Fear of William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, is a rite of passage for Catholics in New Jersey. Children and grandchildren of immigrants, their childhoods are suffused with the supernatural. Crucifixes, not plain crosses, hang above doorframes. Catholic school closings brought those children to public schools, where the vocal faith of their Protestant classmates seems foreign. Catholics are an idiosyncratic bunch. We allow our theologies to splinter, moving in the directions of our personal desires and demons. In one of the strangest states in the union, a place where webbed highways connect farms to coasts to wrecked cities, Catholic children sneak glances at the film, worried that it might come true.
The novelist and critic William Giraldi’s hometown of Manville is largely indistinguishable from my own roots in Hanover Township. We are separated by a half-hour drive on clogged Route 287. Our shared upbringing made me surprised to read that although his mother saw The Exorcist while pregnant with him, Giraldi did not watch the film until more than 30 years later. He admits that he might have avoided the film since he was a “child of Roman Catholicism, weaned on drama, ritual, hocus-pocus, and flesh-fetishism that for eons have made Catholicism an attractive option for those who crave pageantry.” The Exorcist did not scare him. He lived through the Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which showed that evil was “more terrifyingly, the work of average psychopaths,” not the devil.
Giraldi skewers the film in this essay, although his criticisms are delivered with the smirk of someone who is trying to convince himself there is nothing to fear. He thinks The Strangers (2008) is a far more effective work of terror, since there is the “very real possibility that this can happen to you: no incubi or other paranormal nonsense.” He quotes from James Baldwin’s masterful 1976 book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work, noting Baldwin’s rebuke of The Exorcist’s central premise:
I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff…in the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens…and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror…[The devil] does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.
Giraldi channels Baldwin when he writes that the “psyche needs Satan, his minions, his habitat; we need those metaphors to illustrate the horrors deep within us, the awfulness of being human.”
I enjoyed Giraldi’s essay, even if I disagree with him here; ontologically, his assertion doesn’t mean Satan couldn’t also exist. Many of our most forceful metaphors have real figures. But what has always scared me most about The Exorcist is not merely possession and helplessness, but that this drama, however hyperbolic, occurs within a home. It is a film of hallways and bedrooms. In one infamous scene, actress Chris McNeil has a house party attended by the director of her current film, Burke Dennings, as well as several members of the Georgetown community. Chris’s young daughter, Regan, comes downstairs, and tells a guest — an astronaut — “you’re gonna die up there.” She then urinates on the carpet. But immediately before that scene, Burke, drunk and belligerent, gets in an argument with the McNeil butler, Karl. Burke calls Karl a Nazi. Karl chokes Burke before they are broken apart. Burke laughs, claps his hands, and asks what is being served for dessert. This tightly shot, shadowed moment is lost among the more gory and obscene sequences, but it struck a chord with me. What Giraldi found wanting in The Exorcist was real life terror. I found evil right there, in the kitchen.
It is important to understand these cultural and religious tensions to appreciate Giraldi’s fictional approach, which began with the satirical Busy Monsters (2011), but reaches a new level in his second novel, Hold the Dark. Giraldi’s critical treatment of The Exorcist echoes a line from his first novel: “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all.” Critic D.G. Myers correctly places Giraldi in the same breath as Christopher Beha. Beha’s first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (2012), was concerned with questions of faith, although at the time Beha identified as a lapsed Catholic, both in essays and interviews (Beha told Terry Gross “I’m someone who was raised Catholic and was indeed a believing Catholic, not just a cultural Catholic by upbringing, who then lost his faith. And in lots of ways, faith became much more interesting to me once I didn’t have it.”).
With the recent release of Beha’s second novel, Arts & Entertainments, he now identifies as a rare practicing Catholic writer of literary fiction. While talking about how his new novel might be seen as a satirical counter to the “very narrow version of scientific materialism” present in celebrity and reality television culture, Beha sounds like an eloquent apologist: “If you believe that God has endowed each of us with a soul and placed us here for some reason other than our own gratification, it becomes more difficult to treat the rest of the world as bit players in your own personal drama.” As for literature:
The publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don’t include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include — often just a species of madness — bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn’t occur to them. Whatever one’s beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
Beha’s evolution as a Catholic doesn’t surprise me. Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religion. It is indelible. A tattoo. One of the difficulties of writing about a Catholic writer’s religious practice is that practice might depend on the day of the week, the location of the moon. Although he no longer professes the faith, Giraldi is, through and through, a Catholic writer. Beha is interested in representing how Catholicism affects contemporary reality. Giraldi depicts a soulless, surreal world, where evil is overwhelming. Their foundations are the same. Their performances differ.
Giraldi opens Hold the Dark with an epigraph from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s long poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth.” Giraldi read Hopkins as “penance and purification. Penance because every former Catholic feels the guilt pangs of apostasy.” In an essay on the Jesuit poet, he references the “molars of melancholy” and the “tarred abyss” of Hopkins’s life, and channels the poet Geoffrey Hill when summarizing Hopkins’s passion: “Last days and last things are always looming. The time for astonishment is short. Stretch for austerity made sublime. Cry the miracles of God.”
The tension that occurs when an unbeliever so effectively uses the language of belief makes Hold the Dark a charged work. The novel begins with an ominous note: “The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut.” The children are taken without “a scream, not a howl to give witness.” One of the children kidnapped from this isolated Alaska town is the six-year-old son of Medora Slone, who responded by “trek[ing] over the hills and the across the vale all that evening and night and into the blush of dawn with the rifle across her back and a ten-inch knife strapped to her thigh. The revenge she wanted tasted metallic.”
All this happens on the first page, and Giraldi doesn’t let up. His pace creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. Medora writes Russell Core, a wolf expert, to “Come and kill [the wolf] to help me.” Her husband Vernon is fighting his own battle in a desert war, where a soldier knives out the “eyes and tongues of the dead — these would be his keepsake.”
Core’s arrival as an outsider to Keelut gives Giraldi an opportunity to describe setting without sounding contrived. Medora’s cabin is sketched in pared sentences, as is the town:
Adjacent to some cabins were plywood kennels for sled dogs. Unlabeled fifty-five-gallon drums, rust-colored, most with tops torched off. Shovels and chain saws and snow machines. Coleman lanterns dented and broken. Gas-powered auger to drill lake ice. Blue tarp bunged around a truck’s engine on sawhorses. Vehicles mugged by snow and stranded. The church an unpainted A-frame beside the schoolhouse. And all around, those hills with howls hidden within.
Readers of Cormac McCarthy will find precedent, but not mirror, in the careful description of Blood Meridian. Giraldi creates a rhythm with these descriptions. The repetition is like stakes in this Alaskan ground, a tangible contrast to the moments when his prose becomes more lyric, as when Russell longingly looks at Medora: “The firelight had died and the blue-white night was unnaturally intense around her. He saw the folds of her waist, the weighted breasts falling to either side of her rib cage, the cup of flesh at her elbow. He lay unmoving in a kind of fear looking at her over his cosseted body, his breath stifled lest she hear him watching, lest he disrupt this midnight vigil.” In a world where children disappear into the dark, even the remaining adults seem like ghosts.
Giraldi’s concrete topography contrasts with the aphoristic pronouncements of his characters. Medora assures Russell that “The wildness here is inside us …Inside everything.” Keelut is unique. “There’s something off,” Medora says, “something wrong with the sky here.” Although Russell is pragmatic, assuring Medora that the wolves are “nothing more” than “hungry animals,” either this place or her presence begins to inhabit his psyche. Unable to find her missing son, he returns to her cabin, where he notices a door that leads to an unfinished root cellar. There he discovers her son’s frozen body.
The revelation upends the plot at the right moment. Vernon, injured, returns home from war, and Medora disappears, the target of a manhunt. Vernon is silent when asked about his wife, although later he does more than simply not cooperate with the police. He wants to find her on his own terms. Giraldi’s plot is tight, and best experienced in the actual paragraphs, not summarized here. This is one of the few novels that earns the title of literary thriller, so the thrills should remain in the actual book.
Between the many bullets and arrows, Giraldi is also building an examination of evil. This is a new Catholic fiction, one forged in the smithies of writers who reject belief but retain reverence for religious language. His work recalls McCarthy, a fellow lapsed Catholic, in more than mere prosody. Bryan Giemza notes that McCarthy’s “literally liturgical” prose shows his “fascination with the mystery of evil,” a description that could also be applied to Giraldi. His characters speak with real fear. One of the investigators worries “there are forces in this world you cannot digest or ever hope to have hints of.” The narrow slice of Alaska in Hold the Dark is a place of ritual and prophecy, where violence is the only future in sight. Myers calls it “an archive of bloodshed,” and wonders if “Christ’s blood was ‘shed profusely in the scourging’ and ‘poured out on the cross’ (to quote the Church’s litany of the precious blood), why should anyone be surprised at the bloodbaths men create in order to seek out, again and again, the salvific torture of the flesh?” It’s a smart reading of a book that can handle such theological inquiry without demanding it. Giraldi’s endgame, in his fiction and his criticism, appears to be searching for transcendence in a world plagued with evil. Hold the Dark will be tough to stomach for many. It is a violent, dark novel, written by a man who thinks “knowledge and art are survival,” someone who still considers sin real.
Giraldi’s previously mentioned epigraph comes from a poem about the 1875 shipwreck of the SS Deutschland, in which five Franciscan nuns were among the dead. Hopkins’s poem is an elegy for those women, a prayer that they have gained redemption. Giraldi has discarded that theological framework, but remains artistically formed by those stories, and that formation gives power to his pages.
Writing about reality television draws on two forms, the recap and the treatise. Recaps work like box scores, recounting the highlights from last night’s episode, from drinks thrown in faces to the number of occupants in a given hot tub, all of it in rat-a-tat language that any sportswriter would recognize. Treatises find their common ancestor in the Roland Barthes of Mythologies, the first word in close-reading bottle caps, laundry detergents, and other products of a consumer society as if they were poems. It is staggering to consider the thousands of commenters who, whether they realize it or not, owe a debt to a mid-century French theorist.
The best writers are able to synthesize both forms. Right now, the favorite subject for these writers seems to be The Bachelor. Roxane Gay, Leigh Stein, Jennifer Weiner and many others pick apart the assumptions and nuances of this tragicomedy of contemporary mating rituals like Oxford dons parsing the meanings of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. (Feel free to make your own joke about Catherine’s status as a sacred object of veneration.)
My favorite entry in the growing corpus of reality television literature is “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from his 2011 collection, Pulphead. Sullivan adds a wrinkle to the recap/treatise approach by making the essay a profile. Thanks to the patronage of GQ, Sullivan visits Mike “the Miz” Mizanin, an early star of MTV’s The Real World. He meets reality in the flesh, you could say, and the encounter makes him, for lack of a better term, a believer.
“Here’s the surprising truth about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, the increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are. Think of it this way: if you come to my office and film me doing my job (I don’t have one, but that only makes the thought experiment more rigorous) you wouldn’t really see what it was like to watch me doing my job, because you’d be there watching me (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, interior auto-mediation, and so forth). But now add this: What if my job were to be on a reality show, being filmed, having you watch me, interior auto-mediation, and so forth? What if that were my reality, bros? Are your faces melting yet?”
I often thought of Sullivan’s essay while reading Arts & Entertainments, the new novel from Christopher Beha. It’s being billed as a media satire, which is inevitable when a novelist turns his attention to the machinations of fame. Not to say that it isn’t funny; my favorite zinger is the hit single of a Miley Cyrus-like celebutante, “Gettin’ My V Worked Up.” But when it comes to reality television, it’s clear that Beha is more interested in the reality than the television. As I reached the end, I felt the novel taking on an existential, almost religious feel.
Arts & Entertainments follows Eddie Hartley, a drama teacher at a Catholic prep school in his early 30s. He used to be an actor, with a few appearances in off-Broadway productions and even on Law & Order. But what he didn’t know, and what everyone else did, was that he wasn’t talented enough to be successful. His wife, Susan, works at an art gallery, and their combined salaries are just enough to keep up with the professionals of New York City. But they want a child, or at least Susan does. Conceiving doesn’t go well, thanks to Eddie’s lazy sperm, and their only chance is an in vitro treatment that they can’t afford.
Opportunity comes in the form of a class reunion. Eddie meets a web impresario who asks about his relationship with a certain TV star. When he was a struggling actor, Eddie’s girlfriend was a struggling actress who, unlike Eddie, was talented. Phenomenally so, to the point that she became the star of the most popular scripted drama on the air, a medical drama show that stretches the limits of credulity every week. If Eddie were to have a video of Martha, and the video were sufficiently, ahem, noteworthy, then there might be a lot of money in it for him.
Eddie does, in fact, have a video. But he doesn’t want anyone to know that it’s him. He edits himself out of the footage as best he can, lies to his wife about residuals from a horror film that’s become a cult hit in Korea, and starts making plans for the best family that science can provide.
It was here that I noticed a marked difference to Beha’s previous books, which are, in the very best sense, bookish. The Whole Five Feet, a memoir, chronicles the year Beha spent reading his way through all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library, along with the personal crises that rose up in his own life. What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a novel, is a story of literature and faith that is sure to send the heart of any English major a-flutter. These books portray people who think of their lives as books, and themselves as protagonists.
Eddie, however, no longer wants to be a protagonist. He simply wants to no longer feel like a failure, which is a pretty good definition of adulthood at this moment.
Money in hand, he visits the fertilization specialist. Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel 10:04, excerpted in The Paris Review, also features a character making the same kind of donation. One more scene of antiseptic ejaculation in literary fiction, and we’ll have a trend piece on our hands. The procedure is successful, to the point of excess: Susan is pregnant with triplets. And it is right at this point that the Martha Martin sex tape appears, demanding the culture’s unwavering attention.
Though it’s a story of the digital present, Arts & Entertainments can remind you of a noir film in the meticulous way that it catalogs the consequences of a single, monstrously stupid decision. Eddie’s identity in the video is found out almost immediately, the media being even more diligent in ferreting out the secrets of a celebrity than an elected official. Eddie loses his job. Susan kicks him out. But they are still in the orbit of Martha Martin’s fame, and this presents opportunities. Needing money to raise her triplets, Susan accepts an offer from a mysterious producer to become the star of her own reality show. Unable to appear on her show, Eddie signs a contract for his own, aided by a young woman well-versed in the kabuki of reality TV, and who poses as his girlfriend for the sake of the show. But if their relationship appears on TV, and everyone thinks they’re together, then is it truly a pose? Are your faces melting, bros?
Beha, and Sullivan, are asking what reality values in humanity. Certainly not beauty, whether physical or moral. “Hotness” would be the best term for the kind of beauty found on such programs, but there are any number of shows that feature personalities whose appeal doesn’t lie in how evenly their tanning spray is applied. Reality TV values watchability, a spectacle of the self that viewers can’t look away from, like a train wreck. With no choice but to play the role of himself, Eddie becomes, in effect, his own train wreck.
To his surprise, and quite possibly to the reader’s, Eddie finds that being watchable has its advantages. “He’d worried at first about losing himself in the part, but the more committed he became to showing the camera what it wanted, the more persistently he felt the presence of an unseen self.” Reality TV allows the soul to grow, not wither? What kind of novelist would make such a point? Beha and Jennifer Weiner have carried on a friendly rivalry on Twitter; maybe Beha lost a bet?
Gambler or not, Beha is the kind of novelist who believes that the term soul still has descriptive value. He has written movingly about Catholicism and the fencing match he’s carried on with it throughout his life. His earlier books looked to literature to imbue life with a sense of the religious, a tradition that stretches back to Augustine, if not further. But in his new book, Beha finds people talking about God in more unexpected places.
Late in the novel, Eddie meets with Moody, the mysterious producer of Susan’s reality show, trying to make an appearance in his wife’s life before she gives birth to their triplets. We learn that Moody once attended divinity school, and the experience informed the way he does his job.
“In the world I used to live in, good is whatever God wants. That’s it. There’s no other measuring stick. There is no good before God. When we say that God is good, all we’re saying is that God is God. In the world I live in now, it’s the same thing. There’s only one criterion. What does the audience want? Does the audience want you to be honest? Does the audience want you to be kind? . . . The audience has only one way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches.”
The popular image of the reality TV producer is Christof, played by Ed Harris in The Truman Show. The producer as God, as his name helpfully informs us. Moody is saying the exact opposite. The audience is God, and he is its servant. What could such a reversal mean?
The question reminds me of theology classes that went over the attributes of God. Omniscience was on there, meaning that God is all-seeing and all-knowing, followed by omnipotence, meaning that God is all-powerful. The two were the subject of many a term paper, students wrestling earnestly with the question of why God would let terrible things happen to his creations. If humans were omniscient, we thought, maybe we could do a better job.
And now, thanks to the media environment we’ve created for ourselves, we are, in some sense, omniscient. We can know everything there is to know about the people on our shows and newsfeeds. But this omniscience hasn’t come with omnipotence. I’d imagine that being more informed is leading many people to feel less powerful, as if we’re comic book heroes whose superpowers are less of a gift than a liability. The only way we feel godlike is by watching. As Moody says, there is nothing else we can do.
It’s under this half-divine gaze that Eddie feels, for the first time, that half-formed soul he has within him. Arts & Entertainments is ambiguous as to whether or not this mediated soul is the most we can hope for in this age. But there is, after all, another way of watching others, one that brings us closer to the inner realities of human beings. It’s what we’ve been doing all along.
We can read novels.
I am on a train to Paris reading Her Not All Her: On/with Robert Walser by Elfriede Jelinek, number 18 in the Cahier Series, translated by Damion Searls, with paintings by Thomas Newbolt. “Writers, not unlike generals, often make the most tedious preparations before they proceed to the attack and bravely deliver your battles. Don’t leave your weapons at home all the time! Are you doing it on purpose? From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! That’s what it means to be an artist!”
Sometimes my life seems like an endless process of conquest; other times it feels like an interminable subjugation in exile. People often ask me, do you like it better here in London or in America. The only correct answer is “Stop asking me that stupid question.” When I’m not doing something for money, I read the new books that drift in from the homeland. The first one this year was A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about his conquest of Berlin and various pilgrimages to Spain, Japan and Ukraine. The Berlin chapter is potently dense, the best thing written on that city’s colonization by American artists. The Spain bit is a buddy movie starring Tom Bissell in Danny Glover-like “I’m too old for this shit” mode. The Japan part has the absurdist quality of a Beckett monologue. And although I am undomesticated and don’t generally go in for family stuff, the resolution of daddy issues in the Ukraine section is comically and dramatically satisfying. The locations don’t matter in the end because you read Lewis-Kraus for his smooth prose style.
You read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder for his smooth way with storytelling, an overvalued quality except when it’s done this well. Who thought the sad New York literary manchild genre could be reconquered to center its gaze not on a mirror but on a woman and who knew the best way to do that would be to filter it through a Catholic morality? This former altar boy didn’t, but amen, peace be with you, and also with you.
Storytelling is not the first thing you look for in a book by Joshua Cohen. You read him for his transgressions, his jokes, his puns, and his piles of similes: “introducing this Word into the story would be…like inviting friends over to my apartment for dinner then serving them individual portions of feces garnished with poems about how much I hate friends and the poetry would rhyme.” It makes you think: what’s worse, actual shit or shitty poetry? A silly blurb on Four New Messages compares Cohen’s last book Witz to a comet. The new one is more like a cluster of asteroids impacting the heartland: a big dust cloud and fossils ensue.
One of the many amazing things about Jim Praley, the narrator of Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa, is that he finds humorlessness sexy. A Map of Tulsa seems to me the third major blow in a series of what-it’s-like-to-be-me-type novels, after Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and that these books will be the litty thing the Obama administration era is remembered for. Lytal’s book has a bit more of a plot than the other two, and the plot involves a penthouse in a skyscraper, an oil fortune, a motorcycle accident, dancing in bars, taking pills, and having sex outside. But mostly it’s about walking around the city — your hometown, reconquered — and wondering what your destiny will be. You probably haven’t heard of this book because it doesn’t come out until April.
Now I have crossed through the Chunnel and I am going to go back to reading Elfriede Jelinek. Next year I plan to read all the posthumous works of Laura (Riding) Jackson.
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