This novel, by the editor of the Catholic literary magazine Dappled Things and published by the Catholic press Wiseblood Books, has gotten a good deal of favorable attention that's very much deserved. For several reasons, including the scripture reference in the title and the fact that it comes from an explicitly Catholic author and publisher, I was more or less expecting it to be a conversion story. And in some respects it is--let's say that conversion is an important element--but it is far from formulaic, which--let's face it--conversion stories can be. I'd say rather that it's more fundamentally a love story, beginning with the human and rising into the divine.
It's set in a milieu that I know nothing of, that of the contemporary visual arts world. I know little of the visual arts in general, and much of what I hear about its contemporary practitioners and patrons can be summed up in the word "bonkers": part hustle, part snobbery, part cold finance. But when I read an account of some nutty piece of putative art I remind myself that without a doubt there are many very serious and gifted artists at work in that milieu. This is a story of two of them.
One is the narrator, Angele Solomon. (I know, because we're told in the second paragraph, that "Angele" has three syllables and the accent is on the first, but I don't know whether it's pronounced as we normally would pronounce "Angela," or in some other way. I settled on "Angela" as I read.) The other is her sometime lover, friend, and, it's fair to say, obsession at some points, Dylan Fielding. Dylan is the more gifted artist (or at any rate is generally seen so, which is another matter). And when the story opens in July 2010 he is having a great deal of success, while Angele has more or less given up her artistic ambitions and taken a job at a commercial graphic design company. At this point they have been apart for some time, and Angele is not especially pleased, though she can't help being excited, by an out-of-the-blue phone call from him. He is in town (Chicago) for a show and wants to see her.
From that point the story moves back and forth in time, as far back as 2001, when Angele and Dylan have just met as college students, and forward to 2017, when...well, when many things have been resolved, and some things are beginning.
After only fourteen pages we jump to November of 2015, where, I would guess, half or more of the story occurs, but not consecutively. And even when we are in that time there are flashbacks (perhaps some flashforwards, too--I don't remember for sure). In November of 2015 Angele is visiting Dylan at the monastery (which seems to be in all but name Gethsemani in Kentucky) where he is now the novice Thomas Augustine. His conversion has taken place offstage, and it is not the specific event of the conversion as much as something that took place after it that is the central crisis of the story.
I don't hesitate to say that this is a very good book, but am a bit undecided as to just how good. Leafing through it now, I think I would need to read it again to come a more definitive conclusion on that score. No doubt as a result partly of the time-jumping and partly of my own fragmented reading habits (I can't seem to stick with a single book from beginning to end), I don't have a very clear view of the narrative line, and I think that reduces for me its dramatic effect. And there is a surprising development at the end which I didn't find entirely convincing.
The prose is excellent, especially its precise and detailed visual descriptions. As a rule I tend to be impatient with elaborate description--as I said, I'm not oriented to the visual arts or to the visual in general. But Carl's descriptions have a great deal of life in them and keep my attention. I can't help wondering if perhaps painting was (is?) her first love; she certainly convinces me that her protagonists are painters.
And that evident love is, I think, the key to the novel. Dylan loves what he paints--that is, he paints things that he loves. One of these is Angele, in a portrait which becomes a point of distress for her in part (I think) because their relationship does not fulfil the promise of the painting, and in fact becomes a mere commercial object. Angele loves Dylan as well as his work, and, like him, paints what she loves. Since the act of seeing is pretty much a prerequisite for painting, and is also an act of knowing, seeing, knowing, and loving become inextricable for these artists, in relation both to their subjects and to each other. This nexus of vision, love, and knowledge pulls in, and is pulled into, the divine, and is itself the picture with which the novel leaves me. And maybe--this thought occurs to me on the fly, as I'm revising this note after a first draft--the narrative technique gives us the story more as picture than sequence, and is a strength, not a weakness. I really will have to read it again, which is not something I do very often with fiction.
One relatively unimportant thing which I am not the only reader to have singled out as especially strong: the all-too-convincing depiction of Dylan's parents, who are rich, godless people, the mother a bit of a monster. In general I found vivid and believable the portrayal of the monied and fashionable upper reaches of the art world--not the highest, I suppose, but high: the combination of aesthetic refinement and venality.
Angele tells us that she's from Sepal, Mississippi, a little town not far from the Gulf Coast. As far as I can tell there is no such town, but there is a little town called Petal, which is more or less a suburb of Hattiesburg. (I live in that general area, so these are familiar names to me; I've wondered how Petal got its name.) Not much is said of Angele's earlier life except that she was unhappy and desperate to escape. I would have liked to have heard more of that. Perhaps it belongs in another book.
The new Catholic literary revival hasn't yet given us a Percy or an O'Connor, but it is very much alive and in good hands. If you're interested in it, you'll want to read this novel. (Is it really new? Haven't there been good Catholic writers all along, since, for instance, Walker Percy's last novel in 1987? Well, that's another topic. But either way a surge of capable activity is in progress, for which we can be grateful. And supportive.)