A Short Stay in Hell with The Scholar of Moab

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.

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18 Responses to A Short Stay in Hell with The Scholar of Moab

  1. Wm says:

    Great post, Scott.

    I really need to read The Scholar of Moab. I had a similar reaction to A Short Stay in Hell in relation to the main character and so am now wondering what the experience of reading The Scholar of Moab will be.

    Also: Steven has a novella in Monsters & Mormons that is less postmodern. It’s a lot of fun.

    Also also: I’m sorry to have to break this to you, Scott, but there’s about an 85% of a chance that if I write a Mormon fiction novel, it will take place in southern Utah. Although right now I’m more focused on speculative fiction so who knows if it will ever happen.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I highly recommend The Scholar of Moab. It starts a bit rough, but finds its groove fairly early on and presents an absolutely sparkling journey that goes directly at a huge number of basic existential questions. I was particularly gratified to see one of my own private heresies (organic evolution) explored in direct and succinct conversation between Thane and a scientist. The whole bumble bee thing was a delight that worked for me on multiple levels.

      I’ve considered the possibility that Thane himself is The Redactor after he has actually become the scholar his younger self was reputed to be—thus explaining the puzzling lack of critical commentary for fear of revealing that fact. I’m not sure that works, but it’s an interesting model for consideration when I re-read it.

      And I will re-read. The fact that I’m still puzzling over The Scholar of Moab despite reading five other books in the mean time shows just how powerfully it penetrated.

      On setting your novel in southern Utah…knock yourself out. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me as a Utahn that much of the regional literature is set here. Southern Utah has proven a particularly fertile source of artists, and people write (at least partially) from their own experience, so it’s all to be expected. Sadly, as a transplanted midwestern suburbanite I have no fond memories or experience of growing up anywhere in Utah during the 50s, 60s, or 70s, so I have no particular resonance with that model of allegedly prototypical Mormon experience.

      Not surprisingly, my (speculative) Mormon novel is set in central/north-central Utah (where I currently live) in a reasonably near future, told from the viewpoint of an outsider (an alien in Mormon Country). While I appreciate those southern Utah stories, I’d still like to see more other-place and other-time Mormon stories, too.

      My wife is nearly finished with M&M; I will read it when she’s done. I’m looking forward to it.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Hmmm. Sounds like putting Mormons in Utah is a little like writing about writers.

      The story I hope to finish writing this week starts in Haiti and ends in Utah. Sorry, Scott. But blame Stephen Carter. I got the idea from a blog post of his.

  2. BHodges says:

    Scott, older Mormon home literature tended toward the didactic Genre-fiction that you described, the asking of question and the narrative arc that eventually poses an answer. You say the newer approach asks the question really well but perhaps leaves the preaching out of it. In Peck’s new book you think he missed that key question and thus that bothered you. It seems to me you might be relying on that question in the same way that another reader might be relying on the genre-fiction’s giving of answers, no? In other words, the question you waited for would function, for you, as the delivering of the satisfying (or perhaps even unsatisfying) answer contained at the conclusion of genre-fiction. If this is so, then you are still reading with a genre-fiction view in mind, no?

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Accepting for the moment Scott’s premise that a hallmark of literary fiction is elaboration of the question (which seems to me like a pretty fair statement, based on my experience), then wanting that experience from a work of fiction isn’t a mark of dependence on a genre fiction mindset, but rather an expectation created by literary fiction itself.

      On the other hand, what it may indicate is a difference between modern and postmodern literary fiction. I don’t feel that I know enough to have an opinion on that — and specifically, not having read Peck’s works, I’m not qualified to have an opinion on how well they fit any of these patterns.

      Regardless, it’s my sense that every type of literature, postmodern included, has to deliver *something* to its reader(s). What, specifically, is delivered may vary from genre to genre, but to want *something* delivered isn’t in my view a sign of genre-based reading.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I don’t think so, because I don’t expect (and honestly don’t want) an answer to whether Thane is really dead–only an acknowledgement that the situation begs that question and someone should have wondered about the possibility, if only in passing.

      I think that’s less about genre vs. literary approach than it is about being fair to the rules established within the text itself. The Redactor is the outside observer, the one character who breaks the boundary of the story to directly address the reader. If he (in his character voice) doesn’t ask that singularly obvious question, he’s either cheating at the behest of the author (thus breaking the illusion and revealing the puppet-master), he’s unreliable as a narrator, or he’s intentionally withholding for reasons that are not clear to me.

      I don’t see that as related to a genre-centered reading. Then again, I admit freely to not being a particularly savvy literary-academic reader (a literary luddite, as it were).

      In either case, I loved it and will read it again. Which is all any book can demand of its readers.

      • BHodges says:

        Ah, that makes more sense. It might, then, lend into your theory of the Redactor being Thayne, since he never asks the obvious Q, given his position to be the one to ask it. I would have to evaluate again his interactions with Dora near the end of the book and see if there are more clues.

  3. BHodges says:

    ps- great review, got me thinking yet again about this novel. your observations help me to clarify some of the ways we’ve operated literarily. :)

  4. There should a warning on the cover of ASSIH: “Likely to give you nightmares. Will make you uncomfortable in libraries”.
    Scholar of Moab is so full of fun and Steve’s unique take on things and weird humor that it not only makes you want to read more, but to read more IN Moab.

  5. SteveP says:

    Scott, thanks so much for this review. All of the literature that has really mattered in my life has provoked and challenged me. I’m so pleased my book had this effect on you. I take that as high praise indeed. The things you point out about the Redactor’s reaction are intentional. Or at least embedded in things I suspect about the Redactor. Shouldn’t I know? Maybe, but for me these characters in some ways are real and the writing process seems like one of discovery. Sometimes I’m even shocked and surprised by what the characters do. I feel less like a creator than an explorer when it comes to their lives.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Oh, the tension!

      I think that inherent in Scott’s review and Steven’s reply is the fact of a literary mutation, perhaps an extension or ramification of post-modernism as we’ve experienced it to date. Scott appears to expect a certain structure, acceptable in a variety of guises, one that shows control, the kind of reassurance (and subsequent realization) we hope for in a carnival thrill ride. He seems to want to feel that the author knows exactly what he’s doing from start to finish (and perhaps beyond)—and that whatever we missed the first time round, we’ll catch on a subsequent round. It’s okay for the author to grope his way through a few drafts, but the final draft should demonstrate full omniscience (if not omnipotence). Steven appears to be saying that as author, he’s more like a cartographer, charting what he finds, not planning what he builds—and keeping it that way. On the edges of Steven’s maps, “Here be dragons.”

      • Mark Penny says:

        Additionally, however, Scott is concerned about the bizarre fact that the narrator, as a character in the story, not a detached and selective (or non-omniscient) chronicler, makes no reference to the elephant hogging the room. He doesn’t have to have the answer, but he should voice the question.

        So the problem is twofold: (a) a mutant structural quirk arising from the author’s approach to characters and the unfolding of plot, and (b) the the quirk’s manifestation in an uncreditable context arising from the point of view of the narrator as (I assume) thoughtful participant in the story and therefore someone who should phrase the question even if unable to answer it.

        Will the mutation survive to reproduce? Will it dominate the species or will it form a sub-species? Stay tuned for another ten years to see.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        I’m not sure I want anywhere near the specific structure you seem to think I want. I wanted one huge and obvious question to be acknowledged because the text itself begged the question in glorious detail—that’s all. Not a presupposed structural framework, but a nod to the rules (I perceived to be) established by the text itself.

        Having said that, if I read The Redactor as Thane, then the frustration vanishes because the unasked question has a reason (contained within the text) for not being asked (which, oddly, answers the unasked question precisely by not asking it).

        In any case, that tension is precisely what the text goes for. In that sense, I think the charge against me is fair—for a text to be satisfying to me the author needs to have an intent. Whether I agree with the intent is irrelevant. On that point I cop cheerfully to the label of literary Luddite; I can follow a text nearly anywhere as long as it believes itself to be going somewhere.

        Which is not to say that experiential stories don’t engage me. The intent of such a story is to richly describe the experience itself (in some sort of context); the text suggests no other intent, and thus asks no further participation from me.

        Not trying to be defensive, but I do want to be held guilty only of those offenses I have committed, and I don’t think I pre-demanded any particular structure or content.

        (Side note—interesting that “Thane” has featured prominently in both novels of Dr. Peck’s that I’ve read, Scholar of Moab and Rifts of Rime [ASSIH was a novella despite its standalone form factor]. In Rifts the antagonist holds the title of Thane; in Scholar the protagonist is named Thayne. Just a fun-sounding name? An homage to a particular person [I have a brother in law named Thayne]? A comment on being servant to a higher Lord? An ironic comment [Rameupmtom-like] on the quality of that service? Meaningless coincidence? Fun question to ponder…)

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