Since finishing my post on Mormon tragedy for Dawning of a Brighter Day, I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between authors and characters. As I stated in the post, Mormon tragedy is (likely) only possible if we are willing to damn our characters–by which I mean I think we must be willing to let them step off the path towards exaltation and stay there. Following the essay I cited by Adam Miller, this stepping off can have much to do with the way characters respond to conflict: do they face them in the present moment or do they reject and flee from them? Tragedy, I concluded, occurs when characters run from the grace of Christ–or that which has the potential to redeem them.
If this is the case, I don’t see a great deal of tragedy in Mormon fiction–at least among primary characters. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, is one of a Mormon literature’s best studies of suffering and pain, but it’s ultimately hopeful message, which affirms everyone’s dependence on grace, makes it a somber comedy. The same is likewise true about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider and Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises (the latter being a kind of rewriting of the former), as both novels depict the journeys of characters who step off and then return to the path of exaltation. Indeed, if there is any Mormon novel that affirms the sanctity of the present as givenness, it is The Backslider and its life-affirming and life-advocating Cowboy Jesus. The same is true for Steven Peck’s often bleak A Short Stay in Hell, which, despite its rather tragic feel, ends with Soren Johannsen’s affirmation of purpose in his search for way out of the hell in which he finds himself.
Rare as it might be, tragedy appears in other Mormon fiction. Perhaps the two great tragedies in contemporary Mormon letters are Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney, which is about a man who lives in the past, and Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab, which is about a man who lives in the future. Even so, these novels seem odd choices for great tragedy since both have more than their share of comedic moments that, in some ways, almost eclipse the fact that both novels end before the protagonists find their way back to grace.
It is worth mentioning, of course, that some Mormon novels complicate this understanding of tragedy. Linda Sillitoe’s Sideways to the Sun, for example, tells the story of a Mormon woman who “finds” herself after discarding what we might call the cultural baggage of Mormon life. Abandoned by her once-seemingly righteous husband, she begins to see weaknesses in Mormon patriarchal society, which leads her to give up certain assumptions that had served as the very foundation of her spiritual and social life. Here, the protagonist experiences a transformation that, for the reader, is meant to be the achievement of a higher state of spirituality and personhood–an embrace, even, of the givenness of life. That this achievement happens through a turning away from temple ordinances and priesthood, however, complicates its comedic quality in the minds of many Mormon readers (including Eugene England). Can the protagonist’s rejection of temple Mormonism really be her moment of grace? Furthermore, do her vengeful acts at the end of the novel, which the novel seems to portray as good things, really constitute a higher or enlightened level of being? Or do they merely invite the reader to deconstruct the protagonist’s transformation? Personally, as a reader, I have a hard time accepting Sideways to the Sun as a comedy because of the spirit of vengeance that permeates the last fourth of the novel. Maybe grace can happened through well-intentioned turnings away from the temple and priesthood (that is: I don’t want to discount the possibility), but in revenge and manipulation? For me, the motivations for such paths seem anchored in the past, in recycled pain. If Sideways to the Sun is supposed to be a comedy, it is probably a failed one–at least from my subjective viewpoint.
Which brings up the fact that tragedy and comedy–at least Mormon I tragedy and comedy–are a matter of individual perspective. It is likely, after all, that what I have been trying to work out in this and my previous post is a notion of tragedy that is caught too much in a rather orthodox Mormon understanding of mortality, sin, redemption, and exaltation. That is, it could be that the only way for a novel like The Scholar of Moab to be tragic is to take Mormonism seriously at its word. Otherwise, who’s to say that Mormon comedies, as I have defined them, are not tragedies for those who do not take Mormonism seriously? Indeed, what is to stop someone who sees Mormonism as a delusion from taking great pain in Frank Windham’s return to the fold? Could it be, after all, that tragedy is only ever possible for audiences who share convictions with characters (or, for that matter, authors)?
One final thought: Does the institutional church’s seemingly new openness to doubt (or recognition of and sympathy for those who doubt), as articulated in President Uchtdorf’s talk “Come, Join with Us” from the October 2013 General Conference, create a more fertile field for the cultivation of Mormon tragedy? In other words, as we come to speak in more nuanced ways about where and how one stands in relationship to doctrine, belief, and orthodoxy, will we begin to see more stories about characters who get mired tragically in the nuance? It seem likely to me, after all, that the great Mormon tragedy of the first quarter of the twenty-first century will involve a protagonist who falls because he or she cannot reconcile old orthodoxies with new. In his or her inability to evolve with and adapt to information-age Mormonism, that is, he or she becomes lost in allegiances to paradigms, principles, and policies that no longer have (or should no longer have) much relevancy to contemporary Mormon life. It is a tragic circumstance that people at both right and left poles can find themselves in, I think, along with those who seem to exist in what we might call a false middle–that seemingly middling zone where one listens to all voices, is open to all opinions, but does nothing with them.