Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

Great American Fiction and the Catholic Literary Imagination

(Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, by Nick Ripatrazone (Fortress Press, 300 pp., $27.99)

What it might mean to speak of Catholic literature is a bit of a thorny question, or, rather, there are so many ways to pose the question that it might incline one to despair of answering. Nick Ripatrazone, a poet and fiction writer in his own right, goes about the task, in Longing for an Absent God, in the only manageable way. He wades right in and, in turning from one author to another, sees what churns up. The result is not so much a critical study as a literary journalist’s tour of the margins of American Catholicism where they overlap with the established center of the modern American novel.

This is not Ripatrazone’s first look at Catholicism in American letters. In The Fine Delight (2013), he offered a theory of what he calls the “Catholic literary paradox.” Some books might be called Catholic because their author is a sincere, practicing Catholic, while others might be because we see traces, forms, even mere residue, of Catholic belief somehow inscribed in the work itself despite the unbelief of the author.

The Fine Delight made more of an attempt than the present book does to give us a satisfactory critical theory to understand that paradox. It also tried to do so with specific reference to the changing cultural footprint of Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council. But, after such bold opening gestures, it quickly turned to the easier task of surveying the work of three unambiguously (“unparadoxically”) Catholic writers: Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, and Paul Mariani.

Hansen, a novelist best known for his historical fiction, is also a deacon of the Catholic Church. Dubus wrote his many short stories from a perspective informed by the masculine code drilled into him in the military and the moral vision of purity he imbibed in church. The work of the poet and literary biographer Paul Mariani seems like a Jesuit spiritual exercise: In his own life and in the lives of the poets he admires, Mariani attempts to discern the workings of the Holy Spirit.

The Fine Delight concluded with brief discussions of younger, less established figures, all of whom fit the bill as Catholic writers about as comfortably as Hansen, Dubus, and Mariani. The word “paradox” seems almost superfluous to understanding them.

Not so with this new book. Longing for an Absent God takes a long while to wend its way to its main subject, but when it finally arrives there, we see that Ripatrazone has taken upon himself a serious challenge. The authors he considers — Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich — are some of the most widely acclaimed novelists of the last half century. Some might find Pynchon’s postmodern hijinks obscure and irritating, but no one doubts their ingenuity. DeLillo’s witty scenes from American life testify to a great breadth of imagination, even when his plots fail.

Morrison’s brutal depictions of racism sometimes seem to sacrifice literary achievement in pursuit of topicality, but no one could seriously dispute the moral reckoning that takes place in her novels. Erdrich’s portrayal of Native American life has been less widely recognized but is nonetheless a significant achievement. And, finally, for those of us who thrill to Faulknerian logorrheic epic melodrama, McCarthy is something better than a reincarnation. He’s an improvement.

These five novelists have not only critical praise in common; they have also their baptism in the Catholic Church and the ongoing, meaningful influence of the Church on their literary imaginations. Ripatrazone strives mightily to show us just what that might mean. The difficulty lies in finding words adequate to give expression to the “paradox.” We might call some of them “lapsed” Catholics, whose childhood catechizing persists at the level of sentiment, but it is not entirely clear that all of them are indeed “lapsed.”

Ripatrazone favors the familiar term  “cultural Catholics,” which is a helpful, if vulgar, usage. Catholicism is a dogmatic faith, but one that casts a penumbra far beyond its creed and doctrines. The Catholic intellectuals Josef Pieper and Christopher Dawson both argued, in the last century, that cult is the basis of culture. What the cult worships as transcending the world gradually finds expression in the forms of everyday life, of culture. As Philip Rieff, the great Freud scholar, has suggested, our perception of sacred order gives form to our social order, and this act of interpreting the sacred within the profane is specifically what it means to have a culture. Any social order that denies the existence of the sacred, Rieff tells us, is better described as an anti-culture.

The writers Ripatrazone studies illustrate such a theory of culture, at least to some extent. Whatever their beliefs as human beings, as authors they draw, here and there, on the forms of Catholic faith in order to give shape to the stories they tell.

Ripatrazone shows us as much, and well indeed. To take them up in order once more: He considers the way DeLillo’s early novels, Americana and Endzone, show characters in pursuit of a self-transcending silence that is almost monastic. Amid the busy Protestant hum of modern American life, perfection remains tied to contemplation, holiness, and stasis (what the religious orders call the vow of stability).

Pynchon’s labyrinthine novels, with their codes and puzzles that lead nowhere, on Ripatrazone’s telling reflect a sacramental imagination that sees everything as — to use Dante’s word — polysemantic. In the quest to interpret the apparent signs embedded in the world around us, we find layer on layer of meaning, even if they lead us, like the letter V, in disparate directions and so issue in no clear, unified vision. Just so does a lapsed Catholic view the world: Taught to read the signs lying silently within the order of existence, he nonetheless finds their author missing.

McCarthy’s demonic dramas enact something similar on the moral plane. We encounter, in his books, scenes of gruesome, absolute evil. The Catholic apologist Pascal writes that theological knowledge begins in disappointment; we learn what the justice and charity of God are only by seeing their negation or absence in the fallen world in which we live. For McCarthy, our encounters with evil stir us to recognize the good that ought to exist but that never actually appears, except perhaps in the form of a remembered sentiment in which we can no longer believe.

When Ripatrazone turns to Morrison’s work, the insight gained from reading it in a Catholic light is less certain. On the one hand, the Nobel Prize–winner frequently referred to herself as “a Catholic,” and sometimes, regretfully, as “lapsed.” On the other, it is not obvious that it is the disfigured body of Christ on the crucifix that informs her concern with the human body, in beauty, ugliness, and suffering, nor is it clear that the elements of haunting and superstition in her books come from maturing in a Church that spends its days in communion with the saints, living and dead. Traditional African-American culture and the historical experience of slavery seem more promising sources for understanding Morrison’s themes. Someone, at some point, however, had to take her at her word, and that is what Ripatrazone does here.

Finally, Erdrich’s work offers an interesting departure from the “cultural Catholic” paradox Ripatrazone traces in the other writers. Our age, and our literature departments, are overflowing at present with the concerns of “identity politics,” a noxious and philistine trend that for three decades now has sought to reduce every literary work to an allegory of the experience of this or that sex or racial or ethnic group.

Erdrich’s work is frequently set on Indian reservations, and one need not look hard to see that it explores the “duality” that ostensibly comes from her being both Chippewa and Catholic. Her characters  move sometimes quietly — and sometimes with tension and difficulty — between traditional Native American religious practices and those taught by the Church, often by religious orders running parochial schools on the reservation.

This aspect of Erdrich’s work testifies to the challenge Ripatrazone faced in writing this book. Catholicism has cultural expressions, to be sure, but it teaches also that the truth saves by transcending any and every cultural expression. In this sense, it hardly makes sense to speak of a “tension” between faith and one’s ethnic experiences.

But Catholicism also proposes that the one truth everyone must understand is that the Truth Itself took on flesh, entered history, and transformed and redeemed it — every last thought, every last atom of it — as Jesus Christ, Son of God. We should expect such a holy cataclysm to reverberate far beyond those places where people explicitly accept the faith.

Ripatrazone’s previous book demonstrated that there are contemporary Catholic authors worthy of the wider literary world’s respect. This new one shows that some of those authors the world already respects contain spiritual depths that are too often ignored, but that help us to better appreciate their artistic achievement.

This article appears as “The Ghost in the House of American Fiction” in the May 4, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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