A reader response meander by a literary luddite.
I have become a fan of Dr. Steven L. Peck based on his books The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell. Well, mostly a fan. Okay, a conflicted fan. Fine, an aggressively ticked off, loudly complaining fan.
But still a fan. I’m hoarding my pennies (and nickels and dimes) to save up and buy more of his books with every expectation that I will love every minute of the reading, and will walk away deeply frustrated at how they end. Or perhaps more accurately, how they don’t.
The Scholar of Moab was a Christmas present from my wife, because on its surface it represents much of what interests me. It’s marketed as magic realism, though I would argue that it’s more like gentle absurdism (another good reason to read a book, btw). It’s well written, lyrical, and even poetic in voice and tone. It’s a distinctly Mormon story that seems perfectly accessible to non-Mormons. It explore issues of spirituality and existentialism. It offers new knowledge and unique perspective; the author is a professor of evolutionary biology at BYU who appeared as a guest at Utah’s annual symposium on science fiction and fantasy this year.
It also represents much of what annoys me in Mormon literary fiction. It’s set in the 1970s. It’s set in southern Utah (do no stories of exploratory Mormonism happen in central or northern Utah—or, heaven forbid, non-rural-non-Utah settings?). Its characters are the standard mix of mostly quirky, aggressively odd people so popular in western/southwestern literary circles, with nary a regular guy in sight (are there no honest free spirits who aren’t actively unhinged?).
I know, how can I love the absurd yet be annoyed by quirky characters? For me it’s a matter of balance. Absurdist stories are better served when either no one blinks, or when there is a good straight man who sees the discontinuities and is confused by them. In The Scholar of Moab that straight-man role is allegedly taken by the Redactor who (Mormon-like) has collected (relatively) ancient manuscripts and edited them together into a single exploratory narrative.
But that’s precisely the rub for me. Mormon (and Moroni after him) spent a fair amount of time interpreting his collected texts and giving the collection its own reason for being, independent of the individual stories contained within. The Redactor just presents them and says they represent something strange but wonderful, with no significant interpretive commentary. While the characters each (mostly) come to some kind of peace with their own experience, The Redactor makes no visible comment.
I know—that’s a standard feature of the existential story. Life has no intrinsic theme to unify its narrative; events happen because they happen, with no convenient resolutions or neatly tied bows. But in this case, the presence of The Redactor seems to fill the role of straight man, yet he doesn’t follow through to name the absurdity as such. He exists to justify the fact of this arbitrary collection of records, not to wonder at their meaning or value.
Which is fine with me. To me one of the key differences between literary-academic and genre fiction is the nature of the questions asked, and how the narrative addresses those questions. In my experience, literary fiction tends to emphasize the asking of the question, and spends its pages revealing the nuance and complexity of that question. In the end, what we have is a difficult question well asked, with interpretation and meaning left as an exercise for the reader in argument with both the text and their own experience. Answers to the question are not only unnecessary, but are to be actively avoided so as to maximize the available space for individual interpretation.
Genre fiction tends to ask a concise question at the start, and to explore one particular resolution to that question through causally (or at least thematically) connected events and characters that directly interpret the question. Readers can accept or reject that conclusion, but a direct argument is still made as a spur to that further consideration.
That’s obviously an oversimplification and an (at least somewhat) arbitrary separation, but it’s helped me as one reader apply different assumptions to different texts. If the primary goal of the text seems to be to ask questions, then I carry different expectations and read differently than when I perceive the text to be an exploration of answers.
Which is where Dr. Peck seems to consistently trip me up—or at least as consistently as only two texts allow. While both seem to be genre narratives of solution to a mystery, it becomes clear early on that these are intended as literary-academic explorations of a set of well-described questions.
In A Short Stay in Hell, I was left a bit frustrated because the main character seemed to effectively un-ask the primary question suggested by the premise of the text: what is the value and relevance of this Hell for me? In this case, the very un-asking is pretty much the essence of the question, so while I was left unsettled, it was a very satisfying dissatisfaction that exposed the core existential question in an interesting and creative way. The question was well asked and explored precisely by the extended process of un-asking.
The short explanation of the inspiration for the story and the math behind the unimaginable dimensions of the library added to the niftiness of the retracted question. It was as much an exploration of how cool the idea itself was as anything else, and satisfying on that basis alone.
Which is essentially what The Scholar of Moab also does—except that the text actively begs a question that the Redactor utterly fails to acknowledge. The entire plot revolves around a series of escalating fabrications that lead to an increasingly unmanageable situation that ends with the death of Hyrum Thayne, the Scholar of Moab. The problem is that the death happens off-screen with no witnesses (and no corpse) in a situation contrived by Thayne himself.
In a story where Thayne has consistently manipulated events to obscure fairly simple facts, the idea that this unwitnessed death might itself be a fabrication, and that Thayne is alive, well, and in hiding to avoid answering for his other transgressions practically screams from the page. Yet not a single character in the story voices that question.
I have no expectation of an answer to that question; a literary-academic story is designed to ask, not answer. But I do expect the text to at least acknowledge the fact of this simple, obvious, underpinning question and add it to the list. In his role as straight man, The Redactor should have wondered, if no one else.
For me, that undercut the rest of the text and rendered the entire exercise deeply frustrating. That mystery dominates the text, yet the most fundamental question about that mystery is not even acknowledged, never mind well-asked.
But the reading itself was so entertaining, the explorations of individual viewpoint and thought so compelling, the simple creativity of the characters and situations so intriguing that I have become an active fan of the author’s work. Dr. Peck approaches questions with a direct, unflinching, and beautifully concise presentation that cuts through existential haze, starkly reveals the core of those questions, and invites a fresh look and consideration. The text itself is at least as interesting as the narrative it delivers.
I’m sure I’m being unfair to Dr. Peck, and that if I was better educated to post-modern literary theory I would understand why The Scholar of Moab failed to ask that simple, obvious question. Still, even with that deep dissatisfaction that left me in a bad mood for two days and caused me to rant at whoever would (pretend to) listen (mostly my wife), I happily picked up A Short Stay in Hell and read it with both relish and anticipation. I fully expect to be frustrated by the last three pages of Dr. Peck’s works, and (so far, at least) I’m fine with that.
I have become a fan of Dr. Steven L. Peck’s works, and suggest you look up his writing as well. It may frustrate (by accident as well as by design), but it will also actively satisfy in many, many ways. Just a few more dimes and I can get his newly (re)released book about the war among the squirrels.