The Image Returns: a review of George Handley, AMERICAN FORK

American Fork

Thanks to friend of BCC James Egan for this thoughtful review.

Novels present unreal worlds that, despite their fictions, offer implicit visions of the reality we inhabit as readers. We sit in judgment of these visions. We expect novelists, to borrow a phrase from the literary theorist Northrop Frye, to tell us “not what happened, but happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place.” Consequently, as the critic James Wood writes, “Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that any moment it might fail to make its case.” We know this as readers, and we get puzzled, curious, or even angry if a novel violates our sense of “what happens.”

But fiction also has a way of reminding us of our lack of authority to make anything more than a provisional judgment concerning Reality. Good novels foreground points-of-view and make obvious our inherently limited, personal perspectives. So even while we sense our freedom to object to a novel’s representation of how things really are, we also sense our inability to render a final judgment. This dynamic, in my view, makes fiction an especially fruitful form for theologians, since their enterprise inevitably involves, if not always explicitly, both sermonizing and speculation.

It isn’t much of a surprise, then, that I was excited to pick up George Handley’s recent novel, American Fork. The book would not exist without its interest in theology, though it isn’t nauseating or narrow in its engagement with religious ideas. It has a few weaknesses common to first novels (e.g., occasionally clunky and overwrought dialogue), but it also has some wonderful strengths (e.g., subtle shifts in symbols and slow, surprising revelations of character). As I see it, though, the book’s most notable feature is that, unlike any novel of which I am aware, it explores compelling possibilities of theology rooted in the Latter-day Saint Temple.

The story arises out of the relationship between an aging, God-haunted botanist and a young artist with a steadfast, independent faith. Both are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though the artist, Alba Powell, is earnestly engaged while the botanist, Zachary Harker, is dissenting and disaffected. These differences catalyze a yearning in each that leads to healing of deep wounds and redemption of seemingly unbearable pasts. Their unlikely and mutually transformative relationship explores various concerns relating to ecology, gender, and even international relations. But what gripped me most was the way the novel uses their story to invite and guide reflection on what strikes me as the question concerning heaven: What kind of afterlife could possibly redeem the unspeakable suffering that is the history of our earth?

The novel doesn’t straightforwardly present transcendent realms as other works of Mormon literature have done (e.g., Steven Peck’s A Short Stay In Hell, Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, or Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers). But its characters are continually in search of hope, healing, and redemption, and through their longings, the novel continually suggests that the only heaven that might save them is one in which their stories of loss and pain are woven together, transformed, and remembered as sacred.

I don’t mean that the novel points toward a redemption in which suffering is continually re-imagined, experienced again, obsessed over. It doesn’t. The promise of healing is alive in its cosmos. But American Fork seems quite clear on this point: heaven cannot redeem its inhabitants if it only ends their personal pain and heals individual wounds. Wonderful as these goods may be, they are not only insufficient to redeem unjustifiable suffering, but they do not adequately account for the facts of human identity, history, and community. If we are to be saved, history and community must be saved, too. Without these, we would lose ourselves entirely, and a heaven without them would dishonor, even mock, the suffering of mortality, even if all future suffering were put to an end. Moreover, what the novel once calls “bloodied memories” lurk at the depths of things, threatening to topple whatever peace and prosperity the mightiest afterlife could offer.

The novel hints at this outlook from its first sentence: “The image returned” (1). That image—one from Alba’s family history—is initially vague and gets sharpened as the story unfolds. But it will not lie dormant, and neither will images from Mr. Harker’s past. Each character yearns for a redemption that will not bury these images, but face them without fantasy or fear.

Alba learns that this kind of redemption cannot be willed with human effort and bravery, however necessary those virtues are, and in the process, she learns to see and share Mr. Harker’s inexpressible pain. As their friendship develops and she reflects more on her own family’s frightening history, she begins to sense that his anger and cynicism are the shields he uses to fight away overwhelming loneliness and regret. Referencing her mother’s shame-filled silence about her father’s past, she tells Mr. Harker, “I have inherited a terror of the void, the silence and refusal to share. These are great sins, you know” (309).

But they are understandable sins, as she sees with increasing clarity on her journey to Chile, her parents’ homeland. In searching for answers to questions about her family’s past, she confronts new, seemingly unanswerable questions about nations and power and death, and discovers why it is tempting to pretend that the past can be buried forever. “People here worry,” she is told, “that if we get too serious about unearthing the sins of the Pinochet dictatorship, we will ruin our chances for a civil society, that we will go back to fighting the same battles as before, continually living in a divided world of competing and irreconcilable worldviews” (162). She becomes acquainted with the suffering that informs this fear and begins to recognize that we are all afraid, in one way or another, that the terrors of the past will forever haunt the future.

Mr. Harker deals with this fear by trying to separate himself from history and community. He protects himself with protest, especially against his Mormon tradition. But, as Alba recognizes early in their relationship, his cynicism is belied by his passion about his people and love for creation, which also reveals his yearning, even hope, for redemption. Indeed, this love animates the book project that brings Alba into his life. He hires her to paint pictures for a guide to wildflowers he is writing, but as he says, “This book is far more than a guide to wildflowers, it’s going to be the Bible of the wild to bring about the great reconciliation” (141). There is obviously something ridiculous about his belief in the book. (And I can’t help noting here that the Book of Mormon is an interesting comparison.) But Alba sees through the absurdity to something noble and redemptive, and she works to bring it to life.

I think that something, in the world of Handley’s novel, is a divine love that is fearless of the past, willing to remember the violence of evolutionary biology and the horrors of human history without shrinking, willing to mourn our shared experience, to celebrate it, to hold it sacred—even without justification. To quote from the novel, “Stubborn belief and creative acts of commemoration as a way to answer the oblivion to which biology wants to condemn us” (117).

There are elements of Latter-day Saint scripture and the broader Mormon tradition that give rise to this vision of the world. But unlike any Mormon novel I’ve read, American Fork takes the Temple as the animating force behind its theology. These roots are captured concisely in a thought that comes to Alba while she reflects on her experiences in Chile: “To rearrange and expand the bonds of biology and remake family in the image of true community is to confront the reality of human pain” (252). But they are revealed more expressly and eloquently in this longer passage (Alba’s thoughts once again), which is perhaps my favorite of the book:

She imagined herself in the Santiago Temple watching while some elderly and gentle temple worker stood in for her father. It wouldn’t matter who it was—any man’s living old bones would do, because that was the beauty of it. An absence wouldn’t have to signify a loss. Quite the opposite. The absence marked by an adopted presence promised reunion, restitution. All she needed was someone who out of love for the unknown would become Adam again and in faith and persistence in the face of mystery and opposition and death would walk out of the garden and into this beautiful, fallen world and wait on the Lord until his presence returned (118).

On its own, I think this passage should be enough to recommend the book. But whether or not you attend the Temple or believe in religious claims relating to it, I think you’ll find that the theology of American Fork is provocative and insightful in its perception of our deepest human needs and yearnings. Go get yourself a copy.

 

Comments

  1. Marco Davis says:

    I agree. I loved this book, and by the end of the tale I truly cared for and about the characters. I hope George Handley has many more novels up his sleeve.

  2. I am going to order one today. Loved the review, the theological question as outlined here makes little Brothers Karamazov sparkles light up for me… or also Janelle Monae’s “Oh Maker.”

    I grew up in American Fork, so I will also be looking forward to some familiar place references. Go Cavemen!!!

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