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Alleluia for the Third Sunday after Trinity

Alleluia, alleluia. God is a righteous judge, strong and patient: and God is provoked every day. Alleluia.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: "The Accidental Marriage" by Roger Thomas

Roger Thomas' debut novel, The Accidental Marriage, is the story of Scott and Megan, a gay man and a lesbian living in San Francisco, who conceive a child together and find themselves on a path to a very different friendship than they hitherto had. Megan is pressured into conceiving by her wife, Diane, and Scott, being a friend, offers to donate sperm so the child can be conceived by artificial insemination; when this fails to work, the two conceive the child naturally. Diane finds out, and their relationship comes to pieces, so Scott takes Megan in and the two decide to marry so that Megan can be covered by Scott's insurance. The friendship slowly begins to assume the feeling of a home, even as Scott starts to find himself being edged out of his job --

And I have an anti-spoiler policy, so I won't say any more about it than that.

The Accidental Marriage is being published by Ignatius Press, and will be available as of October 7th.

The Strong Points

Some of the dream sequences in the novel, particularly the opening one, are well-written; Thomas manages to capture the atmosphere and logic of dreams, and to use some foreshadowing, convincingly. There are also a few rather charming exchanges, such as this one (from page 86), a little while after the two lead characters have set up housekeeping together:
     "Sounds good," Megan said with a smile, then put down the paper and looked soberly at Scott. "With respect to cleaning, I'm happy to continue what I've been doing, but I have one condition."
     "What's that?" Scott asked.
     "Aim better."
The Weak Points

I am genuinely sorry to say that this was among the worst books I've ever read. It is fatally flawed at every level of its construction.

To begin with, the novel is about a gay man and a lesbian. Yet there is literally nothing about the characters that makes them persuasive as gay people. We are told, several times, that they're gay; that's as gay as it gets. I don't mean that gay men and lesbians need to be caricatures, but there is no hint, at any point, of any real emotional or even merely sexual interest in men on Scott's part, nor in women on Megan's. The closest we come is, in the last quarter of the novel, an awkwardly composed flirtation that cannot quite bring itself to use the term "gaydar"; and even this scene has no real erotic sensibility. The pairings the book starts out with -- Diane and Megan on one side, Scott and Greg on the other -- barely make it into the book at all, except as hooks upon which to hang extremely demeaning ideas about gay relationships (Diane is domineering and abusive, of course, and Greg cheats on Scott and comes home drunk and high when he comes home at all, of course); but presumably these people and the relationships they formed with the central characters were important to  them at some point. Why don't we see any of that? Without it, neither the characters nor the situation they're in can be accepted by the reader; unless the reader is willing to suspend any and all disbelief on the strength of "They're gay."

Regrettably, this really seems to be the author's view. A number of comments throughout the novel (such as the speech of the lesbian character about how she had been saved from a life of literal sex slavery, for no stated reason other than "because lesbians") suggest a total ignorance of gay culture, accompanied by buying into grossly offensive and dehumanizing stereotypes. The most bizarre manifestation of this to my mind is that, except I think for our heroine and the quickly-discarded boyfriend of our hero, every homosexual character in the novel is presented at least once as being hostile to and contemptuous of procreation and of babies. Even if someone has no queer friends, I'd have thought that the fight for adoption rights and the actual phenomenon of gay adoptions, whatever one's moral view of the matter, would have been adequate evidence that this was not a typical feature of LGBT-identifying people. But this is only one instance of an astonishing unrealism that honestly leaves me wondering whether Roger Thomas has ever gotten to know even one gay person in real life.

Now, gay culture is not something anybody is required to approve of, whether as a whole or in any specific aspect. And for that matter, it's perfectly permissible to write about something with the aim of revealing its badness. But if you're writing a realistic novel about gay characters -- and one set in modern San Francisco, no less -- being conversant with gay culture is not an optional extra. It is the chosen matter of the work, and the author who refuses to acquaint himself with it is not being decently modest or subverting tropes, but revealing his own bad craftsmanship and failure to do the work of writing.*

Even tired queer stereotypes would make more persuasive characters than Scott and Megan do; the US version of Queer As Folk, which played the gay tropes for all they were worth (at least in the male characters), managed to get rounded and convincing characters out of it. The Accidental Marriage reads as though the author isn't even aware of the basic stereotypes of mincing fashionista males and tough, tomboyish females, and the sad result is to come out with characters that lamely fulfill vague, generic masculine and feminine cliches: the man lives in a mess and is only concerned about his career, while his female friend is able to turn the mess into a clean, flower-decorated apartment and cook him real meals instead of the fast food he has hitherto been relying on (the portrait of Megan seems to contain a really distasteful helping of sexism -- she is depicted as helpless and confused nearly every time she isn't cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the baby) ...

If a descent into cheap gay stereotypes was what the author wished chiefly to avoid, he had a magnificent chance to play with, complicate, and subvert those stereotypes, since they will inevitably be in the reader's mind anyway, and in so doing to make really three-dimensional characters. But he dodged or missed the issue and its concomitant opportunity, and the lack of living energy in the central characters and most of the supporting cast is the cost.

And that brings up a still more fundamental problem with the characters. They not only aren't convincing as a gay man and a lesbian; they aren't convincing as people. They have no distinctive style of speech -- almost any line in the book could be transferred to any other character, and the reader would have no sense of wrongness. They have no interests; for instance, we are told (again told, not shown) a few times that Scott loves his car, but there is no actual activity related to it to suggest this. Even what brought the two of them together as friends is never adequately explained: the backstory of their friendship is a slightly more elaborated version of "They met one time," and there's nothing that the friendship is about, nothing the characters have in common in either interests or circumstances, until the baby is conceived.

There are other problems, largely thematic, that I find frankly disturbing. Though the novel never uses the word "ex-gay" or its variants, it reads like a manifesto. The question of the genesis of homosexuality is not directly discussed, but both Scott and Megan share their life stories, and, what do you know: he was shy, his father abandoned the family, his mother smothered him, another boy suggested he might be gay and then he experimented with it; she never knew her father, she was chronically afraid of men her whole life because of the way they treated her mother. No acknowledgment of the problems of post-SOCE marriages, which are going to plague the titular marriage whether they identify with the ex-gay movement philosophically or not, is made at any point. The plot itself feels only partly as though it arises out of the characters, and more as if the author, confident (and perhaps laudably so) in the truth of Catholic moral teaching, has contrived a story that exhibits that truth, and suppressed any element of either character or plot that would interfere with that story's smooth development.

Perhaps worst are the a handful of discreet sex scenes between Scott and Megan. None contains the smallest suggestion that the characters feel anything but what a heterosexual couple would feel, either bodily or psychologically; the last of them (though I am quite confident that this thought never entered the author's mind) has an extremely weird feel to it, so much so that my initial reaction to reading it was to find it -- well, to be honest, it made me think of rape. The fact that "corrective rape" has been a conventional "cure" for homosexuality, and continues to be in certain parts of the world, contributes to the nauseating tinge of the passage -- all the more tragic in that, from its placing and content, it is clearly meant to be (no pun intended) a moving and emotion-laden climax to the novel.

The underlying problem, I suspect, is that the author wished to write an edifying novel. But a novelist must begin by wishing to write a good novel. If he does not do that, it will not be edifying either; indeed, it will constitute an embarrassment to its own aims. Shoddy craftsmanship is the almost inevitable consequence of such writing; it is to literature what Docetism is to the Incarnation: insincere and, therefore, artistically false and irrecoverable. Any edification that a novelist achieves will be brought forth by the general cast of his mind, not by dominating the story and its characters, as it were, by force. Dorothy Sayers, herself a devout Christian and an author with a firm grasp upon the theological nature of the creative process, explains this essential flaw, so common in idealistic authors of fiction:
A writer cannot create a character or express a thought which is not in his own mind. (It will be remembered that we are dealing with an ideal writer; it is always possible for a man to put on paper sentiments and characteristics that are not sincere expressions of himself but merely derivative. Even then, though the manufactured stereotype betrays itself by its falsity, it remains a true expression of an intrinsic spiritual falsity within the writer.)  ... For if a character becomes merely a mouthpiece of the author, he ceases to be a character, and is no longer a living creation. Still more, if all the characters speak with their author's voice, the whole work loses its reality, and with it, its power. ... Incidentally, this is the weakness of most "edifying" or "propaganda" literature. The Energy is active only in one part of the whole, and in consequence the wholeness is destroyed and the Power diminished. You cannot, in fact give God His due without giving the devil his due also.**
There is, sadly, a great deal more to be said about the book's problems; but this has already become unmanageably long, so I will conclude my critical portion here.

Is It Worth Reading?

If you are gay, I beg you not to read this. I would be personally embarrassed as a Catholic for your impression of us to be affected by this.

If you are a Christian who doesn't know any gay people very well, I again advise against reading this book. It has no real knowledge of LGBT people or culture to offer you. As an alternative, if you want to get to know some queer-identifying people, I suggest watching a movie by a gay filmmaker, reading a book by a transgender author, looking at paintings by a lesbian artist, or even, if all else fails, talking to us.

It's a cruel thing to say, but the only thing I could honestly recommend this book for is how not to think or talk about gay people. Its good intentions are plain enough; but they are not enough -- they do not make a good novel. And it is by its own goodness as a piece of art, not by its capacity to be used as a proof-text volume for Catholic moral teaching, that a novel must be judged. If Jesus made tables as a carpenter, we may be sure that He made them with great holiness; but we may be equally sure that He was, for that very reason, chiefly concerned to make a good table. Piety is not a substitute for craftsmanship, and to exchange the two corrupts them both.


*In saying that this grossly homophobic lens seems to be Thomas' perspective, I don't wish to take away his character. There are such things as failures of communication, and I'd be very sorry to believe that he espouses half the opinions that an unfriendly reading of his novel would suggest. What I am saying is that, taken as any ordinary reader that is not personally acquainted with him is likely to take it, it comes across as being shockingly bigoted. I would far rather attribute this to ignorance than malice, and see no special reason to suppose the latter.

**The Mind of the Maker, pp. 39-41. Sayers uses a trinity of terms, Idea, Energy, and Power, in specialized senses in this book: the Idea is the fundamental concept of the artistic work (of whatever kind); the Energy is the creative activity -- meaning not only the act of putting words onto paper, but the craftsmanship and the decisions that take place under the condition of revealing the Idea; and the Power is the interaction of the book with its audience: first with the original author, and then with everyone who reads it. The three are directly analogous to the Divine Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the correspondence between the activity of artistic creation and the original Creation by the Holy Trinity, in both architect and the things made, is the chief theme of The Mind of the Maker. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to study either the creative process or the Trinity.

4 comments:

  1. Fiction born of ideology is always tripe. Beauty should always be the author's goal. If it's truly beautiful, enough of truth will follow. I had the same problem earlier this year with "God's Not Dead" and virtually every other mainstream Christian movie I've ever seen. Christian media is an appalling ghetto most of the time, and it saddens me when Catholics (who ought to know better) wind up mired in it.

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  2. This is why I don't read, watch, nor listen to "Christian" entertainment. Its terrible. It is not art. All it is is cardboard characters/lyrics for a sermon.

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    1. I've found exceptions to the rule (e.g., I have a fairly high opinion of Hillsong and Phil Wickham when it comes to Christian music, and of course explicitly Christian literature has acknowledged masters like Dante, or C. S. Lewis -- though we have the latter's testimony that even the Chronicles of Narnia were not originally invented to serve an edifying purpose). And I feel it strictly fair to Thomas to
      say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with the father-idea of the book; such a story could in principle be done outstandingly well, by a skilled author capable of handling the Christian-LGBT issues raised by the book with sensitivity and subtlety. The execution I find fault with, but the thing being attempted was not foredoomed to failure by any intrinsic flaw; yet it would have taken consummate artistry to carry it off.

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  3. "It's a cruel thing to say, but the only thing I could honestly recommend this book for is how not to think or talk about gay people."

    I don't think it's cruel to say that. If someone chooses to write about something, or worse, some people he doesn't understand, and then makes a mess of it, not to say so would be unfair to potential readers.

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