Spoiler alert: I couldn’t write this post without talking about the entire novel, so if you don’t want to know the ending consider yourself warned.
A little more than halfway through Ryan McIlvain’s novel Elders, Elder McLeod meets with his mission president for an interview. McLeod has ostensibly come to discuss issues with pornography, but as he is talking with the president he surprises himself by blurting out “I’m angry.” The mission president listens patiently to McLeod’s confession about his lack of faith, the burden of expectations from his father, and his lapses into pornography and self-pleasure, before asking “but why are you angry? You said you’re angry. I don’t hear that in these cases very often.” (pg 177). By this point in the novel, the reader can understand much more fully than the mission president why Elder McLeod is angry—his expectations have been frustrated at every turn throughout his mission. He left home with shaky faith, hoping to receive a stronger testimony as a missionary only to find himself nearing the end of his service just as doubtful as he was at the beginning. He and his companion struggle to understand each other due to their disparate language and cultural backgrounds and their different approaches to missionary work; their relationship thus far has been marked by a cycle of misunderstanding, contention, and tentative attempts at reconciliation and friendship that too often end in even more misunderstanding. And, just two weeks before his interview with the mission president, McLeod and Passos found out that their most promising investigator could not be baptized due to a change in mission policy.
Elder McLeod hopes that the interview with his mission president will be a turning point for him; it ends in the expected way, with a promise from the president that a testimony will come if McLeod will be patient and trust in the Lord’s timetable. Instead, the second half of the book traces McLeod’s downward spiral as his anger and frustration take over and he physically assaults the husband of their investigator, stops speaking to his companion, and finally commits spiritual suicide by sneaking out of his apartment at night to go have sex with a prostitute at the local brothel. Ultimately, he cannot escape his expectations because even his first sexual experience is disappointing and not as he pictured it. When he returns to his apartment early the next morning, McLeod attempts to atone for his behavior by cleaning his companion’s shoes, but once again his actions not only fail to provide himself with any sort of spiritual absolution, they are also badly misinterpreted by his companion, resulting in a final confrontation that reveals Elder Passos to be just as frustrated and potentially violent as McLeod.
Despite the fact that Elder McLeod was not very easy for me to like, he is still a sympathetic character. In fact, one of the strengths of the novel is the fact that the characters are all individually rendered without resorting to stereotypes or generalizations. This is a rare novel about particular Mormon characters in a particular time and place, rather than the more common novel that strives to make a statement about Mormons in general (for good or bad). This is a novel about Elder McLeod and Elder Passos and their respective mission experiences. And, it is a novel about what happens when you believe in a performance-based gospel. McLeod’s mission president and his father are both depicted as sincere men who care about his well-being and they both counsel him in similar ways to just do the work. To them, faith means acting a certain way and performing certain behaviors, and they both promise that if you perform adequately, you will be transformed. Unfortunately for McLeod, his performances remain just empty actions; he can never find a way for his outward acts to make an impact on his heart. Even during the final scene of the novel, when he is cleaning his companion’s shoes, he is only performing the act because he has been told that doing so will help him feel more love and kinship with Elder Passos. While he is cleaning he looks around the apartment, aware of the performative and transactional nature of the act: “He had felt this sense of performance before, this sense of personal history-making in situ, of doing something and knowing already how he’d describe it months, even years, afterward.” (pg 283). For McLeod, a mission is something that is done as part of the narrative of his life, and the expectation is that by doing it he will continue on the path followed by everyone else in the church, one that leads to peace, fulfillment, and belonging. There is a formula for life, but for some reason in McLeod’s life things keep breaking down, and though he keeps faithfully performing his part, none of those who surround him seem to be responding in the way he expects them too. A+B should equal C, but instead none of the parts line up and the answers are all wrong.
I have read and generally agree with most of Scott Hales’ assessment of the novel over at A Motley Vision. This is a cynical novel that is more about losing faith than finding it. However, I also think that the argument could be made that this book is one of the most true depictions of the modern Mormon experience published to date. One of the major tensions in modern Mormon culture is between doing and being; a common theme in General Conference talks for at least a decade has been the importance of true conversion in place of busy-ness or activity. Mission presidents, ward leaders, and parents all have to balance measuring and encourage specific behavior such as lessons, church attendance, and baptism while still trying to convey the idea that is not the behavior itself that is the end goal. McIlvain’s novel may not be the story of Mormonism that we want to tell, but it realistically portrays the danger of what can happen when expectations created by a performance-based model for religion meet reality. Elder McLeod has been taught that his actions will lead him to faith and to blessings, but in the end finds that he has become someone who can only perform without feeling. This is a cynical view of the relationship between faith and works, and the novel plays it out to the logical extreme, but I found it terrifyingly realistic.