I recently traded music for podcasts as the soundtrack for my long commute to work. My favorite is novelist Brad Listi’s interview series, Other People, which has run nearly 400 episodes since late 2011. Listi’s interviews are somehow both more relaxed and more personal than the typical author conversation.
Listi regularly interviews writers who publish with independent or small presses. I soon noticed a trend: the writers were often Catholic. Granted, that designation could be parsed for eternity. Some writers were cradle Catholics; others converted. Some were lapsed Catholics who retained a nostalgic attachment to the faith, while others embraced atheism. Listi would include his own Catholic youth in the conversations. Some writers were forthright about their Catholic influences or beliefs, while others were more guarded. Readers of independent literature would find these names familiar: Joyelle McSweeney, Jamie Iredell, Roxane Gay, Aubrey Hirsch, Rick Barthelme, Alissa Nutting, Matthew Salesses, and more (Listi’s Catholic roster extends beyond the small presses, including George Saunders, William Giraldi, Tom Perotta, T.C. Boyle, and others).
Had I stumbled upon some Catholic literary subculture, the apex of which was a podcast based in southern California? I wrote Listi, who explained that the Catholic subtext was “purely incidental,” although he is “attracted to writing that comes from faith, writing that attempts to grapple, either directly or indirectly, with questions of why we’re here and how to be in this world and how to take care of suffering and what’s going to happen when we die, and so on.” Listi’s podcast is an unintentional incubator for a curious strand in contemporary independent and small press writing: God talk.
During a recent interview for The Believer, I asked Joyelle McSweeney to expand on the Marian devotion she’d teased during her Other People appearance. A professor at Notre Dame, McSweeney is the author of numerous experimental books, as well as the co-publisher of Action Books, a translation press. When I asked McSweeney how her Catholic faith has formed her identity as an artist, her response was illuminating: “My notion of art is very maximalist and souped-up: I love spectacle, overload, magic materials, magic words, incantation and litany, incarnation and possession, spilling and wounds. Art as a sacred event.”
McSweeney offered the 16th-century vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a metonym for Catholic narrative art: “Mary, here, is an artist who pushes her message through medium after medium: voice, breath, air, saint, rose, paint, cloak…her sacred image is a hemispheric symbol of resilience and resistance. The Virgin’s image has been reproduced in decals, spray paint, t-shirts, tattoos, you name it. It’s an image that moves. It uses every medium: high, low, who cares. Art doesn’t care.” In the present literary moment, earnest religious belief is a subversive, counter-cultural move. God is not absent, but God seems more ironic metaphor than serious matter.
Catholic literature is at a strange crossroads. Dana Gioia’s 2013 essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” diagnosed a paradox: “Although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts — not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.” Gioia’s essay requires a close reading; he qualifies these wide strokes. Catholic writing is not dead, but it is quiet and hidden. Most importantly for Gioia, Catholic literature is not as essential to the secular artistic conversation as it was before the Second Vatican Council. For Catholic writers, his essay was a difficult pill to swallow, but sometimes we need such medicine.
Gioia’s observation was not a matter of volume, but of cultural significance. In my book The Fine Delight, as well as an earlier essay for The Millions, I have attempted to document the notable diversity of contemporary American Catholic writing. Gioia would agree that Catholic writers are creating good work, but his contention is that work makes fewer waves outside Catholic readerships than it did during the days of Flannery O’Connor. Fair enough; we can save that discussion for another essay. What interests me now is this fascinating intersection between the independent and small press world — which often contains stylistically innovate writing and voices from the margins — and a resurgence of writing that directly grapples with faith. This is not entirely surprising. McSweeney and I discussed how two Catholics of a previous generation — Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol — offered both explicit and implicit frameworks for our electronic literary moment. Although we might be typing away in dark rooms at far distances, our electronic intersections might rekindle a sense of community that has been lost for a generation behind closed doors.
Edward Mullany’s newest book, The Three Sunrises, deepens the connection between independent writing and God. These three novellas are the final part of a trilogy that began with If I Falter At The Gallows. Speaking about that first book, Mullany said “If I was to say that Catholicism means one thing to me as a person, and another thing to me as an artist, I think I would be mistaken, though it isn’t easy for me to explain why. My art is often aberrant and unorthodox, but it is never (I hope) heretical. Art can be a weird synthesis of personality, technique, and belief.” Mullany grew up in Australia, where he received a Jesuit education, replete with the idea
that any work that is not evil, even one that is normally considered insignificant, can be spiritually meritorious if it is performed with a certain attitude of the soul. I mention this now because I think it reveals a ‘broadness’ in Catholic thought, even if it also suggests the development of faith via rote or repetition. Its willingness to find grace in mundane situations mirrors the willingness of art to consider anything as a subject.
Another contemporary Catholic writer, John Dermot Woods, explains “there are so many prejudices surrounding this faith, that people automatically misconstrue what that affirmation (of belief) means.” In conversation, Mullany and Woods return to the idea that Catholicism is a “non-fundamentalist” faith, a faith grounded in symbol, metaphor, and text. Mullany continues: “A writer, or an artist, has to be true to the reality of the world, in all of its profanity and its mundaneness. You don’t write what you want the world to be. But that doesn’t mean that your faith, if you’re a person of faith, has no value or effect on your technique. Faith shapes the context.”
Catholic context, in brief: sinners make better characters than saints, and great fiction is concerned with souls. The Three Sunrises is concerned with the fate of souls, but is also a dark, violent book. Mullany has addressed this contrast elsewhere:
The violence isn’t gratuitous as much as it is the consequence of some kind of indifferent cosmic force. This strikes me as strange because I’m actually Catholic; I don’t believe in an indifferent God. It’s this biblical tenor that’s more significant to me than what might be called an existential or even a depressive tenor…Blood in my work is usually an indication that a battle is being waged for a soul.
Mullany’s melancholic characters seek God less for comfort and more for confrontation. For answers. The book begins with the novella Legion, which is prefaced by a scene from the story of the Gerasene demoniac. The novella’s unnamed central character appears by turns nondescript, mysterious, and malevolent. His strangeness causes him to lose his office job. He only appears human when interacting with, or thinking about, his mother. His visits to her home are the few moments when the narrative is not focused on urban loneliness.
The usage of “legion” suggests the possibility of multiple characters, or a certain supernatural sense. Mullany delivers the novella in prose-poetic vignettes that sometimes only last a paragraph. In the first scene, the character slices a vein on his forearm with a razor, drips the blood into a coffee mug, and drinks it. Elsewhere, limbs and skulls are hidden in his apartment. Not quite Baltimore Catechism fare.
Mullany’s method, though, is to give metaphor flesh. In one scene, the narrator clamps pliers around “a tooth I was about to wrench out of my mouth.” He stops when his phone rings: “I needed silence in the apartment, no distractions.” When he finally does the dead, the tooth drops into the sink and “bounced around, making a tinkling sound.” His embrace of pain as a way to give shape to his body has saintly precedent.
Surreal events increase as the novella progresses. The narrator finds a horse in his apartment. Subway trains are empty. Yet the narrator shrugs. The only event that stirs his soul is the death of his mother. Legion offers the reader no comfort at the conclusion. The Book of Numbers, the second novella, does much the same. The story begins with an epigraph from Waiting for Godot, and then the line “Two men walked alone in the desert.” The second man soon disappears — “his very flesh seemed to disintegrate” — before the first man is carried away by eagles, “his head drooping, his chin on his chest, his legs and feet trailing in the wind.” His fantastical adventure brings him from swimming an underground river, sliding down a nearly eternal tunnel, and, finally, becoming an animated skeleton.
Halfway through this metamorphosis, one character makes a prescient point: “Maybe the place I’ve been trying to get to…I will never get to. Maybe this is all there is.” And later: “At best, the world is a compilation of atoms that amount to something about which I understand nothing.” At the risk of being reductive, one signifying element of independent literature is the embrace of such ambiguous narratives. One distinctive element of Mullany’s entry in this canon is his embrace of salvific language within that ambiguity. He replaces the catacombs of boredom with the ancient art of eternal contemplation. The book concludes with The Three Sunrises, a novella that dramatizes a man’s discovery of his doppelgänger. Unlike most tales of doubles, Mullany’s entry is less concerned with a battle between bodies, and more how the original man retreats from the loves and cares of his life and reconsiders what it means to be human: “I began to feel the way I imagined an amnesiac would feel, though I did not have amnesia of the memory but of the soul.”
A simultaneous turn inward and eternal is not exclusive to Catholic literature, but it is certainly endemic to it. When the main character says “There is a darkness that exists within the light; that is not an actual darkness, but is the absence of light and darkness both,” he is speaking an ancient language. The Three Sunrises feels like it were written by the hand of a 5th-century monk dropped in present-day Brooklyn, and asked to document what is present, and what is absent.
In one sun-soaked scene, the narrator stands “where State Street curved around past Battery Park,” and he sees four old women disappear into a church. “They were sightseeing,” he says, and “they likely felt obliged” to enter this place of worship. He waits for them to exit, and when they do, moving “slowly, smiling to themselves,” he waited “until I understood which direction they’d be going before deciding which direction I would go. Because I’d decided to follow them, regardless of what their destination would be.”
Mullany’s book reminds me of Robert Penn Warren’s poem “Evening Hawk,” which begins on a grand note — a hawk’s geometric flight “above pines and the guttural gorge” signifying the passing of time. In a matter of lines, the poem ends with the opposite of time’s eternity: the ephemera of humanity, where history would “drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” Warren was surrounded by Catholics like Allen Tate, but was himself more of a seeker. Warren would appreciate Mullany’s religious sense. Something notable is happening within literature on the margins of publishing. Although its destination is unknown, its essence is ancient.