Is Christopher (the novel) a myth?
The number of Catholic writers attempting fiction appears to be growing by leaps and bounds. Among a handful of novels which have come across my desk over the past six months—which I am admittedly very slow to get to—is one that I managed to finish a couple of weeks ago. Then I let it sit so I could figure out what I thought of it. I’m referring to David Athey’s coming of age story about a California boy transplanted to Lake Superior. The books’s title is Christopher.
The book comes from Sophia Institute Press, which has a reputation for publishing deeply Catholic material, mostly non-fiction, of a fairly traditional nature, including reprints. The Press is now part of the stable of media initiatives owned by Thomas More and Holy Spirit colleges, academic centers which are clearly deserving of widespread Catholic support. But after two weeks of reflection, I’m still not sure what I think of Christopher.
This is Athey’s second novel. The first was Danny Gospel, also about a young man, this time one who had to learn to find his way after life handed him a number of tragedies. Athey is an associate professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University who, according to his publicists, has authored nearly 200 poems, stories and essays. His style has been described as “lyrical” but, if that’s so, in Christopher he is singing a spare or highly focused melody. The orchestration is not at all rich; the prose is not at all lush. The chapters average three to four pages in length—an astonishing 105 of them in a book some 370 pages long. There may be too much rest for the eye here, but the prose does create images and the story does carry the reader along.
One of the ways Athey carries the reader is by engaging in hyperbole about what it means for a real person to be Catholic. Christopher experiences Catholicism through three different girls who befriend him while he is growing up. The story centers on Christopher’s adolescence, the conflicting feelings he has about these highly-attractive friends, his gradual ability to control those feelings, and his spiritual maturation from an affinity for the mystery and grandeur of nature to a more rewarding faith in the mystery and grandeur of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
The hyperbole I mentioned is mildly reminiscent of the surreal character of the novels of Walker Percy. All of the families in the novel—Christopher’s own family and those of the three female protagonists—are a trifle weird and overdrawn. One girl’s father has abandoned his family to wander Europe doing Catholic penance because his scientific achievements have been misused by the government. The second girl boasts a bizarre and repulsive younger brother and an out-of-wedlock-pregnant older sister whose condition seems accepted as perfectly normal, which even in a pro-life context stretches credulity. The third’s family features an abusive father and an alcoholic mother. Yet in the midst of all this familial chaos Christopher discovers young Catholic ladies who themselves seem to have come not from their own parents but full-grown from the head of Zeus.
This surreal quality is what makes me wonder how good a novel Christopher really is. The story lines are clear; Christopher’s maturation until he ultimately embraces the Faith is real. But the key characters are not quite real. They are in many ways out of context, exaggerated or even caricatured. There is, for example, an elderly professor living in the first girl’s home who represents a sort of mystical Catholic chivalry which seems torn from the pages of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In utter contrast, Christopher’s own parents are flower children from the 60s who, despite their laughable immaturity, seem to have little or no impact on Christopher himself.
The result of this tincture of surrealism is twofold and, for the third time, I am not sure what I think of it. On the one hand, the characters enable Athey to focus on the key elements in Christopher’s process of growth—his emerging sexual, moral and spiritual maturity—so that we can follow and even in a sense root for these processes. But on the other hand, rooting for processes is not the same thing as rooting for characters, or of coming to know richly drawn characters who, through the brilliant orchestration of a fine author, actually increase our experience of what it means to be human. It is almost as if understanding comes here through a laboratory experiment designed to highlight certain kinds of stimulus and response, rather than through letting the characters fully emerge as the complex persons they must be in real life.
Yet as soon as the criticism is made, it weakens. The key characters may be deliberately (or I certainly hope deliberately) overdrawn, but the questions they raise are real enough. The girls themselves might not be complete persons in their own right, but they do sustain a Catholic example which serves as the key to Christopher’s own spiritual growth. So perhaps the question is whether Christopher himself is sufficiently real. His character is actually quite memorable, but is it real enough for the heavy spiritual lifting the plot requires?
In answering that question, I think we have to ask also—as we must often do with self-consciously “Catholic” authors and their readers—whether we would judge the novel successful if it did not have the ending we, as committed Catholics, were waiting for all along. If this had been a decline and fall story instead of a tale of redemption, would we have found it believable or compelling? Does the positive outcome too much shape our assessment of the novelist’s power? Has Athey only told us what we want to hear?
With David Athey and Christopher, that question hovers in the air. But to the author’s credit, I have not found an easy answer. Are the characters ultimately mythological? If you choose to read the book, I believe you’ll wonder.
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