Idea: A Mormon polyphonic novel

Benjamin Zucker’s novel Blue is a fascinating piece of experimental fiction. The main narrative is presented as a single column of text in the middle of each right page. To the left and right of (and sometimes above and below) the main narrative are a series of short commentaries on the main body of text. On every left page is a photo that relates somehow to the text on the right page.

The main action follows Abraham Tal, a well-read, Jewish New York gem dealer obsessed with purity and tradition– in relationships, in Judaism, in gem stones. The commentators are fictional (Tal’s girlfriend, mother, father, etc.) and historical (Kafka, Vermeer, Bobby Fischer, Bob Dylan, famous Rabbis, etc.). The fictional commentators often comment most directly on what’s happening in the narrative, telling stories about Tal or about themselves or providing advice. Zucker sometimes invests the historical commentators with a fictional voice and have them comment directly on the narrative. Or often they will take a word, image or phrase from the main narrative and comment on it. Zucker also joists their actual words (from letters, diaries, speeches, song lyrics) to his fiction. For example, Kafka will say “Tal should just drop his pretences and tell her that he is too cold” and then the next sentence is a quote from a letter to Max Brod. The differences between the fiction and actual quotes are delineated by font changes, and Zucker also provides notes and sources at the end of the novel.

The photos are often reproductions of paintings (especially of works by Vermeer), photos of the historical figures (Kafka, Dylan, James Joyce show up repeatedly) as well as photos of gemstones and jewelry and of Jewish manuscripts. The book is oversized for a novel — almost the size of a coffee table book — which makes the photos more dramatic and the multiple columns of text easier to read. It must have been quite expensive to print (the hardcover price is $40).

Blue succeeds as an experimental novel. Because so much room is taken up with the commentaries and photos, there isn’t a whole lot to the main narrative — it’s a bit thin. There are often major lacunae between chapters and the ending chapters feature major jumps forward in time, and, indeed, verge into the realm of speculative fiction (a surprise, but it works). In other words, the novel doesn’t give you the kind of rush of depth that Tolstoy or Henry James does. And some of the commentaries, frankly, fall flat. But most make sense and add to the experience. Zucker is a Jewish New York gem dealer with a cosmopolitan education so even though I’m pretty sure the work isn’t autobiographical at all (unlike Tal, Zucker is happily married and successful in his gem business) his familiarity with all the pieces he brings to the novel allow him to juggle all the voices and ideas with aplomb. I was especially impressed that his knowledge and sources never seemed gratuitous. It all serves the pastiche. And in the end, the portrait of Abraham Tal that emerges is full and haunting.

I’ve spent four long paragraphs explaining Blue in depth because I want to be as clear as possible when I explain why his project would work in the hands of a capable Mormon writer. Mormon critics and readers have often expressed a desire for a Mormon Chaim Potok or Flannery O’Connor, but beyond Eugene England’s comments on why is a natural genre for Mormons (see paragraph 55), I haven’t read where someone comes out and says — this, this would work in a Mormon context (“Fiddler on the Roof” does get tossed around, however).

Granted Zucker has a richer tradition to draw upon. Most of his historical commentators are Jewish — I mean, how great is it to be able to bring in Kafka, Joyce and Dylan? And Judaism has a rich tradition of commentary — Midrash.

Mormonism’s greatest textual treasures to date are non-fiction — the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, History of the Church, Journal of Discourses (and other sermons), pioneer and missionary journals, scriptural commentaries, the writings of Hugh Nibley, Mormon folk stories and doctrines, etc. In addition, Mormonism has great folk art traditions and family history resources to draw upon — old photographs, quilts, needlepoint, family trees, manuscripts, the paintings of Minerva Teichert and other Mormon artists, etc.

A work of fiction that could capitalize on these resources in a direct way could be both challenging and faithful in a way that your straight-up literary novel can’t. I’m not suggesting that one duplicate Zucker’s form exactly. For instance, I think that a photo on every other page would be a bit much. I also think that clever ways (in terms of layout and typography) of bringing in family group sheets and journal and scriptural passages could be developed that would make more sense for a Mormon pastiche novel.

Part of the reason that this idea appeals to me is that I have yet to read a Mormon novel that really captures what it’s like for a modern Mormon to interact with, reinterpret, wrestle with the past (granted there’s still a lot out there for me to read and for all I know someone has already done a novel like this). Yes, there are several novels where Mormon characters struggle to break free from intermountain Utah Mormon culture and their pioneer forebearers haunt the narrative, but I’m thinking of something more post-modern, more reflective of post-Sunstone generation Mormons. Something polyphonic.

For the record: when I mention ideas on A Motley Vision, I’m simply sending them out into the Zeitgeist. I don’t intend to write the work described above nor any of the other speculative projects I write about. I keep my own projects to myself (for the most part — I slipped up once on Kim Siever’s blog). This means that anyone is free to take this idea and run with it. Or not.

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