lost my religion


i heard a creative writing workshop horror story the other day. The student had turned in a narrative story in which the protagonist visits a hospital. She goes past the waiting room and turns into a hallway until finding the person she’s visiting. The class savaged it. Where is the hospital? what did the waiting room look like? how many people were in it? what did they look like? And, sure, details are nice. But the critiques missed what this minimalist story was doing. Is it the piece really better off with “Kelly heaved the revolving door of Bethlehem Royal, trudging through the waiting room with guady lavender sconces and past a man with dark medium-length hair, clearly trying to conceal his agitation from a female vibrator lodged deep in his rectum,” or is this minimalist piece doing something different that the class was not willing to engage with? I mean, maybe she just wanted Kelly (dont know the character’s real name) to get to that one hospital room; is that so wrong?

the number one criticism my work gets in the mfa program is: “Think about your reader more.” But like, i dont know the reader. this is main philosophical disagreement i have with the workshop ethos. We can’t have this kind of stripped down minimalism — details details! show dont tell! — but not too many details, then it’s verbose and masturbatory, like David Foster Wallace. Consider the reader’s patience, accommodate the reader, behave yourself in front of the reader. Reader as police.

im told Coetzee’s THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS got awful reviews. they quipped that he’d gotten “tired” and complacent after winning the Nobel, “too lazy” to write a novel the right way. True, this is some carved down prose, even for him. It’s consumed with dialog, the sentences are simple. But of course if things arent conventional, the reviewers have licence to saunter past everything the novel’s actually doing.

so what is it doing? well, like BARBARIANS it’s tempting to allegorize it. We follow Simon and a young ward named David. They are refugees — we know nothing of their prior experiences. They’ve landed in a spanish-speaking community called Novilla (in the Iberian Peninsula? Latin America? a fantastical map?) Simon is not David’s biological father, but he is determined to find the boy’s mother. otherwise a pretty rational guy, Simon stubbornly believes that he can find the mother on pure intuition. We see them get housing in an apartment block; Simon gets a job as a stevedore. there is a wholesome comaraderie between the workers — it’s not a socialist country by any stretch, but overall it looks like people, even migrants, are well taken care of regarding wages, work conditions, and healthcare, and it seems to go for sex workers as well. University education is free, and Simon’s proletariate friends take philosophy classes at night for personal enrichment.

The novel’s ideas trade on Simon’s dialogs with the rest of the cast. he’s often butting heads — he’s a little out of place in this society: he wants something more than what Novilla offers; something metaphysical in nature. When Simon finds what he takes to be David’s mother, a posh young woman named Ines, he has this exchange with a stevedore comrade:

‘It must come as a blow to you,’ says Alvaro. ‘The youngster is special. Anyone can see that. And you and he were close.’

‘Yes, we were close. But it’s not as if I won’t see him again. It’s just that his mother feels that he and she will restore their bond more easily if I stay out of the picture for a while. Which, again, is fair enough.’ 

‘Indeed,’ says Alvaro. ‘But it does ignore the urgings of the heart, doesn’t it?’

The urgings of the heart: who would have thought Alvaro had it in him to talk like that? A man strong and true. A comrade. Why can he not bare his heart frankly to Alvaro? But no: ‘I have no right to make demands,’ he hears himself say. Hypocrite! ‘Besides, the rights of the child always trump the rights of grown-ups. Isn’t that a principle in law? The rights of the child as a bearer of the future.’

Alvaro gives him a sceptical look. ‘I’ve never heard of such a principle.’

Because these ideas are from Simon’s history, which time and again he is encouraged by Novillans to abandon. (Another instance is Simon casually postulating other, parallel worlds, to which the pragmatic stevedores say this is the only one.) Maybe the minimalism conveys this shorning of history, unlike our current refugee crisis, where imperialist nations, who for the last half-century have been free to ignore history, are now having it thrust upon them.

The latter phase of the novel focuses on how Simon tries to educate/socialize David. He’s a stubborn child (im told this is a Wittgensteinian figure but i wouldnt know). Simon teaches him how to read with a children’s DON QUIXOTE, whose romantic vision David takes to be as equally valid as Sancho Panza’s. There’s a thing about naming here too: Simon and David got their names from a refugee processing camp, and Don Quixote names himself that — it’s a modernist question at play here one what grounds we have to name, and maybe a Genesis thing too?But David “struggles” with numbers. He doesn’t count in order, and when Simon protests he says “But you’ve never been to the number 888!” and such. Simon explains to another friend:

‘One and one make three, you say, and I am bound to agree. Three men in a car: simple. But David won’t follow us. He won’t take the steps we take when we count: one step two step three. It is as if the numbers were islands floating in a great black sea of nothingness, and he were each time being asked to close his eyes and launch himself across the void. What if I fall? — that is what he asks himself. What if I fall and then keep falling forever? Lying in bed in the middle of the night, I could sometimes swear that I too was falling — falling under the same spell that grips the boy. If getting from one to two is so hard, I asked myself, how shall I ever get from zero to one? From nowhere to somewhere: it seemed to demand a miracle each time.’

The allegory temptation is strong. “Jesus” occurs nowhere in the novel except the title. We’re deprived of the earthy, tactile details that enriched WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, but rather than serve realism, the limpidness of the prose removes the latter’s reassurance of a stable world and subjectivity. i kept waiting for David to become some sort of miracle child. that doesnt happen, but he does shore up a nice group of followers. And while Novillans are aware of reproduction, we never see anyone give birth.

This is a strange one. And it’s not completely out of history either — there’s Mickey Mouse, but maybe that’s just the insidious reach of Disney. Coetzee has not gotten lazier, but he seems to be showing his influences on his sleeve more, namely Kafka and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.


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