Here It Is Lent Again
A Maronite Mass

Katy Carl: As Earth Without Water

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.)


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I feel ignorant, but I don't get the Scripture reference in the title.

I didn't bother including a parenthesis to explain, but I couldn't have told you where it's from, either, and was not even 100% certain that it was scripture. But it sounded so scriptural that I was pretty sure. I thought it might be from a psalm, which it is, and was thinking of "As pants the hart for running streams...". Anyway it was so much an instance of the idea of the soul thirsting for God that I thought it was safe to assume it was scripture.

Okay. You made me buy it.


I'll be very interested in hearing what you think of it.

Did you see that Cormac McCarthy has written two novels in a boxed set. I am so surprised since he is 88 and it's been so long since The Road.


The Passenger, "a long-rumored novel about "morality and science" and "the legacy of sin" that McCarthy reportedly began decades ago, would come out Oct. 25. "Stella Maris," a prequel to "The Passenger" set eight years earlier, is scheduled for Nov. 22.

The title of the prequel is pretty interesting.

Two days before my birthday. Hmmm.


Better tell everybody in your family. Yes, that is an interesting title.

Will be looking forward to the McCarthy books!

Wendell Berry turns 88 this year as well, and he has two books coming out later this year too -- a collection of short stories and a long nonfiction work called The Need to Be Whole. The latter is apparently a sort of complement/sequel to The Unsettling of America, which came out in '77.

I'll just tell Bill.

Then I will order them.



Re Wendell Berry's new ones, I've always felt that I didn't really need to read that much of his non-fiction after The Unsettling, which is kind of a classic. But I'm curious as to what he thinks now about the state of things. And I'd like to read more of his fiction.

McCarthy maybe more, though. I've only read No Country for Old Men, which I thought was great, and The Road, which I didn't like all that much.

Well, it arrived.


Hope you feel like it was money well spent.

There are s few in the queue ahead of it.


When I saw that there was a new comment from you I thought "has she already finished it?!?" Slightly relieved that you haven't. Though I suppose one could read it in a day or so if one wasn't doing much else.

I read another book that day.

She is reminding me of Muriel Spark, only not funny.


I would never have made that association, but then I haven't read all that much of Spark.

When I saw Sepal, I immediately thought Petal. It may be small, but it has a great high school football team.


Maybe that's why I'm aware of it. The other possibility would be a sign on I-10 pointing to it. :-)

I am trying to come up with a great novel by a Catholic since 1987. I can't think of anyone except Cormac McCarthy who was, at least, raised Catholic. I am not saying that there aren't any, but I can't think of one. Donna Tartt, maybe.


Agreed. "Great" is not a word I bestow very generously. 1987 is very specific--do you have something in mind that was published then that was great?

"1987 is very specific--do you have something in mind that was published then that was great?"

The Thanatos Syndrome, perhaps?

That was what I thought of. I wouldn't call it great, though.

1987 was the date you mentioned in the post-Percy's last novel.


Just saw this, haven't read it yet, but in case you're interested, here's a review :

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