There are days when the thought that I need to write one thousand words strikes fear into my heart. Today is one of those. Thank goodness for writing accelerators. Even there, though, I sometimes feel like I’m copping out, or preaching, or I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for something that somehow comes together—like butter, eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla, cocoa powder, milk, salt, and baking soda to create a delicious, completely new entity called cake: devil’s food, of course.
I’m here, though. I showed up today. My posterior is firmly planted in the chair, and that is rolled up to my desk. Mozart is blaring from my computer’s speakers, drowning out—as best it can—the songs Dennis shoots snooker to in the living room. I’d be perfectly fine with his music (for the most part—I’ve heard no Aimee Mann yet), if it were just instrumental, but the vocals distract me. I find myself listening to those words rather than the words in my head or on the pages of the book open in front of me. Back in high school, I had no problem reading and studying while the radio played out there on the front porch. The soundtrack of my high school years was chosen by the DJs of WGUY-FM. The only times I raised my head, drawn out of my own little world created by schoolbooks, magazines, assigned reading like Ivanhoe (loved it), or teen romances (oh yes, there were lots of those), was when a commercial came on or a DJ started blathering. Then I’d patiently (or not) wait for them to get back to the music so I could settle back into the black text on the white pages in my hands.
While I was tempted to pick up any number of books to accompany today’s cup of tea (with The Religious Sense being most tempting), I chose Beauty Will Save the World, in part, I have to admit, because I want to get it out of my basket and back onto its shelf. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it and learning from it, it’s more that its fractured nature leaves me less attached to it. The book is, after all, a series of essays, and while that means it makes fewer demands to be picked up and read daily, it also means that I hold on to it loosely.
Another reason I went with the Gregory Wolfe book is that the next essay in line is relatively short, and my focus today is not as strong as it can be. The chapter/essay is titled “Larry Woiwode: The Overwhelming Question.” Well, obviously, that spoke to me, even though I’ve never read anything by Woiwode but do remember the name from all my years in bookstores. Wolfe has convinced me that Woiwode’s fiction is worth trying out, so I placed his debut novel on my Amazon wishlist for future reference. Wolfe tells me, “Woiwode has always faced up to the problems of love and death, memory and desire, faith and doubt.” In other words, he does not pretend that the Overwhelming Question (think Luigi Giussani in The Religious Sense, please) is not deeply lodged within the breast of every human being.
Wolfe compares Woiwode to Faulkner (a good thing, in my book) insofar as, like Faulkner, Woiwode has created a fictional world that unites characters across different books. Faulkner had the Snopes family and their neighbors in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and Woiwode has The Neumillers of North Dakota. Further, “For the Southern Agrarians [like Faulkner and Allen Tate], as for Woiwode, the landscape has a sacramental quality; it seems to mediate a reality beyond itself. The land reminds man of his limitations and requires him to enter into its mysterious rhythms like a lover.”
So, not only does Woiwode not to try to ignore the Overwhelming Question, he and his characters recognize and respect the limits of nature. Unsurprisingly, Woiwode’s work has not always been praised by reviewers deep in the heart (and grips) of the New York publishing world. Wolfe writes:
What one English reviewer said of Woiwode’s first novel applies to nearly all of his fiction: “This is a world where marriage, kinship and religious faith are taken seriously; so are shooting, carpentry and the baling of hay.” Woiwode’s respect for the deeply conservative—almost medieval—mores and manners of the northern Midwest has remained a constant in his work, though the limitations of that world are also present and keep his fiction from descending into sentimentality.
Wolfe tells me that Woiwode prefers concreteness to abstraction, and that makes me think of Flannery O’Connor: a good thing. Plus, he focuses on the ordinary, reminding his readers that the ordinary is where mystery is to be found.
The Neumillers are Catholic, and their faith has a role to play in their lives. Similarly, children have a role to play in the stories. Wolfe says, “One of the reason he [Woiwode] treats the experience of children so intimately, as he suggests in an interview, is his sense ‘of the grief children feel at the inconsistencies of adults.’” I want to explore this in his books, because the inconsistencies of adults caused the most memorable and most painful experiences of my own childhood, and they have played a role in the way I parent my kids, making me try (but not always succeeding) to spare them such suffering.
I really like Wolfe’s concluding paragraph:
It is in Woiwode’s concept of the imagination that his Christian vision and his understanding of the conflict between power and love come together. Contrary to critics, Woiwode does not feel that Christianity is a facile grasping at certainty. With Flannery O’Connor, he holds that Christianity is true because it recognizes the mystery of being. The imagination leads ultimately not to human certainties but to an intuition of the glory within the complex mystery of the world. It is precisely in the twin errors of overconfident scientism and of radical doubt that man seeks power over being. Of course, Woiwode does not equate imagination with faith. But it is possible for art to bring man into the precincts of the Overwhelming Question. As Woiwode says in the interview in the World & I, “Fiction is a continuing spiritual exercise that any reader may join in on.”
Art is more than the sum of its parts. We can read a textbook to gather information, but a story gives us much more than that.