Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster

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I don’t know if Sarah would have sent me an ARC of her upcoming novel if she hadn’t already been reading Byuck, but I like to think so. In her email, she said, “I think we share some literary similarities. I think you would like this one… it’s marketed romance by Cedar Fort (blah) but it’s about as much Romance as Byuck is” (ellipses in original). I’m going to use this as an excuse to navelgaze a bit as I review her new novel. My apologies in advance.
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I don’t know if all writers compare what they’re reading to their own work, but I often do. Especially when a book keeps reminding me in blatant ways of my stuff. If you were to take Byuck, cross it with “The Widower,” set it at BYU Idaho, and swap the sex of the major characters, you would get something very much like Mile 21.
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In some ways I think Byuck is better (largely in issues of style, but my complaints here are largely connected to issues inherent with writing in the first person), and in some ways I think Mile 21 is better (it successfully incorporates direct religiosity into the plot in ways I shied away from, an ambition I admire), but both books share an ethos of dealing with the modern, early-twenties, Mormon scene within the artificially heightened setting of a Church-run university.
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(Also, Byuck once again has more jokes.)
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I rush to admit that this is hardly a new topic or setting for novelists. And I don’t want to speak for Sarah, but I suspect that her lack of enthusiasm for the “romance” label is similar to mine. First that romance has an (often undeserved) reputation for poor plot/character development. Second that “romance” suggests a single-mindedness of plot. Mile 21 is waaaaay to complex to pretend it is “just” a love story. In fact, the love story’s conclusion functions largely as an external and parallel signification for the completion of the internal trajectory.
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Which makes this a good time to mention that I admire the layering of metaphor in this novel. And Sarah’s using for metaphors stuff that is just lying around, waiting to be used, but currently underutilized. For instance, I don’t know of any other Mormon fiction that uses video games to such good effect. And since I rather notoriously do not like “Blood Work,” I don’t know of any other Mormon fiction that uses running to such good effect either.
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(Note that all quotations are cited at Nook locations based on an epub file I made myself from a Word document of a pre-ARC proof copy Sarah sent me, and are out of 241 locations—at best, the parenthetical number will be an approximations for you.)
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Time to buy new shoes.
Are you sure? What if I like my new shoes better than my old ones?
Well, that’s kind of the point. Off with the old, on with the new.
But the old shoes fit so well. They brought me through hundreds of miles.
They’re not working anymore, Abish. (75-6)
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It’s not particularly subtle—the old shoes are her dead husband!—but the obvious metaphor is just one part of what Sarah’s up to; all the metaphors are twisting around each other making a nice little tapestry that runs the risk of driving us mad right along with our hero. Who doesn’t overexamine life for significance when nothing important seems capable of maintaining meaning?
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But this also brings us back to my earlier complaint re first-person point-of-view. At times, Abish (our female protagonist) is given more words than are strictly necessary to help us get it. Anyone who’s had me edit them will know that one of my mantras is to assume the reader will get it with the minimum of help. Anyone who’s edited me will tell you I take sometimes take my own advice to an unfortunate extreme. Perhaps a half dozen times over the course of Mile 21 Abish unpleasantly overexplained herself. It is, I grant, a tough line to straddle when you’re using first-person. Abish herself is a curious mix of self-aware and deliberately ignorant that helps with the straddling, but there were those moments I felt pandered to.
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I’m feeling sort of puzzled. I’m not sure why Bob’s being like this. (108)
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Oh, Abish. I can accept you’re thinking shallowly enough to end up puzzled. I cannot accept that you are simultaneously puzzled and pretending you can’t hypothesize concerning boy/girl interactions. Either you’re puzzled or you’re thinking about it. But you can’t open the box and still find the cat both alive and dead. A third-person narrator has more leeway here, but with Abish narrating, it doesn’t quite work in this spot.
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Anyway, it’s just like me to spend an inordinate amount of time on style issues. Suffice it to say that first-person’s a hassle—especially one as self-contradictory as Abish—and Mile 21, though generally successfully, did not escape unscathed.
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Here’s something else. Mile 21 is a decidedly for-Mormons novel, or so it seems to me. Although keep in mind that everyone says that about Byuck and that was never my intention and still is not my belief. The reason I place this label on Mile 21 is how much time Abish spends in decidedly Mormon relationships. Not just roommates, but a ward, a Relief Society, a bishop. She gets even deeper into the weirdness that is BYU-I and Rexberg generally. They’re so much stricter than BYU Classic that I find it bewildering. A two-hours earlier apartment curfew? A city with a similar curfew? Reading about BYU-I gives me the same kind of eyes-wide-open disbelief I imagine nonMormons get reading Byuck. (Which is to say I may be completely wrong about my own for-Mormons claim.) But these down-the-rabbit-hole aspects of the novel are part of what I admire about them. This bold foray into the heart of darkness (so to speak) is something  Mile 21 does and does well.
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Another thing that strikes me as particularly for-Mormons—though in a somewhat subterfuged way—is something about the tone or voice that puts me in the mood to expect sudden moralizing or tidy messages. But it never happens (cf Nephi Anderson). Yes, the ending is quite tidy (here “romance” raises its head again), and Abish find not just romantic answers but many spiritual answers, but those spiritual answers are less clear than the surface romantic conclusion. Sure, she “discovers” that the Plan of Happiness is a plan of happiness, but she also apparently arrives at the conclusion that confusion and uncertainty are not opposed to happiness. Which is not the sort of pat answer detractors of Mormon lit might anticipate this novel to provide. The fact that the novel keeps suggesting simple answers are forthcoming—without ever providing any—allows the novel to function on levels beyond that a casual reader may happily tuck away in a backpocket.
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I’m not suggesting the novel is secretly amoral or even wishywashy, but that it rejects the simplicity of tidy fictions in favor of a more realistic complexity, while occasionally allowing the reader the the pleasurable, if immature, hope that life is preordinately predictable. In fact, those characters who promote a simplified, predictable worldview, are the clearest villains of the novel. But even the clearest of villains is seen working through a penance at the end of the novel, presumably shedding her simplicity as she encounters the complexity of others’ suffering.
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Perhaps the greatest lesson offered by the text is that every character—no matter how simple they seem on the outside—has inner layers of pain and holiness. Each soul is worthy of saving. The crass are sensitive. The sweet live horrors. We are all broken and fallen. We are all capable of love and redemption. We should not give up on ourselves. We should not assume the strong do not need our help. We should not eschew offers of succor from the weak. We should get over ourselves; we should never get over anyone, not even ourselves.
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And maybe—just maybe—at least in a story—things really will more or less work out and no matter our confusions, we can be happy.

About Theric Jepson

Theric Jepson writes (and writes about) fiction, comics, movies, and other unholy things. http://thmazing.com
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5 Responses to Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Hi Theric,
    Thanks for your post. Welcome to the AML (stable, pen, whatever) of contributors!

  2. .

    [EDIT: Added missing link.]

  3. I’m pretty grateful to be a member of this community as I grow as a writer. Finding people who are kindly critical, and knowledgable as well, is a rare thing.

    … It’s interesting, Theric, how we seem to originate from the same place in our two books. We both started (if I’m inferring correctly from your introspection) in a place of some angst against mormon culture, how it sidelines certain individuals and simplifies certain things, and how some expectations and norms are pretty ridiculous. I find it even more interesting that, no matter our intentions, our books both ended up being pro-Mormon. Because Theric, I’d have to agree. I found BYUCK to be funny, sarcastic etc but in the end your fondness for the place (BYU) (also Mormon Culture) seeps through.

    I doubt either of us will be able to write a not-pro-LDS book. Where our hearts are, there are our words are. Anyway.

    I did notice that about your writing–you are spare on character introspection. And as you see, I tend to err in the opposite direction, though I’m getting better with each book, I think. It is something I agonize about a lot. How much is too much? And I agree with your comment about Abish wondering what’s going on with bob, how that’s pretty disingenuous. But then, the girl’s in denial about a lot of things. I have been there…

    I am glad you liked my book. Hooray for our upcoming boxed set… who’s writing the great BYU-Hawaii novel? I nominate Steven Peck… just kidding. (though that would really boost our sales. How mercenary am I.)

    • Th. says:

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      There must be a a budding writer in Laie up to the challenge.

      My mantra is trust the reader, let the reader fill in the gaps—but it’s unquestionably a style point and not one all will agree with.

      On the the things I’m enjoying most about Chester Lawrence is how it fits into this space where what the audience wants from a novel was changing. There was a time that recounting tourist spots in detail was primo audience-pleasing. And while some readers still crave that, as a whole that’s not what we want any more.

      On the pro/anti question: I can’t imagine writing an antiLDS book. An early reader of Byuck (a teenage boy) had his copy deleted by his mother because she was so offended by the prologue. And so I’ve anticipated at least an element of that reaction once the book came out. I would be delighted by the fact that it hasn’t happened . . . except I suspect that’s largely because of a too-small readership.

  4. Scott Hales says:

    This book is now on my to-read list.

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