My parents gave me “Long After Dark” for Christmas. I was delighted by the gift because I had read a few of Todd Robert Petersen‘s stories when deciding which of them to post on Popcorn Popping* and had enjoyed them. I also put off reading it for two reasons: I had high expectations for the stories in the collection and didn’t want my hopes to be dashed, and I was a little put off by the fact that Brian Evenson wrote the forward. I wondered if Evenson’s endorsement meant that the stories were more like what he writes (which are okay [granted I’ve only read Altmann’s Tongue] but like the work of Auster don’t work for me because they are clearly inspired by Kafka but aren’t as funny). But after a few weeks, I decided to give them a go. I read 3/4 of the stories and then a few weeks later read the rest of the stories and the novella.
“Long After Dark” is a fantastic work. It is an instant classic — one of the most important works of Mormon literature to appear so far.
1. This is the first time I have read a Mormon author who seems to be aware of and grappled with and absorbed some of the lessons of his precursors — Doug Thayer, Orson Scott Card, Levi Peterson, Margaret Young, Bela Petsco, Neal Chandler and, yes, Brian Evenson and Neil LaBute. We might even be able to toss Richard Dutcher in there. And a host of other Mormon authors. I don’t know how much Mormon literature Petersen has read. But whatever the case, the stories read as if they are an outgrowth of the Mormon canon (such as it is). This is not to say they are derivitave — quite the contrary. And this is not to say dismiss other authors engagement with the field, but I’ve never read a work of Mormon literature that feels as steeped in the field as this one. Now I don’t want to scare of potential readers so I should also say that you will enjoy these stories no matter how much prior exposure to Mormon literature you have had.
2. In addition, Petersen’s work shows an awareness of American literature of the past several decades. These stories are post-post-modern, post-ironic, post-political, post-911, post-Roth, post-Carver, post-Eggers, post-multicultural, post-realism. They are genuine, non-fussy, cinematic, finely-crafted — lyrical but not precious, tough but not battering, sparse but not abrupt. They do not break amazing ground in form or tone or anything, really. They are eminently readable, and yet they feel very current. This is a great contribution to American letters although I don’t know if they will find charitable non-Mormon readers because of number 3.
3. This relates to absorbing the lessons — the triumphs and mis-steps — of his Mormon precursors, but what I love about these stories is that they don’t challenge the basic tenets of Mormonism and yet they challenge the capacity of individuals who have the Mormon worldview to cope with the messy realities of life as well as the capicity of individual who don’t have the Mormon worldview to understand Mormons and Mormonism. Others have already said this better than I can — I fully endorse the quotes in the front of the book as well as (with minor quibbles) Evenson’s foreward.
4. This collection fits comfortably in the Mormon literature that is a sub-set of the literature of the American West. But Petersen also shows an awareness of international issues. Stories take place in Juarez, Buenos Aires, Rwanda in addition to Utah and Idaho. Petersen creates a world where the crises of the day impact Mormons. This is a major step in creating a truly international Mormon literature.
5. I have argued in the past (I don’t recall where — probably the AML List) that we need more Mormon novellas. The short story is doing okay because of the Mormon journals, but the novella is woefully neglected. Sure, it’s a form that is neglected everywhere (except for speculative fiction), but it seems like a form particularly suited to capturing the Mormon experience. The Mormon marketplace really doesn’t support many literary novels and probably won’t for quite some time. Novellas are well-suited for serializing in the Mormon publications and on the Web, and I’d like to see more of them. And so I was delighted to see that “Long After Dark” ends with a novella (and now that I think about it, in some ways it’s the closest thing we have so far to Joyce’s “The Dubliners”). The book would be worth the purchase price for the novella alone. I don’t want to say too much about “Family History: A Novella” because it’s worth reading without spoilers. But I will reveal that it is a response to the post-911 world. It is a fun read. And it dramatizes a difficult question for converts — how much should they reveal about and talk about their past?
6. If I were a filmmaker, I would snatch up the rights to “Family History” and “Now and at the Hour of Our Death.”
“Long After Dark: Stories and a Novella” is available from Zarahemla Books.
*Full disclosure: In addition to being the editor that worked with Petersen to select two stories to run on Popcorn Popping, I have provided marketing/pr feedback to “Long After Dark” publisher Chris Bigelow on several projects, including Zarahemla Books. Bigelow and I have been e-mail correspondents for 4 or 5 years. In addition, Petersen and I may have conversed via the AML List, but I don’t remember and most of its archives aren’t available. I also think they both are swell guys.