Amazing Grace: Reading Kelly J. Beard’s ‘An Imperfect Rapture’

Absolutism is a rhetoric of political convenience, a flashcard deck of judgments with Old Testament swiftness and certainty. Blue collar, white collar, and the billionaire class. Urban and rural. Red state versus blue state. Fact and fable. Each term generates its own litany of forgivable and unforgivable sins. These absolutes efface our desire to understand—a yearning necessary for true intellectual growth and narrative, as Malcolm Heath notes in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Kelly J. Beard’s memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, speaks across the void between those absolutes. The youngest child to a set of parents devoted to each other and the fundamentalist principles of the Foursquare Church, Beard takes the courageous plunge back into the 1960s and ’70s of her youth. As she explores her past, she slowly shines light onto the events that scaffolded her childhood and adolescence: domestic violence, disability, mental illness, addiction, poverty, shame, and the dissonance between the promises of faith and the family’s dire financial straits.

Neither elegy nor ode, neither dirge nor fanfare, Beard’s memoir carefully attunes the harmonic resonances between her memories, her vulnerability, and her own capacity for forgiveness. The first scene presents these elements with a dynamic swell. The opening paragraph is a single sentence—“My mother saw demons.”—a fierce downbeat that pulls the reader into a tangle of fraught intimacies. In this scene, Beard’s mother is confiding in her Bible study group from Palm Spring’s Desert Chapel. As a member of the church’s telephone prayer chain, she received calls to minister to the ill, or to those showing signs of demonic possession: “My mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from youth services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of the pool, gurgling like a baby.”

Beard’s parents leave their own children at home to minister to her; they “stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool.” It’s a harrowing story. Yet, through this scene, Beard telegraphs the issues that vexed her early years. Her parents’ dedication to each other and their faith left their children neglected and abandoned—even if the kids were unaware of it at the time. As Beard’s mother recalls the prayer visit to the woman in the pool for her church group, the events of the previous night pulse for Beard with the discomfort of a dull ache:
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.

I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything.
The moment is an otherworldly snapshot of a night in the Beard household, perfectly compressed. The Palm Spring house is claustrophobic—she can hear her father in the bathroom and she is literally bunked snug above her sister. Here, Beard intimates a few truths about her family. Her parents are on a mission, together. They believe in the power of prayer above all else. And for those two things, they’ll leave their children in the dark of night.

Despite this vague awareness, Beard writes, “I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream-and-black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach.”

It’s not hard to imagine Beard as a child reaching for her mother’s apron strings, in the hope of grasping some tether to genuine affection, with true comfort always out of reach.

Vulnerable and hurt, yet patient and forgiving, Beard’s tone throughout the memoir evades the polemical rage of memoirs like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which wield domestic violence, poverty, and substance abuse as an ideological cudgel. As Flannery O’Connor puts it in her essay collection Mystery and Manners, “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

And the Beard family certainly trembles. The children cower if their father wears a certain belt, because they know the slightest accident or indiscretion—something as simple as spilling milk—can provoke him. They endure his physical lashings, alongside the verbal ones doled out by their mother. (While she does not condone the abuse, Beard’s empathy compels her to grapple with her parents’ specters: her father’s impoverished upbringing, her mother’s loneliness.) Beard contends with eyesight bad enough to render her legally blind, but the blessings of modern optometry pale when a prayer meeting seems to heal her sister’s eye: “For my parents, Barb’s experience seemed to dilute the miracle of the half-inch thick glasses that focused my sight.”

But there are perils beyond the household and the church. When Beard’s father loses his job as a salesman for Farmhand equipment, life in Palm Springs becomes untenable. The family uproots for Colorado, then Montana, as her father chases odd jobs (traveling salesman, newspaper routes, ranch hand, and more) to provide a home for the family—not an easy task, for a man well beyond his middle years. Naturally, to resolve this apparent trial of Job, her parents turn to prayer. “And as happened more times than not,” Beard writes, “the answer to their prayers cost more than they expected.” Beard’s mother finds that her credits in a nursing program won’t transfer, and she has to retake classes in Colorado—amplifying her vindictiveness.

To compensate, Beard cycles through a revolving door of friends and experiments with drugs. For another memoirist, it would be easy to resort to a rhetoric of absolutes, of vindictive condemnation. But Beard’s elegant and direct prose teems with complexity and nuance. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, the memoir peels back the rind of anger and finds within a morsel of grace.

A pivotal scene demonstrates how the memoir shucks off the visceral, immediate reactions that might occur in real life, in fiction, or in a spur-of-the-moment telling. Beard’s parents had promised that she, then a teenager, could trick-or-treat with her friend Denise; instead, her parents saddle her with humiliating chores and her father beats her. For revenge, she runs off with Denise, and the two bunk away in a dorm room at the University of Colorado. There’s a hint of sexual awakening when, in the dorm room, “Denise and I glanced at each other like newlyweds.” And their time in the dorm lights in her an epiphany that, in the twilight years of her adolescence, will spark a passion for music and creative writing. “[I]t never occurred to me,” Beard writes, “that college could be exciting or anything other than a means to a job like teaching or nursing.” (Here, Beard’s work resembles such kin as Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland or Tara Westover’s Educated: In all of these memoirs, education equips the author with the desire to understand and the capacity to forgive.)

After a few days spent smoking and lingering together in a twin bed, Denise decides to go home, which triggers intense feelings of abandonment and fear: “In my head, I begged please don’t leave me please don’t leave me please don’t leave me.”

The memoir refuses to rage against Denise. Beard ends the scene and the paragraph, stating, “It will take me more than thirty years to see her decision as grace, to understand her mother’s desperate barter.” She glances toward the future, Halloween of 2004, when her own daughter gathers with friends before trick-or-treating. She sees in them a reflection of her young self: “In that moment, an opaque film will dissolve from my inner eye, and I will see in them what I missed in myself: how delicate their limbs, how fragile their lives. I will see the intricate, mostly inarticulate ties binding mother to daughter. I will glimpse an angel.”

What is truly masterful in An Imperfect Rapture, though, is the texture of Beard’s prose and her capacity to inflect each sentence with urgency, insight, and compassion. Like life, narrative involves so many acts of faith, ones that demand us to accept and revel in the fraught and the complex. That Beard transcends righteous anger through an ethic of forgiveness and tolerance—an ethic that demands that readers abandon the easy ideology of absolutes and assumptions—is an added grace of this vital memoir.

Bringing Voices Across Oceans: On Grace Talusan’s ‘The Body Papers’

The term “Asian American” is rooted in 1960s political activism but over the past several years, it has been expanded in use. It is now common to use “Asian American” to describe a literary genre. And although Filipinos are the second largest Asian demographic in the United States, and are the fourth largest immigrant group in the country, the narrative of the Filipino American remains trapped under the broadly stroked term “Asian American.” 

Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers pulls Filipino American memoir to the forefront of Asian American conscience with heartbreaking prose, taking on the impact of immigration, sexual abuse, medical trauma, and the diaspora via the documentation of—and a meditation on—brownness and her body. With conversational lucidity and subtle, direct prose, Talusan unveils an account of suffering—the short-and long-term impacts of unaddressed mental health needs, becoming a citizen, systematic racism, cancer, fertility, and filial piety. Confessional yet unapologetic, The Body Papers shows the lengths to which a writer will go to trace her lineage and find her identity, even if it means crossing oceans to unknown places. She modernizes the Philippine diaspora by peppering Tagalog vernacular in her prose and grounding the essays with medical records, immigration papers, and personal photos. 

With American suburbia and Catholicism as background, Talusan does what many children of immigrants do in adulthood: finally show up for the long awaited reckoning with our childhood memories of acculturation. “Our house was American on the outside, but Filipino on the inside. We left our shoes at the door and wore slippers inside the house. We had a tabo…an electric rice cooker…an altar with statues of the Santo Nino…and we would kneel together as a family…to pray the rosary.” Talusan memorializes the seemingly innocuous details of teenage, pained assimilation: putting hair lightening products in her raven hair, just like her blonde friends, and enduring microaggressions camouflaged as insights from school teachers and counselors who failed to recognize her cultural roots and racialized experience. 

Talusan explores lineage as a survival mechanism. Her documentation status, diaspora, and family dynamics lay groundwork for understanding the egregious sexual abuse she endured from her grandfather who she learns, after telling her family about the abuse, was a “relentless pedophile” whose abuse was protected by generations of silence and secrecy.

“All those years, I thought I was protecting the old man with my silence. I expected my father to beat my grandfather bloody. I thought the old man would be killed. Every day, I thought I’d been saving his life. My parents believed me. They did not seem very surprised to learn of my grandfather’s behavior. And that’s when I realized that he must have done this before. As soon as I told my parents what happened, they warned me to keep it quiet. I can forgive this reaction now—they knew a story could destroy you.”

In a nod to the paradoxes of Filipino American life, The Body Papers oscillates between anecdotes of erasure and hypervisibility—particularly when it comes to racial consciousness. As Talusan ages, she develops a deeper awareness of racial complexity and explores her own complicity and sense of inferiority because of white supremacy. Memories are framed with both leniency and criticism, but Talusan also incriminates herself for not fully grasping how white proximity has padded her anger and has fed her a false illusion of belonging. After she tells her high school counselor she wants her collegiate experience to be a more diverse experience, she uses the term “people of color” for the first time. In response, the white counselor compares his skin to hers, saying his skin, as a white man, is darker. He concludes, “I’m no more a person of color than you are.” 

Talusan investigates her response pattern: first quiet acquiescence that hides her outrage and then, later, self-admonishment for failing to articulate her anger. “I’m still mortified at how I acquiesced. At the time, the development of racial identity was still in the fetal stage. Maybe I wanted him to be right. I also wanted to believe that my life would not be negatively impacted by race. Even now, I wish this were true. As a high school senior, I had no clue how to talk about race to white people. I still have no clue how to navigate that minefield.” And she recognizes the lifelong influence of racial dominance. “Even now, reflexively, I want to protect my relationship with them at the expense of my own feelings. Like them, I’m also steeped in white supremacy.” 

There are multiple forms of trauma and healing processes that take place throughout the memoir. In her mid-30s, Talusan discovers that she has a family history of both breast and ovarian cancers. She opts for a double mastectomy after learning she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which marks her as highly vulnerable to a lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancers. At one point, Talusan’s healing processes overlap: “I felt oddly relieved, I realized, that the part of my body my grandfather had most admired had been severed from me.” And then, after an emotional battle and eventual concession to her husband who does not want children, she decides to have an oophorectomy which ends her dreams of becoming a biological mother.

In this unvarnished, graceful memoir, Grace Talusan delves into the most intimate to tell us unforgettable stories from her body. The Body Papers is a double-ringed narrative where immigration is more than regional displacement, family is both destructive and restorative, and trauma presents and re-presents itself in a number of ways across her lifetime. This astonishingly brave work breathes life into a past that most would hope to forget. Talusan, however, does something different. She offers a meditative tour of immigration, trauma, and family. The Body Papers beats a different drum of triumph and sings a rare song of honesty; the book is an understated marvel that continues to sound even after the story is finished.

László Krasznahorkai Comes Home

This September, Ottilie Mulzet’s superb English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be published, completing the novel cycle he began with Satantango and continued with The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the culmination of Krasznahorkai’s labors, a manic Greek chorus that infuses festive Technicolor into his multifaceted, bleak vision. It is Krasznahorkai’s funniest and most profound book and, quite possibly, also his most accessible. Krasznahorkai has hinted that this may be his final novel and, if that’s the case, then it is a tremendous sendoff to one of our most talented writers.

Baron is set in a dead-end Hungarian village riddled with gossips and backstabbers and structured with chapters ominously named after drumbeats. Plastic bags swirl through the air, and a gang of frightening—yet surprisingly human—Neo-Nazi bikers patrol the town. Bitter pomp and fierce one-upmanship reign freely. Everything in this remote village feels strangely universal: everyone blames refugees and “the Gypsies” for all of the country’s ills. Politics are waged in faultfinding and bogus positioning. Then, without explanation, a huge convoy of black luxury cars speeds through town, hypnotizing the residents as they pass. Approximating horsemen of the apocalypse, their procession preludes the village’s downfall.

In a bramble patch just outside town, a world famous professor lives in a hovel fashioned from garbage. The Wittgenstein-like professor has renounced attachment to the world (including, Krasznahorkai points out, his social media apps) and works to purge his thoughts in hopes of attaining his own type of nirvana. The experiment is short lived; he wakes one day to find his long-neglected daughter standing outside his hut, flanked with reporters and accosting him with a bullhorn, demanding he acknowledge her.

Back in town, Baron Béla Wenckheim arrives on the train. Despite his grandiose image, the Baron is befuddled and aloof and is only there because his family paid his horrible gambling debts in South America in exchange for his pledge to disappear and not cause the family further embarrassment. So, in hopes of returning to the place he once knew—and to the woman he once loved—the Baron disembarks only to be greeted with grand fanfare, replete with speeches from both the mayor and the police chief, detailing the ways they will use the funds they mistakenly assume the Baron intends to donate. That the whole thing, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, echoes Christ’s Passion is no mistake. The Baron suffers abandonment, accidentally insults the woman he returned to, and, in agony, finds himself wandering in a Gethsemane-like forest, vying for God’s attention. After his exit from the narrative, his clothes are divided and ruined by a homeless mob.

Coinciding with the Baron’s Gethsemane, one of the book’s most striking scenes describes the professor sitting in an empty train station, weighing belief in God. Though he knows he cannot prove—or even necessarily believe—in God, the professor considers the clear repercussions he must accept if the only alternative to our troubled existence is nonexistence. The denial of God is terrifying because the chaos we experience in our individual lives is only a repetition of the blind chaos gripping the universe. Without greater providence, culture is stunted and chaos is the only reality.

Krasznahorkai is an uncommonly generous writer. Even as he teases, maligns, and undermines his characters, he remains empathetic to their plights and blind spots, for he knows that even the most evil deeds are conjured by brokenness. Unable to find solace in the possibility of transcendence, Krasznahorkai’s characters find themselves mired in uneasy limbo, defending themselves from the chaotic world that grips them. And, finally, time runs out. The book’s closing passage is shocking, powerful, hilarious, inevitable, and about the darkest curtain drop one could imagine as the majority of the characters are wiped from existence without much explanation.

Almost every section in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming runs about 70 pages, and these sections flow easily as Krasznahorkai’s meandering prose swaps points of view at each paragraph break, allowing his characters’ opinions to mesh and conflict. Incredible distance is covered in an oddly intimate, if disorienting, way. While this tactic can make a new reader initially seasick, the reader who sticks with it finds the going easier and the rewards many. The emotional and psychological realizations Krasznahorkai can evoke are singular and breathtaking.

In sharp contrast to the perfectly whittled dialogue so prevalent in fiction today, very few direct quotations ever appear in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Rather, characters endlessly regurgitate and revise their statements, often describing a single action with two or more verbs in an attempt to either more accurately describe their actions or, more likely, better justify themselves. Perhaps they are being honest in what they report, and perhaps not. We never quite know, for these character’s truest selves—as in real life—remain inscrutable.

This, more than anything else, is what makes Krasznahorkai’s work worth reading. As the world seeks to reduce and streamline communication, and as our attention spans are attenuated by our thirst for digital-world dopamine-hits, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming presents a powerful rebuttal to our infatuation with easy, saccharine anger. We are, all of us, clumsy egomaniacs, and the truth is that things are messy, hard to understand, and almost impossible to pin down. As Krasznahorkai’s ragtag characters struggle forward, he reminds us that the words we speak are mere indicators of our vast, submerged realities.

These days, the general feeling is that the world has moved on from long, difficult novels. They are irrelevant, plodding dinosaurs whose sole purpose is to establish the gravitas of the author behind them. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the hard reset, capturing our frantic, pessimistic moment with frightening verisimilitude. The style is challenging, yes, but it is not self-serving. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming calls into question our acceptance of the crippling status quo, delivering universal truths in a way that few books can anymore. It is precisely the novel we need in these difficult, foreboding times.

That’s Her in the Spotlight, Losing Her Religion

This Is My Body, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s debut memoir, opens with the author on stage at The Refuge, an evangelical megachurch in a suburb of Houston where she works as worship leader, a role for which she must “look young, but not too young…pretty, but not too pretty.” In front of the stage, a white casket holding an 18-year-old girl sits open, obscured by the colored lights and the fog pouring from a machine backstage. “We’re both objects in this space,” Hammon writes, “the eighteen-year-old girl and me, two different kinds of painted dolls.”

Just before she begins to sing, Hammon’s phone vibrates in her dress pocket as she receives texts from a man she met an arts conference, “a man I might love, who is not the father of my eight-year-old daughter. Not my husband of twelve years.” Meanwhile, beside her on stage, Hammon’s husband, a member of the worship band, strums his guitar and waits for her to begin. “Much of the time these days, I don’t believe what I’m singing,” she writes, “What I believe doesn’t really matter though. I’m here to provide a service, to do a job I’m good at.” The scene culminates in Hammon’s increasing discomfort with both her personal faith and its performance: “I pull my eyebrows together and close my eyes as I sing, an expression of meaningful reflection, an expression I practice often,” she writes. “I close my eyes. I know how to do this. I impersonate someone who believes.”

The opening chapter holds in growing tension the threads we will follow as This Is My Body unfurls with a narrative propulsion that is sustained throughout. As each chapter jumps in place and time—from Houston in 2015 to New York in 2001 to Budapest in 2008—readers are oriented not by chronology or location but by Hammon’s developing sense of her own faith and of herself, as she moves from her “half-Jewish childhood” to a spiritually omnivorous young adulthood; from evangelical megachurches to missionary work abroad; from Bible study groups that promise to “[make] an unhappy marriage work” to group therapy sessions for sex and love addiction.

Wandering through this contemporary wilderness, Hammon displays a knack for memorable scenes and wry observations: in her mid-20s, after contracting HPV from a New York DJ she met “while doing lines of cocaine at a bar on Avenue A,” Hammon converts to Christianity and is baptized by two women in cut-offs and tank tops during a thunderstorm in the glow of Coney Island. “I’m underwater for just one second, maybe two,” she writes, “the briefest instant. Then they pull me to the surface, and I find my feet underneath me again…I’m a Christian now. I am made new…I have a religion now, and a new kind of family. Born again of water and of Spirit, washed by the Spirit and made clean. Clean, finally. It took less than five minutes.”

Her new Christianity requires she leave her old life—”my liberal politics, my shelf of new age books and tarot cards, guiltless sex”—behind. She abandons her years of seeking, giving up Seder, Hanukkah, and Jewish mourning rituals for Bible study and volunteer shifts at a soup kitchen; she swaps her self-help books for a copy of the New Testament. She quits reading her horoscope and throws out her crystals. “I began to walk the paces of what I believed was a religious life, a good life. I supplanted the rhythms of my childhood with the rhythms of the evangelical church. Maybe the person I should have been sitting Shiva for was me.”

In Budapest, where Hammon has travelled with her husband and two-year-old daughter to evangelize through street performances, she feels an increasing discomfort with the prescribed roles and the “subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny of religious men” she finds in the evangelical community. This misogyny—in churches that allow women to “speak” but not “preach”—should not come as a surprise to readers, but the particularities of Hammon’s experience bring the effect of these slights, big and small, to life. Her frustration at being expected to cook and clean for her fellow missionaries sits alongside the condescension of pastors who touch her inappropriately, pay her less than her male counterparts, and advise her on her wardrobe by quoting from the Bible: “Do not cause another to stumble.”

Hammon also struggles with evangelism itself. In one particularly striking scene, while performing music and sharing testimony in a public park, Hammon takes shelter from a storm with a group of Polish travelers who’ve been playing Hacky Sack in the park and listening to her and her husband perform all day. One of the young men succinctly appraises American evangelism, saying, “when you guys, Americans, come here to Europe and get on the microphone to talk about your religion—it sucks, man.”

Running parallel to her spiritual seeking, Hammon explores motherhood, her relationship with her husband, her infidelity, and her growing sense of her own feminism. Hammon’s strikingly contemporary reflections about her treatment in conservative churches—where she was once groped by an older pastor, was offered a lower salary than her male counterparts, and was fired and replaced with a male singer—make her story a particularly salient one for this particular moment, in the wake of the #MeToo Movement, when the white evangelical church has openly aligned itself with a president and a political party that systematically denigrates, criminalizes, and imprisons the “least of these.”

Though This Is My Body is described as a spiritual memoir, the heart of Hammon’s searching often centers around faith’s container—whether it comes in the form of a synagogue, a church, or a group therapy session. As a preacher’s kid, I empathized with Hammon’s sense of being chronically out of place; too God-haunted for secular circles and too skeptical for any church she tries to make her home. But sometimes I wondered whether Hammon might be searching for a perfect fit in inherently—and often deeply—flawed spaces. In the book’s early pages, Hammon recalls a moment a few months before her baptism, when she asks Sabrina, the woman who would soon immerse her in the choppy waters of the Atlantic, “How could God be so good if his people were so awful?” “God is not the church,” Sabrina responds. “The church is made of people and people fail.”

As the child of a father who was Jewish and a mother who was not, Hammon writes that she was never considered “really Jewish.” She recalls swooning over the ornaments of a faith that was not quite fully hers: “the lilting, minor-key prayers…the syrupy-sweet smell of the Manischewitz wine and the delicately embroidered linens that covered golden loaves of challah.” She remembers a rabbi pulling her away from her friends as they prepared to carry the Torah into the service. “He’d figured out that I was not a real Jew,” she writes. That early experience of exclusion sticks with her: “I was hooked, not on Judaism but on religion in general—on something so magical and important that I was forbidden from participating in it.”

It is this longing for participation, for membership that animates Hammon’s search for a faith community that will affirm her call to ministry—not despite her gender, her talents, and her flaws, but because of them.

“Being good, doing good, following the rules, any rules—this is probably the thing I’ve been most consistently addicted to in my life, truth be told,” Hammon writes. But it is only in sex and love addiction meetings—and in the burgeoning friendships with the women she meets there—that Hammon is able to be honest about her desires and her transgressions without being rejected, shamed, or silenced. In the end, Hammon finds her search for faith sustained not by checking boxes or following rules but by keeping her eyes open to God, however God appears: “Fractured bits of experience, memory, beauty that open into something larger.”

From Father Divine to Jim Jones: On the Phenomenon of American Messiahs

“And you can call me an egomaniac, megalomaniac, or whatever you wish, with a messianic complex. I don’t have any complex, honey. I happen to know I’m the messiah.” —Rev. Jim Jones, FBI Tape Q1059-1

“There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds.” —David Bowie

Philadelphia, once the second-largest city in the British Empire, was now the capital of these newly united states when the French diplomat and marquis François Barbé-Marbois attended a curious event held at the Fourth Street Methodist Church in 1782. Freshly arrived in the capital was a person born to middling stock in Cuthbert, R.I., and christened as Jemima Wilkinson, but who had since becoming possessed with the spirit of Jesus Christ in October of that revolutionary year of 1776 been known as “The Comforter,” “Friend of Sinners, “The All-Friend,” and most commonly as “Public Universal Friend,” subsequently wearing only masculine garments and answering only to male pronouns. Such is the description of the All-Friend as given by Adam Morris in American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation, where the “dark beauty of the Comforter’s androgynous countenance” appeared as a “well-apportioned female body cloaked in black robes along with a white or purple cravat, topped by a wide-brimmed hat made of gray beaver fur.” Reflecting back on the theophany that was responsible for his adoption of the spirit of Christ, the Public Universal Friend wrote about how the “heavens were open’d And She saw too [sic] Archangels descending from the east, with golden crowns upon there heads, clothed in long white Robes, down to their feet.”

Even though the Quakers, with their reliance on revelation imparted from an “Inner Light,” were already a progressive (and suspect) denomination, heresy such as All-Friend’s earned his rebuke and excommunication from the church of his childhood. But that was of no accordance, as the Public Universal Friend would begin a remarkably successful campaign of evangelization across war-torn New England. Preaching a radical gospel that emphasized gender equality and communalism, All-Friend was the leader of an emerging religious movement and a citizen of the new Republic when he arrived at the very heart of Quakerism that was Philadelphia, where he hoped to convert multitudes towards this new messianic faith.  

Barbé-Marbois was excited to see the new transgendered messiah, writing that “Jemima Wilkinson has just arrived here…Some religious denomination awaited her with apprehension, others with extreme impatience. Her story is so odd, her dogmas so new, that she has not failed to attract general attention.” All-Friend was not impressed by rank or pedigree, however, and having been tipped off to the presence of the marquise among the congregation, he preceded to castigate Barbé-Marbois, declaring that “Do these strangers believe that their presence in the house of the Lord flatter me? I disdain their honors, I scorn greatness and good fortune.” For all of the All-Friend’s anger at the presence of this sinner in his temple, Barbé-Marbois was still charmed by the messiah, writing of how All-Friend “has chosen a rather beautiful body for its dwelling…beautiful features, a fine mouth, and animated eyes,” adding that his “travels have tanned her a little.” Though he also notes that they “would have burned her in Spain and Portugal.”

Such is the sort of spectacular story that readers will find in Morris’s deeply research, well-argued, exhaustive, and fascinating new book. A San Francisco-based translator and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon, Morris’s first book provides a counter-history of a shadow America whose importance and influence are none-the-less for its oddity. In a narrative that stretches from the All-Friend and his heterodox preaching as the last embers of the First Great Awakening died out, through case-studies that include the 19th-century Spiritualist messiahs of Thomas Lake Harris and Cyrus Teed (the later known to his followers as “Koresh” after the Persian king in the Hebrew Scriptures); the massive real-estate empire of Harlem-based Father Divine and his racially egalitarian Peace Mission; and finally the dashed promise and horror of Jim Jones and the massacre of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, which took 900 lives and was the most brutal religiously based murder in American history until 9/11. Morris doesn’t just collect these figures at random, he argues that “a direct lineage connects Anne Lee, the Shaker messiah who arrived to American shores in 1774, to Jim Jones, the holy-rolling Marxist,” making his claim based not just on similar ideological affinities but often times with evidence of direct historical contact as well, a chain of messianic influences starting at the very origin of the nation and functioning as a subversive counter-melody to the twin American idols of the market and evangelicalism.

Often dismissively rejected as “cult leaders,” these disparate figures, Morris argues, are better understood as the founders of new religions, unusual though they may seem to us. In this contention, Morris draws on a generation of religious studies scholars who’ve long chafed at the analytical inexactitude of the claim that some groups are simply “cults” composed of easily brain-washed followers and paranoid charlatan leaders with baroque metaphysical claims; a sentiment that was understandable after the horror of Jonestown, but which neglects the full complexities and diversity of religion as a site for human meaning. America has had no shortage of groups, both malicious and benign, that sought to spiritually transform the world, and denounce the excesses and immoralities of American culture, while sometimes surpassing them and embracing convoluted theological claims.

In new religious movements there is a necessary radical critique of inequity and injustice; as Jonestown survivor Laura Kohl recalls, the utopian impulse that motivated the Peoples’ Temple was originally “at the very cutting edge of the way we wanted society to evolve. So we wanted to be totally integrated and we wanted to have people of every socio-economic level, every racial background, everything, all included under one roof.” When their experiment began, people like Kohl couldn’t anticipate that it would end with mass suicide instigated by an increasingly paranoid amphetamine addict, because in the beginning “we were trying to be role models of a society, of a culture that was totally inclusive and not discriminatory based on education or race or socio-economic level. We all joined with that in mind.”

Such is the inevitable tragedy of messianism—it requires a messiah. Whatever the idealistic import of their motivations, members of such groups turned their hopes, expectations, and faith towards a leader who inevitably would begin to fashion himself or herself as a savior. Whether you slur them as “cults,” or soberly refer to them as “new religions,” such groups stalk the American story, calling to mind not just industrious Shakers making their immaculate wooden furniture in the 19th century, but also Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh looking positively beatified in his follower-funded Mercedes Benz, Marshall Applewhite dead in his Nikes awaiting the Hale Bop Comet to shepherd Heaven’s Gate to astral realms, and David Koresh immolated with 75 of his fellow Branch Davidians after an eight-week standoff with the FBI and the ATF.

While it would be a mistake to obscure the latent (and sometimes not-so-latent) darkness that can lay at the core of some of these groups—the exploitation, megalomania, and extremism—Morris convincingly argues that simply rejecting such groups as cults does no service to understanding them. This sentiment, that some religions are legitimate while others are irretrievably “cults,” is often mouthed by so-called “deprogrammers,” frequently representatives of evangelical Christian denominations or sham psychologists whose charlatanry could compete with that of the founders of these new faiths themselves. Morris claims that part of what’s so threatening about the figures he investigates, and not other equally controlling phenomena from Opus Dei to the Fellowship, is that unlike those groups, leaders like Ann Lee, Father Divine, and even Jones provided a “viable alternative to the alienation of secularized industrial urbanism, and a politico-spiritual antidote to the anodyne mainline Protestantism that increasingly served as a handmaiden to big business.”

For Morris, such figures and groups are genuinely countercultural, and for all of their oftentimes tragic failings, they’ve provided the only genuine resistance to the forward march of capitalism in American history. These groups are seen as dangerous in a way that Opus Dei and the Fellowship aren’t because they so fully interrogate the basic structures of our society in a manner that those more accepted cults don’t, in part because those mainstream groups exist precisely to uphold the ruling class. As Teed wrote, “Christianity… is but the dead carcass of a once vital and active structure. It will rest supine till the birds of prey, the vultures and cormorants of what is falsely called liberalism have picked its bones of its fleshly covering leaving them to dry to bleach and decompose.”

“Far more than their heretical beliefs,” Morris writes, it is the “communistic and anti-family leanings of American messianic movements [that] pose a threat to the prevailing socio-economic order.” Lee may have thought that she was the feminine vessel for the indwelling presence of Christ, but she also rejected the speculation-based industrialization wreaking havoc on the American countryside; Teed believed that the Earth was hollow and that we lived in its interior, but he also penned cognoscente denunciations of Gilded Age capitalism, and modeled ways of organizing cooperative communities that didn’t rely on big business; Father Divine implied that he ascended bodily from heaven, but he also built a communally owned empire that included some of the first integrated businesses and hotels in the United States; and Jones claimed that he was variously the reincarnation of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the Buddha, Christ, and Vladimir Lenin, but he was also a staunch fighter against segregation and he and his wife were the first Indiana couple to adopt an African-American child. Such inconsistencies don’t invalidate these figures legitimate beliefs, but they make the ultimate conclusion of how many of these movements all the more tragic because of them.

Though not expressly stated this way by Morris, there is a sense in American Messiahs that the titular figures are both the most and least American of us. The least because they embrace a utopian communism anathema to the national character, and the most because what could be more boot-strapping in its rugged individualism than declaring yourself to be a god? Such are the paradoxes inherent in a commune run by a king (or queen). These new religions steadfastly reject the cutthroat avarice that defines American business in favor of a subversive collectivism. At the center of the social theory and economics of every group, from the Universal Friends to the Peoples’ Temple, is a model of communal living, with Morris writing that such organization “represents the ultimate repudiation of the values and institutions that Americans historically hold dear: it rejects not only the sacrosanct individualism on which American culture thrives, but also the nuclear family unit that evolved alongside industrial capitalism.”

In this way, whether in a Shaker commune or one of Father Divine’s Peace Missions, the intentional community offers “an escape from the degrading alienation of capitalist society by returning—once more—to cooperative and associative modes of living modeled by the apostolic church.” But at the same time, there is the inegalitarian contradiction of allowing a woman or man to be preeminent among the rest, to fashion themselves as a messiah, as a type of absolute CEO of the soul. Such is the marriage of the least American of collectivisms combined with a rugged individualism pushed to the breaking point. And so, America is the land of divine contradictions, for as Harris wrote in his manifesto Brotherhood of the New Life “I have sought to fold the genius of Christianity, to fathom its divine import, and to embody its principles in the spirit and body of our own America.”

Despite the antinomian excesses of theses messiahs, Morris is correct in his argument that the social and economic collectivism promoted and explored by such groups are among the most successful instances of socialism in the United States. A vibrant radical left in America has always been under attack by both capital and the government, so that enduring instances of socialism more often find themselves in a religious context than in a secular one, as failed communes from Brook Farm to Fruitland can attest to. Additionally, because it was the reform-minded French sociologist “Charles Fourier, rather than Karl Marx, who set the agenda of socialist reform in antebellum America,” as Morris writes, there was never the opportunity for a working-class, secular communist party to develop in the United States as it did in Europe. Into that void came sects and denominations that drew freely from America’s religious diversity, marrying Great Awakening evangelism to early modern occultism and 19th-century spiritualism so as to develop heterodox new faiths that often cannily and successfully questioned the status quo; what Morris describes as a “nonsectarian, ecumenical Christian church rebuilt around Christian principles of social justice [that] could be an instrument of radical social reform.”

And though their struggles for racial, gender, and class egalitarianism are often forgotten, Morris does the important job of resuscitating an understanding of how groups from the Shakers to Teed’s Koreshan Unity functioned as vanguards for progressive ideals that altered the country for the better. In ways that are both surprising and crucial to remember, such groups were often decades, if not centuries, ahead of their fellow Americans in embracing the axiom that all people are created equal, and in goading the nation to live up to its highest ideals, while demonstrating the efficacy of religious movements to effect social change and to demonstrate that there are alternative ways to structure our communities. After all, it was in the 18th century that Shakers taught a form of nascent feminism and LGBTQ equality, with their founder Mother Ann Lee publicly praying to “God, Our Mother and Father.”

In groups like the Shakers and the Society of Universal Friends there was an “incipient feminism, which continued to develop” and that defined American messianism over the centuries in the attraction of a “predominantly female following often through promises of equal rights among the faithful.” Women were able to find leadership positions that existed nowhere else in American society at the time, and they also would be emancipated from mandated domestic drudgery and abuse, allowing them an almost unparalleled freedom. As Morris notes, “For the tens of thousands of Americans who attended [these revivals], it was likely the first time any had ever seen a woman permitted to stand at a public lectern.” To read the radicalism of such a spectacle as mere performance, or to ignore their subversive language as simple rhetoric, is to deny that which is transgressive, and perhaps even redemptive, in figures otherwise marginalized in our official histories. An 18th-century church acknowledges the evils of misogyny, and made its rectification one of its chief goals. Nineteenth-century new religions denounced institutional racism from the pulpit long before emancipation. There is admittedly something odd in Spiritualist churches holding seances where the spirits of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would possess mediums and speak to the assembled, but the fact that those founders then “tended to express regret for their participation in the slave economy, and advanced that a more temperate and egalitarian society would ease the heavenward path of American Christians” isn’t just an attempt at rationalization or absolution, but an acknowledgement of deep historical malignancies in our society that people still have trouble understanding today.

Regarding America’s shameful history of racial inequality, many of these so-called messiahs were often far ahead of conventional politics as well. Father Divine’s Peace Missions are an illustrative example. Possibly born to former slaves in Rockville, Md., and christened George Baker Jr., the man who would come to be called Father Divine studied the emerging loose movement known as “New Thought” and developed his own metaphysics grounded in egalitarianism and the same adoptionist heresy that other pseudo-messiahs had embraced, namely that it was possible to be infused with the spirit of Christ in a way that made you equivalent to Christ. Furthermore, as radical as it was to see a woman preaching, it was just as subversive for Americans to imagine Christ as a black man, but Father Divine’s mission was suffused with the belief that “if God first chose to dwell among a people dispossessed of their land and subject to the diktats of a sinful empire, it was logical for him to return as an African American in the twentieth century.”

Morris explains that it was Father Divine’s contention, as well as that of the other messiahs, that “Such a church might rescue the nation from its spiritual stagnation and the corresponding failure to live up to its democratic ideals.” At the height of the Great Depression, Father Divine built a racially integrated fellowship in a series of communally owned Peace Missions that supplied employment and dignity to thousands of followers, composed of “black and white, rich and poor, illiterate and educated.” His political platform, which he agitated for in circles that included New York City Republican (and sometimes Socialist) mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as well as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, included laws requiring insurance, caps on union dues, the abolition of the death penalty, banning of assault weapons, and the repeal of racially discriminatory laws. Even while Morris’s claim that “Father Divine was the most well-known and influential civil rights leader on the national stage between the deportation of Marcus Garvey and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr.” might need a bit more exposition to be convincing, he does make his case that this enigmatic and iconoclastic figure deserves far more attention and credit than he’s been given.

At times American Messiahs can suffer a bit from its own enthusiasm. It’s always an engaging read, but Morris’s claims can occasionally be a bit too sweeping. After reading quotations from pseudo-messiahs like Teed’s, when he writes that “The universe, is an alchemico-organic dynamo… Its general form is that of the perfect egg or shell, with its central vitellus at or near the center of the sphere,” such exhaustive litanies become exhausting, because strange cosmologies are, well, strange. When you read about the course of study at Teed’s College of Life, where for $50 participants could learn “analogical biology and analogical physiology, disciplines that taught the ‘laws of universal form,'” you can’t help but wish that just a smidgen more cynicism was expressed on Morris’s part. There is an admirability that Morris takes such figures on their own accord, but it’s hard to not approach them with some skepticism. When it comes to hucksters claiming to be possessed by the indwelling presence of God, it’s difficult not to declare that sometimes a crank is a crank is a crank, and a nutcase by any other name would still smell of bullshit.

Still, Morris’s argument that we have to understand the messiahs as instances of often stunningly successful countercultural critique of American greed and inequity is crucial, and he’s right that we forget those lessons at our own peril. If we only read Teed for his bizarre anti-Copernican cosmology positing that we live within the Earth itself, but we forget that he also said that the “question for the people of to-day to consider is that of bread and butter. It must henceforth be a battle to the death between organized labor and organized capital,” than we forget the crucial left role that such groups have often played in American history. Even more important is the comprehension that such groups supplied a potent vocabulary, a sacred rhetoric that often spoke to people and that conceived of the political problems we face in a manner more astute and moving than simple secular analysis did. It’s not incidental that from the Shakers to the Amish, when it comes to successful counter-cultures, it’s the religious rather than the secular communes that endure. When Father Divine’s follower who went by the name John Lamb said that “The philosophies of men…were inadequate to cope with humanity’s problems,” he’s wisely speaking a truth just as accurate today as during the Great Depression when “clouds of tyranny” were wafting in from Europe. Say what you will about Morris’s messiahs, they were often woman and men who understood the score, and posed a solution to those problems regardless of how heterodox we may have found their methods.

Morris writes that “The American messianic impulse is based on a fundamentally irrefutable truth first observed by the Puritans: the injustices of capitalist culture cannot be reformed from within.” You can bracket out your theories of a hollow Earth and your spirit medium seances, but that above observation is the only one worth remembering. A profound lesson to be learned from the example of the women and men who most steadfastly lived in opposition to those idols of American culture. And yet, we can’t forget where the excesses of such opposition can sometimes lead—it’s hard not to wash the taste of the poisoned Kool-Aid of Jonestown from our mouths. With such a tragic impasse, what are those of us who wish there were utopias supposed to do? The great failure of these egalitarian experiments is that they paradoxically ended up enshrining a figure above the rest, that in rejecting American individualism they strangely embraced it in its purest and most noxious forms. If we can all look into those stark, foreboding mirror sunglasses favored by Jim Jones to conceal his drug-addled and bloodshot eyes, I don’t wonder if what we see isn’t our own reflections staring back at us, for good and ill. Perhaps there is an answer in that, for in that reflection we can see not just one man, but rather a whole multitude. What’s needed, if possible, is a messianism without a messiah.

Memory Can Be a Second Chance: Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’

“What happened happened–but it isn’t fixed in the ongoing story of our lives,” Jeanette Winterson wrote of regret, recollection, and lost love, “Memories can be tools for change. They don’t have to be weapons used against us or baggage that we drag around.”

Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong stakes his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, on a similar premise: the hope that, in the writer’s own words, “Memory can be a second chance.”

Thoughtful and tender, this autobiographical novel is framed as a letter from a son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer together. Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong meditates on the powers of storytelling and reckons with the legacy of collective trauma.

“Dear Ma,” Little Dog begins, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” A quick procession of vignettes follows: the narrator’s mother stares in horror at a taxidermy buck, she shops with him at a 50-percent-off sale at Goodwill, she beats him at age 13 for the final time. Lasting at most a few paragraphs, these scenes of affection and abuse detail the nuances of the pair’s bond, and they alternate with Little Dog’s reflections on literature, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the migratory habits of monarch butterflies.

As a mosaic of portraiture, self-representation, and philosophical musing, the opening chapter signals what lies ahead: a fragmented, elliptical text that moves around in time and considers the emotional toll of war and displacement upon Vietnamese Americans. In poetic prose, Little Dog’s letter charts not just his coming-of-age story but also the sorrows and desires of those closest to him.

In the book’s first part, which focuses on his childhood, the narrator brings to life the personalities of his separated grandparents. Across chapters he recalls how his grandmother Lan showered him with warmth and stories about her life in Vietnam, “tales cycling one after another.” He also recounts the long summer days he spent in Virginia gardening with his grandfather Paul, a “white man with watery eyes” and a “shy and sheepish” personality. Paul and, especially, Lan acted as guardians for the lonesome and fatherless child, whose mother ceaselessly worked at the local nail salon. The pair’s acts of kindness and family lore helped the boy navigate a childhood fraught with intergenerational trauma, guiding him toward an understanding of his place in history as a first-generation Vietnamese-American immigrant.

Through the lens of his grandparents’ relationship, Little Dog examines the history of the Vietnam War. At the height of the conflict, the two met by chance in a bar and found common ground, “both having been brought up by the ‘sticks’ of their respective countries.” Little Dog avoids addressing why they separated, mystifying their backstory. He instead records at length the memories they shared with him of the harrowing time; through writing, he lends their stigmatized love a second life, and testifies to the damage the imperialist war wrought upon Vietnamese society.

Roam among other recollections as he might, Little Dog returns again and again to the intense bond between him and his mother. “In Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you,” he notes, “Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through acts of service.” While Rose exceled at providing for her son, she rarely verbalized her love, and her fits of rage scarred him. With words, an adult Little Dog drains those memories of their power to wound him, recognizing his mother’s abuse as having been rooted in the trauma of growing up in a war-torn country.

So, too, does Little Dog seek solace in the knowledge that he helped his mother endure life in America. Having immigrated to the States as a toddler, Little Dog found himself playing the role of the “family’s official interpreter,” forced to “fill in our blanks, silences, stutters, whenever I could.” Compelled to code switch and traverse cultures, the boy learned to expertly wield English for his mother’s sake as well as his own: school bullies mocked him as effeminate and foreign, until he started to speak up.

“Memory is a choice,” the narrator asserts as he shifts to the letter’s second part, in which he recounts his first romance. If domestic drama and a fierce attachment to family defined his youth, he opts to frame his adolescence in terms of an attempt to escape a home full of pain and a history soaked with violence.

The summer he turned 14, Little Dog remembers, his sexuality blossomed after he found his first job on a tobacco farm. He quickly fell in love with Trevor, the rough-edged grandson of the farm’s owner, who worked the field to escape his “vodka-soaked old man” and dilapidated mobile home. The narrator constructs his first experience of love and labor as inextricable from each other. Together, work and romance introduced him to a seductive new world, promising independence from his mother’s outbursts and his bigoted classmates’ taunts.

Intoxicated with nostalgia, Little Dog reveals to Rose how he and Trevor trekked about the margins of Hartford for the next two years, connected to each other through their shared status as outsiders as well as their hatred of their absentee fathers. At a mesmerizing pace, Little Dog speeds through memories of late-night strolls, inexhaustible conversations, covert sex, and hits of weed and cocaine. Embedded within the narrative are bittersweet, lush descriptions of Hartford’s countryside. Just as a common rural background facilitated Lan and Paul’s romance in Vietnam, the boys bonded over their exclusion from and anger toward their town’s well-adjusted white suburbs.

The narrator makes clear that oppression and internalized shame still shadowed the relationship. Under the sway of Hartford’s toxic masculinity, Trevor conflated bottoming with femininity, femininity with weakness, weakness with all that wasn’t white and male; he demanded Little Dog always assume the submissive role in sex, insisting, “it’s for you. Right?”  Little Dog’s hope that queer love might prove a shelter from abuse collapsed; his community’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia thoroughly shaped his bond with Trevor. “I had thought sex was to breach new ground,” Little Dog regrets, “that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply. But I was wrong.” The pain of the scene is palpable, as it is when Trevor hopes they’ll “be good in a few years,” transformed from melancholic queers into happy heterosexuals.

As Little Dog prepares for college, the fantasy of first love collapses, though the boys part amiably. Only in the book’s final part, when Trevor starts to abuse opioids, does the relationship spin out of control. Mapping out the bond’s complexities through language, Little Dog makes peace with its alternately euphoric and sorrowful prime as well as its tragic end.

Nightmarish memories of abuse endured during childhood punctuate these sections. In an especially brutal passage Little Dog, now referring to himself and his mother in the third person, describes the time he forgot to clean up his plastic toys, for which she “blasted the side of his head.” That distressing interludes such as this occur so frequently gestures toward the long-lasting aftereffects of the narrator’s early trauma.

“And then I told you the truth,” Little Dog notes at the novel’s midpoint. On a rainy day inside a Dunkin’ Donuts, near the end of high school, he confessed his sexuality to his exasperated mother, who responded in turn, “You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just you and me, Little Dog. I don’t have anyone else.” The coming-out scene is literally centered in the narrative, but it occurs chapters before the climax; resisting the conventions of the go-to queer narrative, the novel refuses to conflate coming of age with coming out. Over the course of the letter’s second half, Little Dog shifts to reflecting on how he and Rose began to repair trust in the revelation’s wake.

Little Dog’s musings are tinged with sadness. The letter is explicitly framed as an attempt to heal wounds between mother and son and bring them closer together, and heartbreakingly, he’s sharing with Rose for the first time the secrets of his relationship with Trevor, one of his most important teenaged bonds.

While rarely citing his sources, Little Dog navigates troubling topics by using as guideposts the works of a diverse mix of writers. In a discussion of beauty, memory, and hope, for instance, he refers to the thesis of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just: “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing.” Through such allusions he frames himself as curious, open minded, and in conversation with a vast body of literature.

As one of this decade’s only works of fiction written by a queer Vietnamese-American author and published by a large press, the novel offers a viewpoint long underrepresented in mainstream American fiction. The work registers frustration with the limitations of white literary standards, pointing out that hegemonic standards of taste prescribe, “to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, ‘raw,’ and empty.”

As with the autofiction of Qiu Miaojin, epigraphed in the front matter, the epistolary novel blurs the line between art and life. Like Little Dog, the author grew up in Hartford, attended Brooklyn College, and recently reached the end of his 20s. The text invites readers to identify Little Dog as a fictionalized version of Vuong, even as it leaves unanswered the question of how “constructed” the story really is.

“By writing,” the author-narrator posits to his mother, “I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once.” Regardless of the truth-value assigned to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the work’s an affecting meditation on immigration, violence, family, and love, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which writing can reshape the self’s relationship to others and the past. With grace and insight, Vuong contemplates how memory can act as a tool for change, and establishes himself as a promising novelist.

Death Liberates in a Danish Master’s New Novel

Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, beautifully translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, tells the story of “L. Høy, Schoolteacher,” as she’s introduced to the reader on the book’s first page. Her story is told in the form of a diary, recounting events in her life primarily from 1927 through 1934. The story is centered around the death of her husband, the traveling doctor Vigand Bagge, and her response to this loss; we watch as L. Høy, or Fru Bagge as she’s called throughout much of the text, slowly comes out of her grief and into her new life. As the story progresses, the reader gets an increasingly fuller sense of this woman—of the vibrant life of her mind, of the great trials and frustrations of her marriage, and of what it is she’d truly like her life to be.

The text shines as an honest reckoning with the death of a spouse—but one in a deeply companionless marriage—and the life of two people who shared little but space. We see a woman working through her conflicted feelings in real time: the wrestling with who her husband was and the form their marriage took; the remembrance of things she genuinely loved about him; her regrets about their life together; her wishes that things had been different (and imaginings of what would have made things different); and the deep loneliness that still descends upon her in his absence. There are no easy answers, even as our narrator finds a certain measure of freedom and independence that her repressive, distant, self-absorbed husband refused her.

There’s a passage from the October 19 entry of Fru Bagge’s diary, only three days after she received the phone call delivering the news that her husband died in hospital, in which the reader sees her doing this kind of wrestling in real time. She begins by recounting how committed Vigand was to avoiding being a nuisance to people, and how “he could be rudely offensive in order to avoid it.” She then turns inward toward their relationship:
Such an idea is of course in every respect honorable, and yet one may ask whether the right to be a nuisance ought not to be a human right? What if we were to eradicate every nuisance? Who would then be left?

Moreover, I have wished more than anything else that he would make a nuisance of himself to me.
She then backtracks: “Not that he never did. He was a nuisance. Just not in a way I could understand. A man who needed my help, his nuisance I would have understood. But perhaps then it would not have been a nuisance at all. I have never thought of it like that before.” This passage rings true in that it reflects the ebbs and flows of recollection, the processes of working-through. It’s no straight path of self-discovery, but a winding search for understanding and self-knowledge. Through it all, Fru Bagge’s deep, earnest desire for companionship shines through, even as she wrestles with what she wishes her husband, and her marriage, could have been.

As the days and weeks go on, the diary becomes more self-reflective and focused on memory—we hear much more about what brought her to the town, what her life as a schoolteacher was like, and what sort of companionship she found with the people of the town. The diary reads as an honest personal audit at a moment of change in the narrator’s life: Who have I been? To whom have I been a blessing and to whom a curse? These questions are rarely expressed explicitly, which sets this book apart: The personal reckoning is performed by recounting a life, not via vague existential questioning.

Jessen is a tremendously gifted writer, and as the book progresses—with our narrator gaining more distance from the death of her husband—we glimpse what our narrator’s life becomes, and the writing really shines. Jessen, the Danish translator of Marilynne Robinson, among others, proves to have a keen Robinsonian streak of her own. She writes with the same narrative generosity, the same belief in the dignity and voice of characters that might usually be dismissed. Fru Bagge writes of herself in her grief, “I haven’t the inclination to look people in the eye, nor not to. I find myself in a state of shame,” and you can imagine the titular character of Lila expressing a similar sentiment. As Fru Bagge recounts a sermon by the small-town pastor—“Salvation…gives us solace, in that it does not take from us our grief, unlike happiness, which glints and glitters and is disinterested in everything but itself”—you can imagine it coming from the mouth of John Ames in Gilead.

What can occasionally get lost in work in Robinson’s tradition is a certain concreteness; as writers seek to emulate the sort of spiritual musings and fully-realized interiority that Robinson writes so well, they sometimes neglect the physical space their characters inhabit. Never Jessen. This work is firmly grounded, quite literally. The landscape, the heath surrounding Thryegod, the rural town in Western Denmark where our narrator resides, is a character in and of itself. The natural world is not neutral, simply a landscape about which our narrator feels comfortable waxing poetically. Rather, it acts on our narrator. She’s constantly aware of its presence; it dictates her moods, her stories, her movement. The reader has a real sense of the actuality of this place.

Furthermore, Jessen remains measured in her descriptions, often opting for the plainer turn of phrase—the town pastor is simply “a cheerful, ruddy man, [with] a cheerful, ruddy wife;” a companion from her school days, “talked loudly, sang loudly, laughed loudly, and was the most helpful person I have ever known;” her restrained, honest take on widowhood is simply, “We have our dead. Our hope is that we too will be someone’s.” Jessen can be lyrical when she likes, but perhaps more impressive is her restraint when it’s exactly what’s called for.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Jessen writes, “It has not been my intention to write a section of the history of the town in which I grew up, though I freely acknowledge the singular allurement of using the name Thryegod.” And that is how this book reads—before it is a glimpse into the interiority of a widow trying to reckon with her life and move forward, A Change of Time is a reflection of a place in a time that’s imbued with a personal, specific love. Jessen knows this place; she lets her reader know it, too.

What If Better Penmanship Could Make You a Better Person

Cursive is supposed to happen at the right speed for steady thought. It hits the page slower than type and faster than print, and in this happy medium, one hopes the mind will hit its stride and think clearly, rationally, linearly. But what if the idea of cursive practice was to humble, even eradicate the content of the written word? That is the project of the narrator in Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words—recently released in translation from the Spanish by Annie McDermott—to focus on neat, regular handwriting so careful that it smooths out all digressions of the mind. Though the narrator is, like the author, a writer and crossword setter, he takes a writer’s tool and divorces it from the act of connecting with the self or world. Instead, the physical act of writing becomes about avoiding spiritual searching, which has become too onerous—in an opening poem, before he begins his “graphological self-therapy” he writes “ It’s not worth searching, the more you look /  the more distant is seems, the better it hides.”

So the narrator delves into his penmanship not in hope of being a better writer, but to “make changes on a psychological level,” ones that he claims, in a burst of optimism, “will do wonders for my health and charachter, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.” When his exercises pick up pace, though, the neat, ordered discipline of handwriting breaks down and sloppy print letters creep into that uniform line of script. This indication that thought has begun to flow freely is not positive—it runs contrary to the two-dimensional bliss he imagines neatness can herald. He takes frequent breaks to play around with his computer, which, even though the book was originally published in 1996, is a daunting tool, “very similar to the unconscious.” Nonetheless, he claims to prefer it to his own exhausted mind: “there’s nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.”

To avoid this “risk” he must suppresses the content of his writing, the meaning. He tries to keep his words steady and boring, though he fails hilariously, again and again. He is in a constant state of agitation about the need to stick to his task. He dreads interruptions, mostly from the family life that hums along in the background. So he tries to write nothing important, nothing complex. But when he leaves his handwritten pages out for his wife to critique, he complains that they “naturally became a way of telling her things—hence the anxiety that makes me write too fast when I have something important to say.”

The exercise is not dissimilar to the one put forth in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which a young woman decides to hibernate for a year in the name of self-improvement. Both narrators lay out stringent rules for their supposed betterment, rules that, to the reader, seem arbitrary and obviously self-defeating. The mission, for both characters, is to blot out much of life. The byproduct is a heaping dose of both anxiety and moral superiority.

In spite of the narrator’s vague resolve to be better, his discipline makes him generally nasty within his household. When his stepson looks over the shoulder, he writes on the page “Juan Ignacio is a fool.” He begrudgingly cares for his dog, even encouraging him to run away by widening an opening in the fence—an act he insists repeatedly is not metaphorical. And when he returns to his work, he complains that it is difficult to concentrate after kicking a dog. Neither the narrator nor anyone in his household is catapulted blissfully into a life of joy, but his focus on handwriting over expression protects the narrator from reflecting on these failures.

The narrator has tender moments, though. He wonders when he and his wife, Alicia, will start “living together” apart from all the “hyperactivity” of the household. The two even earmark Fridays as a time to focus on their relationship, but they can’t sustain it because the narrator brings a similar mentality to improving their relationship as he does to penmanship. And he forgets that like communication is to writing, quotidian household tasks and banal decisions are the stuff on which domestic relationships are founded. The phenomenological isolation he seeks doesn’t exist and he lashes out in frustration: he refers to Alicia’s efficient approach to daily life as a “militarization of the self” and says it is akin to pruning a tree into a geometric shape.

In another moment of frustration with a household routine he finds chaotic and distracting, the narrator calls Alicia a “fractal being.” Though he complains that fractals have not been studied enough, he never gives readers a full picture of his wife; instead he uses her as a cautionary tale, though it is he who flounders on every page. If Alicia is a “fractal,” then the things that preoccupy him, like his irregularly racing heart, can be described best in fractals. The things that comfort him aesthetically—a tree growing through a ruined piece of architecture, shattered glass, the search for patterns in the randomness of dreams—are infinitely more fractal than pure forms.

Dreams are a recurring element of the book, treated with the same distance but less frustration than the other digressions and unpredictable moments that vex our narrator. He does not explore them or elaborate on them; he even becomes annoyed when he finds himself seeking to interpret them. Levrero’s approach to dreams—his approach to writing this book even—is about as far from Latin American magical realism as one can get. Earlier Uruguayan writer (and inspiration to many of the magical realists) Felisberto Hernández molded each plot in his Piano Stories into the dreams and obsessions of his narrator; reality followed the digression. But as much as Levrero’s narrator rejects his dreams, he still nods at the tradition: the final line of the book ends with another uninterpreted, unexplored dream. The final word of the books is “Alchemy,” the thing the narrator has stripped from his writing and life, but vows in the end to return to.

And it is a thrill in the final part of the novel to see his the narrator’s penmanship exercises gather speed, to see him put aside his frustration and concentrate on specific details like the formation of the letter “R,” or to see the pages littered with strikethroughs of words he resolves to execute better. But even when the exercises have begun to absorb him, they are not what bring about a final revelation. This comes when he finally writes about his mother’s illness and death, referred to only in passing throughout the book. The narrator has let story rise to the surface of his writing, and he is able call handwriting the “evasion tactic” it is. “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions,” he reports “all you have left are the consequences of the things you’ve already done.” Exerting control over one small activity does not neaten up the other strands of life, it only throws its messiness into relief.

Empty Words is a very funny, very sad reflection on the ways people try (and fail) to simplify their lives. As the narrator says at one point in the story, “you cannot become less busy by getting things done.” Perhaps that is what Levrero thinks of self-help programs, that they become one more overbearing thing on an overwhelming to-do list. In the protagonist’s case, if he was trying to find relief from the emotional and intellectual work of life by reimagining handwriting as a Zen-like practice of  “invisible work,” he picked the wrong manual task. Handwriting is the ultimate in visible work—script, scrawl, or chicken scratch, it is the tool through which thoughts grow visible and complicated.

Mark Haddon’s Latest Curious Incident Sails the High Seas

All of Mark Haddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.

The Porpoise opens on a present-day setting, though it has a quality of strangeness that, rendered in the author’s somewhat formal language, feels timeless. An extraordinarily rich man named Philippe is married to an actress named Maja, the only person he has ever loved. While very pregnant, Maja takes what should be a short flight in a light aircraft, but the pilot foolishly flies into thick clouds and crashes, killing them both. The baby, a girl Philippe names Angelica, is delivered and lives.

Grief and a monstrous sense of ownership warp Philippe’s mind, and he half believes that Maja lives on in the girl, who he begins molesting when she is small and rapes when she enters adolescence. To keep the nature of their relationship secret, he takes Angelica out of school and moves them around the world. He owns homes in Sri Lanka, Berlin, and Skiathos; he can do what he wants.

The experience of reading Angelica’s story is swiftly engrossing, heady, disorienting—a tumble down a churning whitewater. Her life is a prison, and she feels implicated in her father’s sick need for her. Angelica reads copiously, the escapism of a lonely child desperate to climb out of her circumstance and away from her thoughts. She’s not interested in books other kids her age might read; instead, she plunges into the worlds of myth and legend. As if preparing us for what’s to come, the narrator says:
Her favorite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.
When Haddon’s novel—the book we’re reading—takes us on a similar journey, should we be surprised?

The most distressing parts of the story come out in a rush. A handsome young man comes to the house. The son of a recently deceased art dealer with whom Philippe worked, Darius feels compelled to visit Philippe—not only for business, but because he’s heard about the man’s unusual, beautiful daughter. When he meets the girl and they lock eyes, it takes him only moments to understand that something is very wrong. He tries to rescue her, is nearly killed by Philippe, escapes to the coast, and ends up on a schooner belonging to an old friend who he bumps into by chance. It’s a trippy coincidence that feels just this side of unlikely, even for a rich kid who’s used to things going his way. And sure enough, after Darius sleeps off his injuries, he wakes in a fug of confusion—on a different ship, an unfamiliar one with huge sails. His head swims, full of memories that aren’t his own. He’s still dashing, still hungry for adventure, but he’s become someone else: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, out to sea on his own ship, the Porpoise.

Once we get our sea legs we understand that the novel has become—in fact already was—a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the story of a young prince who discovered that the King of Antioch was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was forced to flee. (The play was itself a retelling of Apollonius of Tyre, a story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and for centuries before that.)

That’s the thing about legends, ask any scholar of the classics: They get told and retold and will always reflect the attitudes of the place and time of the teller. Haddon makes these characters resonate simply by giving them a “realness” that readers of contemporary fiction crave. They may have old-fashioned names, but they’re bristling with life. When Pericles meets the Queen of Tarsus and she “stands just a little closer to him than is proper, just inside an invisible orbit of which he has never been aware before,” we readers feel the electricity between them. Sex and attraction feature prominently throughout the story, as do birth and death, terror and violence—all the elemental stuff of life that hasn’t changed one bit over the eons—and the drama feels ageless because it is.

The novel’s only obviously contemporary note is Haddon’s insistence that a female perspective shine through the stories, even—or especially—the ones that depict male cruelty toward women. One character, Chloë, is a princess who dies at sea but is pulled ashore and comes back to life, later becoming a priestess who gives the local people advice and guidance. When discussing women’s lot in life, she’s a straight shooter: “Girls have secrets…And there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life.” Does the weight of her words come down like a hammer because Haddon is unsubtle in giving the myth a twist of modern feminism? Or is it because they’re that weighty and timeless and true? It’s stirring either way. And frankly, sometimes subtle just isn’t the way to go.

Likewise, in one of the book’s most haunting passages, Haddon floats a theory for Philippe’s abuse of his daughter.
Does he know, in some corner of his mind, that what he is doing is wrong? Or, if you have never been forbidden absolutely, if you have never been harshly criticized by someone whose opinion genuinely matters to you, if you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of the mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?
Well shit, the author seems to say. Here we (still) are.

In a brief author’s note, Haddon—who is stunningly sensitive to not only the plight but also the interiority of all his female characters—writes that there is only one version of the Pericles story, a Breton lai written in the early 14th century, in which the princess is the hero, so to speak. Rather than serving as a plot “instigating device,” he says, she is the one at the center of the story who travels around and has “adventures.” I like the way the word adventure is used throughout this novel: It serves as a stout reminder that true adventure is dangerous and experience hard-earned.

Ultimately, the purpose of this beautiful novel is to remind us—to prove to us—that emotional truths are ageless and universal, the bedrock on which our supposedly real lives are built. The thing is, a retelling of an old story is in some ways just an update, a variation on a theme. But when it’s done very well, it’s more like a translation. The meaning of the strange symbols, which can be hard to parse across centuries and cultures, becomes plain. Maybe a woman whose coffin is fished from the ocean can’t come back to life and morph into something new. But perhaps a woman who has experienced a great trauma can walk away from it, change her circumstances in order to survive, and thereby be reborn—first in her mind and then in reality.

Dubravka Ugrešić Looks for Home

1.
As her native Yugoslovia became embroiled in war in the early 1990s, Dubravka Ugrešić left. She thought she was leaving for a short time—just a brief visit to Amsterdam. She wound up staying away longer than she planned, as she writes in the opening pages of American Fictionary: “Every day I would set off for the station and then postpone my return to Zagreb with the firm intention of leaving the next day…And then I suddenly decided I would not go back.” Ugrešić remained in Amsterdam until the time came for her to travel to Middletown, Connecticut, for a guest lectureship at Wesleyan University. She would eventually return to her homeland a year or so later, but only briefly, eventually being forced into exile in Amsterdam for her anti-war and anti-nationalist stances.

American Fictionary, out last year from Open Letter in an excellent updated translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a collection of essays written while Ugrešić lived in Middletown. The brief pieces run the gamut of topics, from the American obsession with the organizer, to what it means to be an Eastern European Writer, to the mythical image America has of itself, even to a diatribe against the muffin (“A muffin is an infantile form of mush, a hodge-podge, the muffin is a treat for the poor and the amateur, the muffin is not just simple, it’s crude”).

Ugrešić writes as a poignant critic of American consumerism, of American individualism, and of the American pursuit of perfection. She sees in American cultural obsessions a commitment to the pursuit of tidiness. Though she recognizes an absence in her American subjects—“No American with a smidgen of self-respect knows who he or she is: that’s why every American has a shrink”—she keenly observes that they do everything in their power to mask it. We Americans hide our chaos in our organizers. “Chaos is divvied up into little piles, stowed away in shiny plastic compartments and closed with a zip-lock. Zip! There. No more chaos. No more darkness.” She longs to do the same with her own personal wreckage:
I don’t know where my former home is or where my future home will be, I don’t know whether I have a roof over my head, I don’t know what to think of my childhood, my origins, my languages. What about my Croatian, my Serbian, my Slovene, my Macedonian? What about the hammer and the sickle, my old coat of arms and my new one, or the yellow star? What to do with the dead, with the living, with the past or the future. I’m walking, talking chaos. This is why I buy organizers.
This sense of a lost home, and the disorientation Ugrešić experiences in its wake, is at the heart of her work. Reading American Fictionary with some knowledge of what’s to come for Ugrešić is harrowing—the return home that Ugrešić occasionally anticipates in these essays will not come to fruition; her homeland will not take her back.

“I shudder at my homeland,” she writes in “Life Vest,” the last original piece in the book, written as she finally flies toward Zagreb. “I shudder at the thought of the new country where I’ll be a stranger, whose citizenship I have yet to apply for, I’ll have to prove I was born there, though I was, that I speak its language, though it is my mother tongue.” Ugrešić imagines a certain kind of homelessness—one in which, though living in her native place, she has to go through the motions of acquiring legitimate legal residence. What she ended up with was exile. As she writes in “P.S.,” her addendum to American Fictionary included in Open Letter’s new edition, “I imagined that my work on the essays for my American fictionary would be my way of sketching my homeward trajectory. Soon enough the opposite proved true: the essays were, instead, an introduction to a different sort of fictionary, to the exile on which I embarked in 1993, only a year after I’d returned from America.” Ugrešić has been based in Amsterdam ever since.

2.
There’s a passage in Fox, another recent work of Ugrešić’s published by Open Letter (and translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams), that suggests how Ugrešić might conceptualize the idea of home today. In the passage, an anonymous reader bequeaths the narrator, who closely resembles Ugrešić, a home in Kuruzovac, a remote town in Croatia. The gesture is rife with symbolism, of course, in part suggesting that insofar as Ugrešić has found a home to replace the one she lost, she’s found it in her global community of readers.

The narrator spends several idyllic days in the home in Kuruzovac, days that include a brief love affair with a mine remover who was squatting in the home when she arrived. The landscape of the region, the purple lilacs that abound, prompt memories of her childhood, of how, “when we were little girls, we carried flowers around in the thumb crease, holding our hands out before us like tiny trays bearing crystal goblets.” The morning after she arrives at the home, she goes out to the porch: “The air was redolent of lilacs. Down the steps I went and picked a lilac cluster. Back on the porch, I sat on the bench, broke off a tiny goblet-like floret, and poked it into the crease alongside my thumb. I sat there, thumb out before me, elbow propped on knee, taking care that the floret didn’t tip over—and breathed in the new morning. I cannot remember a morning that seemed newer.” The passage seems to harken to this one from American Fictionary, where Ugrešić recounts a stay at an inn in Norman, Oklahoma:
When I came out in my pajamas one early October morning onto the veranda, I sat on the porch swing and sipped at my warm coffee…the wail of a train’s whistle cut through the stillness, a sound I hadn’t heard since my childhood. This was an auditory reminder that trains passed through the town but didn’t stop. Enchanted by the air, as sweet and fragrant as an overripe melon, I felt as if here, on this porch…I could stay forever. That veranda is my “homeland.”
Similarities abound between these two depictions of a homeland—home is found in a middle-of-nowhere place, away from the forces of power and war that might like to force her out; the feeling of having found some sort of home comes on the heels of recollections from her childhood, perhaps the only time when she felt she truly had a home. As Fox’s narrator leaves Kuruzovac, though, the reality of what home has become in her life reemerges, and she faces the true nature of her world: “The world is a minefield and that’s the only home there is. I must accustom myself to this fact.”

I feel melancholy when I read Ugrešić—for the ways in which she calls out the foolishness of American culture and what we choose to value (observations as sharp today as they were some 25 years ago), and for seeing what was lost for her and so many others divorced from their homeland. There’s a palpable sorrow in her writing, culminating in moments where the wound feels especially raw. “At the end of every year I secretly wish for all my friends and acquaintances to live at last in peace with themselves.” Reading these essays, I find myself wishing that for Ugrešić—that she might find herself calmly reclining on that verandah in Norman, Oklahoma, at some version of peace with herself.