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A Good Ending Is Hard to Find

January 26, 2015 6:34 pm | 8 Comments

goodending

I’m going to run a risk and admit something in public that I’ve hitherto just bandied in private conversations. I do this understanding that I may be marched out to the middle of the hollow square and have my Catholic author’s buttons off and my stripes cut away, but that’s the price sometimes. Here’s the admission: I’m not a big fan of what many consider the exemplary Catholic authors of our time, especially Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh.

There. I said it.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate their mastery of style. If I improve my writing for the rest of my life, I might hope to be half the literary artist that O’Connor was, and there’s no question that Greene can bring characters to life.  I just don’t like the characters.  Or the story lines. Or the outcomes.

I say this knowing that in the eyes of some, this brands me as an immature appreciator of literature, possibly merely a common reader. “Don’t like?” some Clever might sniff. “What kind of plebeian criterion is that? You’re supposed to find literature startling, or challenging, or provocative. It’s supposed to be edgy or tantalizing or shocking. It’s not a matter of how much you like it.”  That may be how some people determine what they read, but not me. Though I can take edginess or shock, I’m sure not going to waste precious reading time on something I don’t like. I’ll give any book a chance, but if it doesn’t give me its own reason to keep reading, I’m going to move onto something I enjoy. I’m not going to keep reading a book I don’t like just because someone said I should for some reason – even if it was a Catholic someone, and the reason was that it was “Catholic fiction.”

This especially applies to the characters. No matter how true-to-life, no matter how well-portrayed, if some character is a scumbag who I wouldn’t waste time around, I’m sure not going to waste time reading about how he stumbles around ruining his life and the lives of those around him. Even if the character (or the author) is in some distant way related to Catholicism.

I was gratified to see some agreement on this matter from the insightful and erudite Holly Ordway in a post on the ipnovels.com blog site. In her post Good Catastrophes and Renewing Catholic Literature, Dr. Ordway comes right out and says it: “Eucatastrophe: in a word, this is what we need today, for a renewed, vibrant, and compelling Catholic literature.” She specifically names some of these leading Catholic authors as being “more dyscatastrophic than eucatastrophic.” These terms she draws from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous work On Fairy Stories, wherein Prof. Tolkien creates the term “eucatastrophe” to describe not just a happy ending, but an unexpected and joyous ending, especially after dire developments and even the loss of all hope. Indeed, a eucatastrophe could be defined as something about which it could be said, “When hope was all but gone, this happened…”

From what I can see, the most significant and influential Catholic author of the 20th century was J.R.R. Tolkien, and precisely for the reason that he not only defined but demonstrated the eucatastrophe in his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. Also in the running would be C. S. Lewis, who I would consider a Catholic author despite his Anglican profession because he wrote from a medieval mindset, which was distinctively Catholic. I consider Lewis’ best eucatastrophic works to be The Silver Chair and The Last Battle. From these examples, I would suggest that a eucatastrophe is much more than simply “a happy ending”. A eucatastrophe involves, at some level, an encounter with death, and hope beyond it. For me, a eucatastrophe is more than just things “going badly” before they take a turn for the better.  Things “go badly” at Totleigh Towers before Jeeves presents the solution, but that does not a eucatastrophe make. But when Aragorn has to travel the Paths of the Dead, or Puddleglum has to grind his foot into the Witch’s fire, then you’re facing death. When Aragorn emerges on the dawn to turn the tide of the battle, or when the Witch’s enchantment is broken, that’s eucatastrophe.

In answer to Dr. Ordway’s call for more eucatastrophic literature to enliven the world of Catholic literature, I would offer two recent examples, both published by Ignatius Press. One is Tobit’s Dog by Michael Richard, and the other is Iota by T.M. Doran. I offer my own reviews of these works elsewhere, which I will not recap here, but I want to briefly explicate how these works demonstrate eucatastrophe.

Tobit’s Dog is based on the Old Testament book of Tobit, so if you know that story, you know that it is a eucatastrophe in its own right. Tobit’s blinding is the giveaway.  These days we’d consider that a severe but manageable health problem.  In ancient times, such a severe loss of health was considered, for all intents, death (and, if you think about it, that makes sense under those conditions of care.)  Furthermore, when young Tobias marries Sarah he essentially accepts a death sentence, so much so that his father-in-law digs his grave on his wedding night. Only the heavenly assistance brought by the angel brings hope beyond death. Richard preserves the spirit of this story in a personal, engaging modernization. There’s nothing Pollyanna about the tale – it has darkness and grief aplenty – but the hope-rich resolution is nothing short of eucatastrophic.

Iota is another – gritty, bleak, and dismal, this stunningly written tale is one where you almost have to grub about to find flecks of hope. In truth, it seems more of a straight-up “catastrophe”, until the abrupt and surprising ending. Death is there: the cages in the story are, effectively, graves, and the inmates therein walking dead men. The final denouement is clearly a eucatastrophe, but sprinkled throughout the story are small echoes – wherever the prisoners struggle against the dehumanization being imposed on them, there is a glint of hope beyond death.

I enthusiastically echo Dr.. Ordway’s desire to see more eucatastrophe in Catholic literature – because ultimately, the story of our faith is a eucatastrophe, hope beyond death. I think these two stories are an encouraging sign of the direction things are taking, and I hope to see (and possibly contribute) more.

Roger Thomas

Roger Thomas

Roger Thomas is a lifelong Michigan resident who has been married to his beloved wife Ellen since 1981. They have six grown children and eight (and counting) grandchildren. He makes his living as a self-employed computer consultant and lives in the area of Port Huron. He loves reading, with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, and P.G. Wodehouse being some of his favorite authors. He is active in his parish, pro-life work, and the Knights of Columbus. He blogs (sporadically) at A Prince of the West. He has had two collections of short stories, including The Last Ugly Person and Other Stories, and one novel published by Ignatius Press, and is working on his second novel. (Author photo by Jeff Leonard.)

Tags: C.S. Lewis Evelyn Waugh Flannery O'Connor Graham Greene Holly Ordway J.R.R. Tolkien literary criticism Michael Richard Roger Thomas T.M. Doran Walker Percy

8 Comments

  1. January 27, 2015 at 11:05 am

    As I have said before, I think Catholic fiction should be a big tent. To be Catholic is should carry at least a strand of evangelization, and as such needs to be wide and varied in scope.

    It is perfectly all right to to say, “I don’t like that.” Not everybody likes Tolkien, that doesn’t make it bad fiction, or the reader a bad Catholic. Same with O’Connor, Waugh, Greene, and on and on. Even Thomas, Doran and Richard.

    It is my opinion that Catholic fiction should attempt to address all possible experiences in life. In doing that, not every bit of Catholic fiction is going to be palatable to us, but hopefully every bit of Catholic fiction will be palatable, and therefore effective, to someone.

    I hope that near the end of my life I might have published enough books varied enough in style and content that I’ll over hear (or over read, as it were) people arguing about my books. Oh, I liked that one, but hated those two. No, way! Those two are better than that one!

    I’ll have done my job.

  2. Kate Casper

    January 27, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    I actually put this in at the end of comments to Holly’s last and will re-post here as I think it may not have been looked at:

    I enjoyed Tobit’s Dog in the way Roger did as well. Here’s the re-post:

    Wonderful discussion. One Catholic novel in our midst with a eucatastrophic ending is my husband’s “Everywhere in Chains”. A reviewer explains that although “the title suggests a story filled with dark imagery, a violent plot, and more than a bit of suffering…Casper’s cast of characters…are like the people you have met in your own life, who, through God’s benevolent hand, have had a profound effect on your view of the world. The kind of people that give you hope even when you are surrounded by vestiges of evil…. I cried when the book ended….your spirits will be uplifted for some time to come.”

    In it’s original form, the novel’s last words were:

    “Somewhere a light was shining.
    Somewhere a candle was lit.
    Somewhere a prayer was said.
    The prayer was a giving, not an asking.
    The meaning of the prayer was love.”

    These were omitted in the course of subsequent Ignatius Press editing. However, in a post at our website (jamescasperwriter.com) called “Seven Last Words”, you may read more if you are so inclined.

  3. January 27, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Thank you, Roger, for this thoughtful essay. Ironically, your description of Iota could also be, in so many ways, a description of Walker Percy’s Lancelot, which is the most bleak and depressing of his six novels. The subject matters are quite different, but also very similar: men caught up in ruin, death, and an apparently hopeless future. And yet there is life, truth, and hope, as evidenced by the single, final word uttered at the end of Lancelot.

    I would never say that all Catholics should like and enjoy the writings of Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene, three of my favorite authors of fiction. But Percy and O’Connor, who I know the most about (having read all of their works and many books about them), didn’t simply write about “scumbags” who stumbled about ruining their lives and the lives of others; rather, they wrote about fallen men and women trying to make sense of their alienation from themselves, their culture, and the world at large. Percy, especially, wrote as someone who had been an agnostic/atheist and who was keenly aware of how modernity and secularism had ripped a massive chasm through the heart of the Western, post-Christian world—what Percy called the “modern malaise”. And so he set about writing novels that were diagnostic, rather than didactic, as he believed (rightly, I think) that the latter would be a disservice to both truth and art.

    I take it as a very good sign that Catholic authors can write such a wide and splendid array of fiction; I wouldn’t think it healthy if authors tried to simply emulate O’Connor or Percy. But I would also argue that those two authors wrote about “hope beyond death”; in fact, that might very well summarize the very heart of what they did. As I wrote years ago, Percy’s works (both fiction and non-fiction),

    … grappled with entwining anthropological concerns: the pervasive influence of scientism on modern man, the resulting “modern malaise,” man’s need and quest for life-giving symbols and signs, and man as wayfarer and homo viator. Percy pursued these issues with the belief that the modern novelist is meant to be a sort of “diagnostician,” probing and testing the human condition through his literary craft.

    Finally, I first read nearly everything by O’Connor when I was a young Evangelical attending Bible college. Her fiction—along with reading T. S. Eliot and Charles Williams, among others—was a godsend to me; it opened the door even further to a budding understanding of sacramentality. For whatever reason, her stories of the grotesque and haunted made perfect sense to me. And they gave me hope and a deepen understanding of what this strange and befuddling world is all about. My .02 worth!

  4. January 29, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Storytelling. Roger Thomas is right to say that the story the author is telling has to attract the reader, notwithstanding the author’s literary talent and point of view. If it doesn’t do this, a book can be a tough slog. In today’s device age, storytelling is influenced by shorter attention spans and the craving for stimulation; strange, bizarre, outrageous things need to happen quickly and often for many readers. You won’t find that in The Moviegoer, The Heart of The Matter, Brideshead Revisited, or even The Picture of Dorian Gray. I think the value of dyscatastrophic stories, when they are more than mere artful depictions of fatalistic themes, is the illumination of disordered choices. Even within the eucatastrophic LOTR, we have the dyscatastrophic sub-story of Saruman, an angelic being in Tolkien’s mythology, whose conscious and willful choices lead to his destruction, and misery for countless others. In a sense, readers can learn as much from Saruman as they can from Gandalf. And thanks for the kind words about Iota, Roger.

  5. January 30, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. However, I have to say that I think we need to consider that Flannery, Waugh and Greene were not writing for believers, but for unbelievers.

    One can’t really understand eucatastrophe unless one is a Christian already, because it’s a uniquely Christian concept. Non-Christians could easily view Frodo and Sam’s eagle-trip from Mordor as a sort of deus-ex-machina, which is sort of a cheapened version of a eucatastrophe.

    Flannery does not include eucatastrophe (usually) in her stories because she is not writing about a Christian, medieval world like Tolkien in which that sort of thing make sense.

    I love Tolkien, but I think he was writing basically for a Christian audience. Not in the sense that he’s preaching to the choir, but in the sense that he takes for granted a Christian worldview that was still hanging on in some circles. Flannery was writing to the people who had stopped hanging on.

    The modern world is post-Christian, and if you are writing for a post-Christian audience, your purpose may be very different than if you are writing for a Christian one.

  6. January 31, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Good insights all, and indicative of just how intricate the question is of what constitutes “Catholic fiction” as well as good fiction. I appreciate Michael’s point that allowance has to be made for taste and preference. Different people like different things, and differing styles have varied appeal. There’s nothing wrong with that. Though I don’t appreciate, say, Waugh and O’Connor’s tales as much as some, there are others who don’t appreciate Tolkien and Undset as much as I do, and that’s just fine. (Again, saying nothing about writing quality. I so respect O’Connor’s literary artistry that I don’t consider myself worthy to be in the same room with her – I just don’t like the stories.)

    Honestly, part of my post was a bit of kicking back against a trend which I’ve perceived, which is the tendency to make these authors somehow the standard by which all modern Catholic literature is measured. “Oh, you wish Catholic Literature? Well, here is the ‘G’ shelf, the ‘O’ shelf, the ‘P’ shelf, and the ‘W’ shelf – enjoy!” I don’t think anyone consciously set out to make that restriction, but it’s definitely the impression that I, and others I know, have gotten over the years: that if you don’t appreciate those authors, you aren’t a serious patron of Catholic fiction.

    Hence I appreciate Michael’s ‘big tent’ comment (though I might not have used that precise terminology!), and that allowance must be made for taste. If a writer speaks to someone, as O’Connor and Percy clearly spoke to you, Carl, then terrific. Tolkien speaks to me, but I know people who can’t stand him (I’m related to some.) And part of this is outlook – when I used the term “scumbag”, I was specifically thinking of the character Mr. Shiftlet in the story /The Life You Save May Be Your Own/. You remember that guy – he was the one who marries a disabled young woman on false pretenses to get possession of a rebuilt car, then abandons her far from home in a diner so he can drive off with the car. Now, call me a rube, but where I come from a man who does that is a scumbag, and I don’t think O’Connor would disagree with me on that point. Yes, she wrote insightfully about his outlook and motivations, and the ending of that story is rich with symbolic imagery. The story itself may resonate with indirect commentary about the human condition. But at a gut level, stories about scumbags turn me off, and in this particular instance any nuanced messages were drowned out by my revulsion at the protagonist. That may be simplistic literary appreciation, but that’s what the story said to me.

    This echoes a call that Michael has made in other contexts, i.e. that we need to have a robust discussion about what constitutes “Catholic fiction”. It certainly can’t be that it involves churches or churchmen, or has some explicitly sacramental theme. It can’t be because it has some sort of explicit or implicit religious message (“A sermon with a story wrapped around it”, as I’ve sometimes called them.) Why is Chesterton’s /The Man Who Was Thursday/ a distinctively Catholic work, while the works of L.M. Montgomery (much as I appreciate her insight into human nature) are not? That is a discussion worth having in its own right.

    Tom also makes a good point, which I think relates to Carl’s quote about Percy, i.e. that we need to keep the audience somewhat in mind. Myself, while I’m writing I need to keep reminding myself about what I’ve dubbed “the Postman effect”, after the late Neal Postman who wrote /Amusing Ourselves to Death/. Due to the rise of the video paradigm, and its displacing the epistemology of the written word, what would have once been considered nuanced and sophisticated writing might be utterly opaque to the common reader. A lamentable situation, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. As much as we might appreciate the subtlety of a Waugh or a Greene, their skill might be completely lost on all but a fraction of modern readers. I think this is the sense in which to best understand the principle of writing to the readers: not that you’re trying to put one over on them, or slip some propaganda past their defenses, but write in such a way that they can understand what you’re saying.

    Sadly, this is where I suspect that “Catholic fiction” as commonly bandied about might totally miss the modern reader. Face it: outside a small circle of Catholic literati, names like Waugh and Greene, and even O’Connor, are almost unknown these days. If you say “The End of the Affair”, people think Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, not Graham Greene.

    I appreciate your thoughts, Maura, though I’d contend that though the Christian story is the ultimate eucatastrophe, the principle resonates in all human hearts because we share a fallen condition. The alternative is despair, which indeed some have succumbed to. It doesn’t require a eucatastrophe to make good Catholic literature, but I sense that Dr. Orway’s point is that if our themes are going to have an orientation, it should be more toward eucatastrophe than dyscatastrophe. I know not all endings are happy (hey, I wrote /The Last Ugly Person/!), but our time has plenty of voices yammering hopelessness. Perhaps eucatastrophe, at some remove, is exactly what a post-Christian world needs.

  7. January 31, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    “The modern world is post-Christian, and if you are writing for a post-Christian audience, your purpose may be very different than if you are writing for a Christian one.”

    Exactly right, and it’ something that Percy and O’Connor reflected on quite a bit in their letters and essays.

  8. January 31, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    (I tried posting a lengthy response to much of this conversation earlier, but it never “took”, I think perhaps because it was too long. I’ll try posting bits of it later, but now…)

    I’m not certain you can say that Tolkien was writing “for a Christian audience”, because he wasn’t assuming a Christian worldview – he was assuming a pre-Incarnational worldview. And I don’t think he was writing with a Christian audience in mind, which is a good thing, because many of his biggest fans aren’t. I think that was his genius – understanding that even if readers don’t understand eucatastrophe in a Christian context, the yearning is present in all our hearts.

    Percy and O’Connor may have understood that the culture had gone post-Christian, and may have been early ones to do so, but now more authors understand that. Arguably my recent novel reflects an understanding of a post-Christian society. But I think Dr. Orway’s point, echoed by Tom above, is that a steady diet of dyscatastrophe hardly reflects well, either. Tolkien had the dyscatastrophe of Saruman’s fall within the greater eucatastrophe of the saga. But this touches on a greater question: what is the role of a Catholic author? It may not be to always present eucatastrophe, but does that mean that only dyscatastrophe can be presented?

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