If I can’t believe in God, I do believe in fiction. Reading a novel is an act of devotion that will slowly, I hope, build an empathetic understanding of people and experience beyond my own. I can learn how it might feel to be a young woman recruited for MI5 in 1972, or why I might have murderous urges towards my spouse while living in a declining suburb in Missouri, or how it was to be Cromwell with a sunburn after a day of falconry with King Henry VIII. Organized religion may be one way to find an understanding of the world, but reading fiction is mine.
When I set out to read The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a short novel about Mary the mother of Christ, it was the author’s interest in the subject that caught my attention. Tóibín’s mother characters often don’t do what you might expect. In Mothers and Sons, his collection of short stories from 2006, each story is about a mother and son relationship, but focuses on their distance whether it be physical or mental. A recurring theme in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, his book of essays about writers and their families, is how to define a life outside the confines of the family fold. “Mothers get in the way of fiction,” Tóibín said to The New York Times, “they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” He is more interested in a person than their role in a family.
When you close your eyes and picture the Virgin Mary, what do you see? There are countless possibilities, a woman with a halo of light around her tilted head, a cloaked figure with tears of blood or a vaguely burnt apparition on a slice of toast. Your answer will depend on how you were raised, the galleries you have visited, or the books you have read. Regardless of how you’ve come across her, Mary is part of a story you’ve been told. She is a powerful symbol of motherhood. And she is not only a mother, but the mother of Christ. Your view on him will probably dictate what she means to you. In Tóibín’s hand, Mary is more than her role as a mother or a symbol. Instead, she becomes the most interesting of creatures: a credible human.
How does Tóibín see Mary? This is the story of a woman living out her last days in exile with the excruciating memory of watching the torture and crucifixion of her only son. To read this book is to see, move and feel through Mary. While her thoughts and feelings are elegantly, yet simply, laid out, the author purposefully avoids description. He has said that this is to allow the reader to enter the character’s spirit and mind, “It’s first-person intimate rather than first-person singular.” In his hand, Mary is no longer a symbol. She is not defined by her son, but has feelings and thoughts of her own.
The novel is shaped around Mary telling her story of the crucifixion to the writers of the gospel. They are working on the book that will become the Bible, but Mary’s story is not what they want to hear. They poke and prod for a different version. She won’t bend. Plagued by her remorse over her lack of action during the crucifixion, she thinks back to when her son was a child, “beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs” and tries to reconcile this memory with the powerful leader. She sees him carrying the cross to his own death. He is clubbed. A large spike is driven into the soft point in his wrist. As she watches, she becomes completely overwhelmed in knowing that her son is more defenseless than when he was a baby in her arms.
Mary does nothing to stop the crucifixion. Fearing the political persecution of her friends and family she stays back in the crowd. She does not identify herself as his mother, nor try to pull his body down. “I was there…you say that he redeemed the world,” she says of what she saw to the writers of the gospel. “It was not worth it.”
Tóibín’s masterstroke in The Testament of Mary is to give the reader a way to believe. People who take things on faith often don’t require proof, but a follower of fiction can be a slightly more awkward creature. In trying to gain an understanding of the world, a reader looks for fiction that feels true. Only the very best writers can navigate the choppy waters of a reader’s conviction and this is the point where writing becomes an art rather than a skill. A novel exists in the space of what we know and what we don’t. It defines the gap between what we think and how we feel.
Tóibín reinvents the story of Mary by opening up this gap. We know the Bible. In Tóibín’s telling, the writers of the gospel were attempting to tell a story about redemption. When they hear Mary’s version of the crucifixion, they discount it and go on to write about a resurrection instead. We feel a mother who has lost her son. Tóibín’s intimate approach makes Mary feel more credible and human than the other versions of her we’ve come across before, whether they be in a crèche, a church or on a piece of toast. To her, the crucifixion was a horrific tragedy and this intuitively feels right. No parent could see the torture and death of his or her child in any other way.
Tóibín has set himself a similar task to that of the writers of the gospel. He is retelling story that shapes how we see the world around us. He has fit his story in between what we know and how we feel. The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true. Or this is how someone who has faith in fiction might read the book. And I am a believer.
Joan Silber’s most recent novel, The Size of the World, is sweeping yet intimate, the kind of book that will take you across continents, and deep into characters’ individual lives. She is the author of the story collection, Ideas of Heaven, which was nominated for the National Book Award, as well as four other works of fiction.The Millions: The Size of the World is billed as a novel, although it could also be called a novel-in-stories or a collection of linked stories. While the book is in fact short stories that are either tangentially or deeply connected, it has the narrative drive of a more conventional novel. Really, it’s addictive. When you were writing the book, did you conceive of it as belonging to a particular genre? How did you balance writing separate narratives while still maintaining such delightful readability?Joan Silber: I did have the idea that I wanted to write a composite fiction more unified than what I’d done before – a hybrid between the novel and linked stories – but I didn’t exactly know what I was doing till I was into it. Which is to say, I made it up as I went along but I mostly knew what I was after. It was very gratifying to me to see how certain characters (Owen especially, who has the ending chapter) could come in again and be re-imagined in a way that pushed the story further. I’m very glad if the connections themselves caused a kind of narrative suspense.I knew this form would suit a book about people leaving home, with settings in Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, etc. But sometimes I think I won’t ever go back to writing a single-plotted novel. There’s a quote from John Berger, “Never again will a single story be told as if it’s the only one.” I think that’s pretty much what I believe, and this method fits with that, for me.TM: Last month you wrote for The Millions about reading books written by the citizens of the countries you’re traveling in. Did this reading prepare and/or inspire you to pen your novel? What other kinds of research, if any, did you do for this book?JS:I love doing research. Well, it’s easier than writing. In the early stages the research gives me details – Michael Herr’s Dispatches told me civilians in Vietnam were not liked by the military, for instance. Later, I zoom in on what I want – after I had written about an American woman married to a southern Thai Muslim, I went hunting for historical material on southern Thailand. And I found a great memoir by a tin prospector that served as the basis for another section.I’m addicted to online research. While I was writing the book, I hit Google many, many times a day, looking up the Feast of San Giuseppe in Sicily or the rules for Thai monks or the languages of Indian groups in Chiapas, Mexico.TM: I love to teach your story “My Shape” (which appears in Ideas of Heaven and was recently anthologized in the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction) because it’s a great example of how to tell a story in lush, detailed summary, rather than depicting it largely in scene. This pacing technique returns in The Size of the World, where you manage to capture a character’s whole life (or close to that) in a single chapter. Is this is a conscious craft decision on your part? What’s attractive to you about this kind of storytelling?JS: I have two somewhat contradictory impulses at this point in my life. I’m a miniaturist by nature – I love the small moment seen intensely. And I love the sweep of time passing. (In real life too, it moves me to see how people surprise themselves by where they end up.) It was a nice discovery for me to see that summary could be written as if it were scene, drawn with details. And this allowed me to get the intimacy of close narration into stories with a broader scope.I do like life-stories. The deepest ironies are in those lurching shifts people make, bit by bit.TM: The narratives in The Size of the World are all told in the first person, as are the stories in Ideas of Heaven. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the first person? What have been its benefits and drawbacks for you?JS: I came a little late to first person – my first two books were written without it. It strikes me now (I just thought this) that, oddly enough, I came to it as I began to move further from myself. Perhaps third-person at first gave me a distance I needed, and then I needed something else. I’m always trying to capture the emotional logic of characters, what they say to themselves about what they’re doing. I like the directness of hearing them sum themselves up. I’m not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices. The sentences are meant as translations of their thoughts.If there’s a decision about whether to “style” the prose to sound historical or flavored with vernacular, I usually opt for neutral wording. So, for instance, in the chapter about Annunziata, who comes from Sicily to New Jersey, I avoided inflecting her English (she’d probably think in Sicilian anyway) but I took pains to convey her reasoning.”Pains” is right. It takes a lot of trial-and-error to get the voices, especially at first. But the commenting that first-person voices can do is very handy for jumping over spans of time.TM: Ideas of Heaven was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004, and you were one of five women finalists. I was dismayed by the outcry following the nomination announcement; how did you deal with such reactions?JS: I think critics felt left out of the loop, since they’d never heard of us. (I’d heard of most of us, actually.) Their strongest objection was that we weren’t famous, which we already knew. I didn’t immediately think the criticism was anti-female, but after a while I came to think that some of it was. The good part was that we five got to know each other – we had dinners at my house and at Lily’s and have lunched in recent times. Christine Schutt has a terrific new novel out (Kate Walbert and I were at the kick-off reading) and Lily Tuck has a biography of the writer Elsa Morante out very soon. And we all like to think that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s daughter was named Willa and not Kimberly because of our advice.There were many good after-effects for me. A few months after the nomination, The New York Review of Books ran a great piece by Lorrie Moore, on that book and my others. What writer doesn’t want that? I feel that the nomination put me on the map and is the reason I’ve been getting good coverage on this new book.TM: Jessica on the Written Nerd blog calls you one of the most underrated writers in America, even after your National Book Award nomination. How do you feel about such a title?JS: I was very thrilled to see what she wrote.TM And, because this is a lit blog, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?JS: I can think of two – Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a story collection, and Margot Livesey’s novel, The House on Fortune Street. Toibin (whose previous book, The Master, I unexpectedly loved) packs each story with deft complexity, a resistance to the obvious, and a level of insight that is both cutting and humane. There’s something beautifully startling about his work – I’m still trying to figure out how he does it. Margot Livesey’s latest, The House on Fortune Street, is a novel with four interlocking parts, quite brilliantly composed. The plot has a center – there is the puzzle of a suicide to be solved – but it spins out in other directions. My judgment of various characters kept shifting and getting turned around. Especially remarkable is the nuanced treatment of a decent man with a Lewis Carroll-like attraction to young girls. A rare and original book.