The Corner

Michael D. O’Brien’s New Epic

It has been said that in literature and mythology, all Quests are fundamentally religious quests — that whatever the stated object of a given quest may be, the most important result is a deeper understanding of reality and of oneself. Michael D. O’Brien’s new novel, The Father’s Tale, takes this approach to its furthest limit. The first half of this massive, 1,076-page volume is a gripping suspense story, with pronounced spiritual aspects, about an introverted Canadian bookseller who believes that his son has fallen under the control of a New Age cult, and travels literally half a world away — to Siberia — in order to rescue him. In the second half, the spiritual aspects become much more pronounced and even come to dominate the story, before the plot constructed so well in the first half is finally resolved. In short, what we have in the book is an unusual combination of Ludlum and Dostoevsky. (I thought the combination of international suspense and theological speculation was achieved much more seamlessly in the author’s 1998 novel Father Elijah; but of course it’s easier to do that in a work that’s explicitly in the apocalyptic genre.)

O’Brien is a social conservative, and includes in the book his reflections on contemporary Western sexual mores (spoiler alert: he disapproves). But his characters are real enough, and the plot captivating enough, that even a reader who is skeptical of his views on these and similar questions will probably be inclined to be indulgent toward him and persevere with the book. (Of course, for many readers these views will be not a bug but a feature.)

Many people probably know O’Brien chiefly as one of the most prominent ideological opponents of the Harry Potter books and films (one of his most recent comments on this issue can be found here). On this question my ignorance is close to limitless — I read the first ten pages of the first Harry Potter book, was gripped by boredom, and laid it down; I saw the first movie, found it mildly diverting, and had no desire to see any of the others — but based on what right-wing readers I know have said about the series, I’m inclined to believe that it’s innocent fun and that O’Brien is probably overreacting.

But O’Brien’s willingness to engage, with such vigor, on the minority side on an issue like that is part and parcel of his ability to write such an engaging and readable novel of ideas as The Father’s Tale. Indeed, a better parallel for O’Brien than the Ludlum-Dostoevsky combination might be another writer of colossally long books that excite readers about ideas: Think of him as a conservative-Catholic version of Ayn Rand. He has given me more readerly joy over the years than Ayn Rand ever did, so I believe it would be entirely just for him to become a cult-favorite writer on the level she reached. Read The Father’s Tale and see what you think.

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