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God, Character, and Literature: Paula Huston’s Land without Sin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 20, 2014 | In Reviews

As longtime readers may have noticed, I occasionally pick up and review newly published examples of what we loosely call “the Catholic novel”. Unfortunately, since Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy passed from the scene, there seems to have been a dearth of top-tier Catholic novelists—a symptom, to some extent, of the progressive secularization of modern culture, but also of a pragmatic and even political Catholic response which has left too little room for the arts. Perceiving this lack, some of those who are now engaged in a self-conscious effort to form Catholic culture quite naturally turn their attention to the writing of “Catholic novels”. They give it a shot.

I suspect that everybody knows by now that the term “Catholic novel” is problematic. My own first law of literature is that as soon as a writer becomes preachy (didactic), he fails. There are, of course, exceptions. Dickens could be terribly didactic at times. The great Russian novelists often created characters whose chief value (or so it seems to those of us who are not enamored of Russian novelists) was to represent ideas, or even ideologies. Nonetheless, as a principle for budding novelists, I think it holds. If you cannot master the craft of fiction without being didactic, you will never master the craft of fiction.

A closely related problem for earnest Catholic beginners is the tendency to assume that their novels ought to be well-reviewed by fellow Catholics if they are “orthodox”. I have had authors take exception to criticism because they believe a Catholic reviewer has a moral obligation to commend any novel which self-evidently favors a sound understanding of the Catholic Faith. It is true of course that Catholicism possesses a marvelous ability to increase our insight into reality. But the positive incorporation of its doctrines into a work of fiction does not, by itself, make a good novel, nor does Catholic content automatically elevate a novel to the status of what we call literature.

Of course the very term “literature” is also problematic. There are some who will grant the title of “literature” to a work only if it is sufficiently dense and difficult to ensure that it will have a small audience, consisting chiefly of critics. I, on the other hand, love detective stories, and I refuse to acknowledge that none of them rise to a significant literary standard just because they are enjoyable. Still, when I use a word, it means exactly what I say it means, and I would argue that a novel rises to the level of literature when it felicitously combines formal beauty, technical mastery, and depth of perception in telling a good story. Its overall construction and its very language are used with significant skill to plumb the depths of human experience through the lives and trials of its characters.

In most cases, the good guy’s capture of the bad guy is insufficient to constitute literature in my sense of the term, as entertaining as this can be. In fact, I might go further and suggest that the relevant elements of human experience ought to be elements that are not immediately obvious to the reader, explored in a way that broadens the reader’s own experience and, in fact, causes the reader to grow. We will see later what the reader is supposed to grow into. Meanwhile, I confess that my framing of the issue leaves us with the problem of what to do with P. G. Wodehouse, who obviously delighted in characters (and readers...) who are so unchallenged by his wonderful stories as to ignore the problem of personal growth altogether.

The Importance of Character

To be “Catholic”, I suppose, a novel ought to explore problems that are at least partly spiritual in nature, and it ought to resolve those problems in a way that both illuminates and attracts the reader to truths about reality which are deeply and recognizably embedded in the Catholic Faith. And this is precisely where character comes in. You can talk about setting and plot all you want (and I do not deny their relevance), but ultimately the drama of the novel must be played out in the character of its protagonists, or else the novel will be neither Catholic nor literature in any sense of the words. Here the axiom that man is the measure of all things applies, except that the novelist must enable us to see that the axiom is false. For it is precisely in the stretching of the characters in the novel, stretching them in their human struggles to accommodate a deeper perception and wisdom that ultimately comes from God and grace, that the Catholic novel is made, and that Catholic literature is born.

Today there is a temptation to take shortcuts. All the novels that imitate Tolkien or Lewis, by uncreatively relying on the fantasies of others to inject spiritual wisdom and spiritual warfare, fall into grave danger here. It does a novel no good to rely on one deus ex machina after another to ensure that the “right” spiritual bases are touched. Unless handled with consummate dexterity (as indeed Tolkien did, and even Lewis at times), this will trigger a recognition in the reader that the author has “forced” Catholic themes into a work which otherwise would not have them at all. The same is true of the temptation to pit unflawed Catholic heroes against their seriously flawed secular opposites, which eliminates all the deeper dramas, and in fact never corresponds to reality, even if the hero is a saint.

As I have already indicated, the core of the novel, in which some correspondence with reality must be explored, is the author’s characterization. The drama of Catholic literature must ultimately be the drama of a person, and so necessarily of a soul, and that drama must grow out of a believable character in believable circumstances, where nothing is forced for the obvious purpose of scoring a point. And so at long last, we may come to what I regard as an excellent new example of Catholic literature, for this is exactly what Paula Huston accomplishes in her fascinating new novel, A Land without Sin.

A Land without Sin

There is, of course, no such thing as a non-personal drama, which explains why dramatic tension fades and fizzles when characters are artificial. The novel must be rooted in character, and Paula Huston’s central problem is the character of Eva, a thirty-something single woman who has abandoned her Catholic heritage in all the ways typical of the 1990s, when the story takes place. At the same time, however, through a career in photo-journalism, Eva has embraced a tendency to get close to human suffering. These characteristics, which the Catholic reader at least will recognize as unfortunately divergent when they should converge, are both challenged when she decides to seek out her brother, who has gone missing in Central America. Eva’s brother, unlike Eva herself, had retained and very much deepened his Catholic heritage. He became a priest and a missionary. But then he disappeared from his assignment, apparently off on a quest quite natural in Latin America, a quest involving the resistance of armed guerillas to serious oppression.

Eva naturally wonders if her brother has taken up liberation theology, which is something she can readily understand even without faith. The Church, for her part, either does not know or will not say where he is and what he is doing. To find out, Eva takes a job as a photographer with an archeologist who is studying Mayan artifacts and Mayan history. This job takes her into the region where she must search for her brother.

But the archeologist, a Dutchman named Jan, has his own problems. His wife is slowly dying from a terminal disease, and his son does not understand the ways in which the father deals with his sorrow. Jan immerses himself in his work, perhaps partly because he cannot bear his wife’s illness, and perhaps partly because she finds her illness easier to bear if she can minimize the toll it takes on him. There is, understandably, only a slowly-growing honesty among these characters. What does this mean to Jan’s sixteen-year-old boy? How will Jan and Eva interact when away from the sick-room? What will Eva discover when and if she finds her brother?

This is a full quiver, but it is important to note that the primary drama takes place not through the clash of external circumstances but through the development of the characters. The attention to setting, including Mayan temples and history, is extraordinary. The plot which must somehow bring things to a head is thoroughly believable and moves naturally; it is not forced. But the key element is always the characters. It is their weaknesses which must be probed; and their strengths which must be brought closer to perfection. This is why A Land without Sin works very well and why, in fact, as a Catholic novel it succeeds in being literature: Not because it is boring, or difficult, or hard to read; but because its value as entertainment is inseparably linked to its deep perception of human reality.

Paula Huston, Gregory Wolfe, Character, and Being

Huston teaches creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. In addition to A Land without Sin, she has written another novel, Daughters of Song, as well as several works of creative nonfiction, essays, and short stories. She has been honored in Best American Short Stories, The Best Spiritual Writing, and even (though this is not always a plus) by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her publisher for this novel is Slant, an imprint of the serious and indefatigable Wipf and Stock in Eugene, Oregon.

Now here the plot thickens, but I mean the plot which leads to publication. Slant is a new imprint created by Gregory Wolfe, the founder and editor of the quarterly journal Image (see my review of Wolfe’s collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, in Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age). For this project Wolfe was, in fact, Huston’s editor. As to what constitutes good literature, Wolfe can be credited with a judgment far finer than my own, but my point here is that the reader will have misunderstood the keys I have enumerated for the creation of literature if he were to assume that great authors must begin by forsaking all self-consciousness about what they wish to communicate.

No, Wolfe and Huston have undoubtedly gone after this thing as self-consciously as they can. But what enables them to be successful in their Catholic self-consciousness is their realization that art—even if it is a contrivance—is not about teaching, but about being.

Ultimately it is something of being itself that any artist must capture and communicate if he is to reach the pinnacle of his craft—or, as it were, to exceed mere craft. For the novelist, who deals with stories, this revelation of being—which we might also call an insight into reality or the conveyance of meaning—comes primarily through character development. The reason is simple: Only persons participate in being consciously. A poet, like a painter, can capture a setting so that it reveals something deeper than the setting’s externals to the person who is reading. In some cases, a poet and a painter can even capture the essence of a plot—such as a conflict, a temptation or a judgment—in ways that impress something more about being on the reader or the viewer. But the novelist’s task is to tell a story, and in the end every great novel is an artful telling of a story about how persons respond to what it means to be. The goal of this artful telling is both to entertain and to enable the reader to participate more fully and consciously in being at one and the same time.

The novelist who would aspire to literature must perceive something about being, even if he does not yet know much about the source of being, which is God, or about the redeemer of fractured being, which is Jesus Christ. The novelist who would aspire to literature must explore this glimpse of being through the characters in his story in a way that is true to the characters and the situation in which they find themselves, just as our own encounters with being are inescapably rooted in who and “where” we are. And the novelist who would aspire to literature must master the elements of plot and setting as well as the craft of words and style, calculating everything to support and portray the development of the characters: With great artifice yet no artificiality; with growing pressure from within, but no extraneous force.

Of course the Catholic author—I do not mean the author who happens to be Catholic in affiliation, but a truly Catholic author—will inescapably perceive and reveal being in ways that are nourished and illumined by Faith. But the Catholic author will not confuse art and doctrine. Both are windows on being, but they are not the same window, and they do not reveal being under the same aspect. The one feeds the soul through intellect; the other feeds the soul through sense and intuition. This is a lesson which many would-be Catholic novelists, motivated by an understandable commitment to Catholic doctrine, can too easily forget.

In the end, all these factors together constitute an enormous challenge for the Catholic who wishes to create literature by writing novels. Responding to that challenge successfully is an achievement as remarkable as it is complex. In A Land without Sin, I believe Paula Huston has passed the test.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 21, 2014 11:04 AM ET USA

    "The same is true of the temptation to pit unflawed Catholic heroes against their seriously flawed secular opposites...," Bravo! A very profound observation...