I spent this week reading through my novel manuscript carefully, since I had added a big chunk of manuscript—a diary of a teenage character I wrote about in a previous posting— and wanted to make sure that the rest of the novel was in sync with it. Often, when I am at this state this stage of the editing process I enter a state of what I call “Tweaking madness.” I see clunky sentences or awkward paragraphs and I think “How could I have written this? This is so awful! How could I have ever thought this novel was any good?” And usually that’s the time to put it aside until I can look at it with fresh eyes. Because the clunky parts are usually very isolated, and most readers simply breeze past them.
This time, I did catch some awkward phrasing and did some revision, but overall didn’t escalate into “Tweaking Madness.” What I did find as I read through Ralph’s diary, interspersed with the letters and other writings of Shea, my Hosea figure, was a growing sense of unease regarding how Christian the novel was.
I’ve been spending a lot of time learning how to use social media effectively to promote my writing–definitely not there yet–but part of it involves following on Twitter, Facebook, etc. the work of writers and artists whose work you admire. And most of these are secular, for me. Chaim Potok is dead and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t have a Twitter account. I was wondering if Joss Whedon or Margaret Atwood (or more likely fellow Whedon and Atwood enthusiasts) ever stumbled onto Ralph and Shea’s letters, whether they would just zone out immediately, because of their overtly Christian perspective on the world–even if Ralph and Shea were using that perspective to bring down a fascist regime ruling the the United States.
And then there’s the converse problem, Shea is not really “Christian fiction” in the way that the contemporary publishing world defines Christian fiction.It is written from the viewpoint of a philandering husband, and while the sex is not graphically described, it is plentiful and the F-word appears throughout the novel (It’s really odd, my characters can say the F-word, but writing as myself, I say “F-word instead “F—“)
Here is the climactic scene, in which Islam Goldberg-Jones is on trial for providing weapons to the guerrillas trying to bring down the Christian Republic (but the real object of the trial is to defame his wife, Shea.) It’s kind of appropriate actually, for Easter weekend:
“Tell me Mr. Islam Goldberg-Jones. Are you Muslim or Jewish?” the prosecutor began.
“My mother was brought up in a conservative Jewish family, but both of my parents considered themselves atheists. They taught me that God did not exist.”
I heard gasps from the courtroom. They had vetted the audience.
“And did Hoshea Weber know you were an atheist when she married you?”
“And did she try to convert you?”
I paused and then said, “Not in the way that you mean.”
The military judge said, “Answer his question, Mr. Jones.”
“Goldberg-Jones,” I corrected him.
The bailiff punched the left side of my head, and I heard a consistent high hum in that ear for the rest of the proceedings.
The lawyer rephrased his question. “Did she try to convince you that God exists and that Jesus was the Son of God? Do you believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried, rose again and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Shea ascribed what happened next to the Holy Spirit. I will say only this—a quick succession of holos appeared before me, superimposing themselves over the audience in courtroom: Ralph saying—earnest brown eyes wide at having met his first atheist—“But it’s like love, Uncle Iz, you can’t see or hear or touch love, but love still exists”; Ralph clinging to me and sobbing at the border of Akwesasne before he turned back with Hank because Gladys and Edna needed him; Shea smiling at me as we walked and talked in Rock Creek Park and when we lay naked under the ancient Weber family quilt; Leah leaning against the fence at the farm on Thanksgiving day thirteen years ago. Al calling me “son.” My own parents reading Dr. Seuss to me. L’Merci running across the yard at Al and Deborah’s house with Gladys and Edna. All the Webers and I laughing ourselves sick over an only moderately amusing story, because we loved each other. Bernie calling my name, “Ih-ihz.”
“I don’t know whether God is real,” I said. “But I can tell you right now that he’s a hell of a lot more real than you guys and your god are to me. It’s the god you speak of that presides over your tortures and murders and atrocities that doesn’t exist. As for Jesus rising from the dead, today, and today only, I choose to believe in the resurrection because that was Jesus saying ‘Fuck you’ to the Empire who crucified him. And yeah today I believe he will come again to judge us and you all should be really, really afraid.”
I saw the bailiff descending on me with his baton and then everything went black.
So you see my dilemma.
Anyway, I went to the Maundy Thursday service at my church last night and in thinking about Jesus’ sacrifice, it kind of hit me that it’s really not much of a sacrifice for me to be true to who my characters are. They are entitled to be devout Christians, and if a secular public has a problem with that, well, may I not be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. And if a religious public has a problem with Iz, well, he probably agrees with their assessment of his character. And if their problem with him is that he uses the F-word, that really is their problem, not Iz’s.
When I got home, I found a letter from the Posen Foundation saying I was not among the five finalists in their fiction prize, but that they thought my writing sample had been impressive and they encouraged me to submit again next year. Not sure if that was something they said to everyone, but it sounded like more than boilerplate. The timing after the Maundy Thursday service seemed apropos, since the Foundation is designed to promote secular Jewish culture. I actually knew that Shea would be a longshot for the fellowship, but reasoned that since Iz is a very secular Jewish character, and Hosea was a Jewish prophet, and secular Judaism does have some connection to the Jewish prophetic tradition, it was worth the application. But I also knew that since I applied for the Posen Fellowship, the novel had gotten progressively more Christian. I had kind of thought I might be able to up the Jewish content, if I got the Fellowship, but that just wasn’t happening, so there was a small measure of relief, too. Kind of like dating someone you know you’re ill-suited for, and then being glad that s/he later finds a good match.