, you'd identify.

Actually, even if you didn't have ADD, it might make sense; it's like being able to order the shrimp scampi and the veal milanese and the fusilli al ragu and the cheese platter at once, so you can take alternating bites. How else do you want to eat?

 


Everything Alain de Botton writes molds some part of my heart like two adroit, delicate hands working on a lump of warm clay. His meditations on architecture, like his meditations on most things, are profound and melancholy, yet with an elegantly light touch,  such sexy tension weaving his sentences together. Reading is slow because I'm bad with names, facts and dates and easily get stumped and distracted when I hit those, but very delicious otherwise to contemplate one's relationship to physical space with de Botton as a guide. 


I heart anthologies and compilations like this. It feels like the best kind of party imaginable; a whole bunch of first-rate minds gather to say super-interesting things, and there is zero small talk, I don't have to put on outside clothes and I get to choose whom I want to listen to, one at a time. This time, I have met E.M. Forster anew to be tenderly earnest; Aldous Huxley is witty and taut while not writing about dystopia; Hemingway is the same old asshole. 


One theme that's occupying my mind a lot recently is women's ambivalence toward the traditional roles of wife and mother; in that arena, Ferrante is a virtuoso. Her narrative rhythm is swift, precise, brutal, without a single superfluous word. This is a book about a woman who gets left behind by her husband for a 20 year old. However, any woman who has ever loved and lost knows that, really, all romantic tumult is solipsistic theatre leading toward deeper unlayering of self. Ferrante knows, and invites us along the same journey of awareness. Also: the best bad sex scene of all time. 


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every two weeks, I'll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I'm reading.


I only recently started to "get" visual art. I truly think it's a function of getting older, learning how shitty and senseless the world can be -- shedding the last of the youthful illusion that life may just be cotton candy and sprightly walks in the park with the right attitude and effort -- and coming into humble awareness of how tenderly we can access beauty in the middle of it all. This book is a wealth of little snapshots of the most prominent modern painters; I am picking it up in little pockets of time I can find. I'm using it as a jump-off point for further investigations of artists or paintings on my own because, unfortuntaely, I find that the writingis a bit unfocused and unengaging. 

 

 

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