Some novels, like The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome, are elegant vehicles of precision. Their modus operandi is the well-polished chapter, the finely-calibrated paragraph, the stream-lined turn-of-phrase. They make it easy for the college freshman to get behind the wheel and go for a spin around the sexy fiction paradigm: exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. If you could compare them to a Hollywood actor, they’d be the Cary Grants of literature. So slick and sharp, it’s amazing they don’t give you a paper cut every time you turn a page.
Then there are novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which are praiseworthy for the beautiful mess they make for the reader. Pregnant with ideas, slumped over with ambiguous symbols, these novels trip over the paradigm and kick it out of the way. They’re the James Deans of literature: brilliantly unpredictable, occasionally incoherent, always flawed, they speed ahead in no apparent direction. Their goal is not the finish line, but the glorious, disastrous unpredictability of the race.
As a reader, I like both kinds of novels. Each provides a different reading experience that is no more valuable to me than the other. But if I had to choose between the two—if I had to make a Sophie’s Choice—I’d pick Absalom over Gatsby nine days out of ten. Like most book hoarders, I like a good mess.
Of course, I find that most Mormon novels are fairly well-crafted for small-press publications. Frequently short and minimalist in style, they conserve words with the economic will of an ace budgeteer. They also tend to stick to subject matter that is familiar to Mormons in America—if not always pleasing to them—which makes for a much smaller mess overall.
In this respect, Arianne Cope’s The Coming of Elijah (Parables 2006) is not like most Mormon novels. While its length is nothing out of the ordinary—at 278 pages, it’s average size for a Mormon novel—it’s unique subject matter, along with the ambitious way it lassos in ideas and raises unsettled (and unsettling) questions, sets it apart from its peers like the biblical prophet whose promised return lingers at the heart of the book. It isn’t a tidy Mormon novel.
In fact, I think that’s the last thing it wants to be.
The Coming of Elijah is about three main characters: Mary, a mute Native American woman who is raised in the LDS Church’s Indian Placement Program; Eli, her talkative youngest daughter; and Mike, a Jewish teenager living in Spanish Fork, Utah, where the novel takes place. The first half of the book, “White Shell,” covers Mary’s life from her childhood in the placement program through the first twenty years of her difficult marriage. Her story is not an easy one to read. She’s a victim of sexual abuse (first from her father, then from her husband), physical abuse, abandonment, racism, ingratitude, and infidelity. A mother of nine daughters, she’s also mocked by nearly everyone for believing that she will one day have a son named Elijah.
Eli, on the contrary, is a victim of little more than her own self-centeredness. Although she’s overweight and embarrassed by her mother’s homely appearance and demeanor, she’s also got a clever brain and pitch-perfect funny bone. Her story covers the second half of the novel, “Blue Thread,” which moves at a much quicker pace than the more meditative first, largely because of Eli’s personality and insight into her world.
Mike’s story runs throughout the entire novel, shouldering its way into the narrative with Mike’s strong first-person narration. In many ways, though, it’s the weakest aspect of the novel. Mike is a classmate of Eli’s, and Eli appears briefly in his story, but it has little else to do with the novel as a whole—aside from the fact that Mike and his parents are celebrating the Passover and waiting for the prophet Elijah to arrive. Of course, even though Mike’s story is an inexact fit in the novel, it does come to a certain conclusion about the place of religion in modern society, which is a major theme in the novel, especially during Eli’s half of it. What is more, it’s not a bad story in and of itself. Even though he seems lost and out of place, Mike’s an interesting kid, and his all-too-short chapters always leave you wanting to know more of his story.
Of course, the real appeal of The Coming of Elijah is the unique Mormon history it explores. The Indian Placement Program only ended as recently as 1996, yet it’s a controversial segment of Mormon history that I (and I’m sure many others) know very little about. Cope’s depiction of it is limited mainly to Mary’s experience, which is mostly negative due to the her physical challenges—she’s unable to speak—and her well-intentioned foster parents’ racism and lack of respect for her heritage. At the same time, Cope also leads readers to wonder what Mary’s life would have been like if she had stayed on the Navajo reservation where she had spent her early childhood. Would she have been better off?
By the end of the novel it’s hard to say. It’s one of those questions Cope plants in her readers’ minds to grow long after they have finished reading the last page.
Aside from the Indian Placement Program, the novel also explores other subjects: the usable (and misusable) Mormon past, the Lamanite curse and its place in Mormon theology and culture, the nature of religious belief, the role of visions and miracles, the process of conversion, and the meaning of testimony. The book is likewise interested in the various masks Mormons wear, the public facades they put on to deceive, distract, blend in, and survive. In this novel, every character struggles to break through one façade or another—with little success. Each of them is too well-hidden, too secure behind whatever it is they use as a mask: history, humor, church service, Mary Kay make-up, silence…
Amazingly, Cope is able to juggle all of these ideas in the novel without fumbling them or overtaxing the narrative. Her believable characters and the realistic details of their lives make it work. Readers, in fact, never get the sense that Cope is forcing anything on them. Mary, Eli, and the rest of her characters speak for themselves.
Aside from her story “White Shell” in Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, as well as a few of her Church magazine pieces, I’ve not come across any additional work by Arianne Cope. And I’ve been surprised by the small number of reviews for The Coming of Elijah I have found on the Internet. As a beautifully written, challenging, and engaging novel, it should have more readers and reviews. Word needs to get out: this is an exceptional book.
As a new fan, I can only hope that she’s working on another novel like The Coming of Elijah–one that explodes compressed thought and flings the boundaries of Mormon fiction even further away from the tried and steady course.
I mean, who needs paradigms when you can thrash about your fiction in a Porsche 550 Spyder?