Zarahemla Books is one of the most interesting publishing ventures LDS literature has seen in a long time. According to its website, Zarahemla Books seeks to “publish provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity.” That’s a lofty–and complicated–goal that has produced some pretty complicated books.
I’ve only read three of the seven titles released by Zarahemla books–I just started a fourth title–and I have been impressed by the variety of styles, voices, and genres. Each book is unique and has a lot of heart. I suspect this is due largely to Chris Bigelow and his passion for literary creativity. I plan on reading the rest of the titles offered by Zarahemla, but my most recent read, Bigelow’s own Kindred Spirits, was pretty troubling.
Kindred Spirits is ostensibly a love story between Eliza, a Utah Mormon “expatriate” living in Boston, and Eric, a nonmember with more marital baggage than any polygamist could imagine. However, for me, this book felt much more like a train wreck than a love story.
As a recently disfellowshipped single woman Eliza (who is named after Eliza R. Snow) is as marginalized a character as possible. Her spirituality is hedged and squished by her buxom and obnoxious best friend, her passive/aggressive choice to drink decaf coffee, her recent brush with Church discipline, and her, well, (how do I say this politely?) filthy mind–nearly everything in Eliza’s life reminds her of her illicit Sunday morning trysts with her ex. When she isn’t thinking about sex she’s plotting how to get her new boyfriend dunked as quickly as possible in a baptismal font. And while she claims some sort of spiritual, pre-earth life connection as her motivation its pretty obvious that her libido is the biggest factor. However, even though she is a misfit in her Mormon community, this is a role she seems to relish because no matter what Eliza thinks she wants, no matter what she tells her bishop, she continually chooses to sabotage herself.
Eric is similarly embroiled. Recently divorced, Eric is basically homeless when Eliza meets him. He tells her about his ex-wife, Helen, and their adopted daughter, Manda. Further complicating things is Manda’s birthmother, a colorful wiccan who is also Eric’s ex-lover and lives with Manda and Helen. Besides an unsightly mole on his eyelid, Eric’s main characteristic is his lackadaisical nature. Stuck in a boring, low paying job which he is unwilling to do anything about Eric too is a misfit. It seems like kismet, or in Eliza’s mind Saturday’s Warrior, when Eric picks up the pass along cards she drops on the subway.
Besides the sexually explicit nature of the book (at least as far as LDS books are concerned), the really bothersome thing is that none of the characters understand the gospel. They are all focused on the external aspects of the Church–like showing up to sacrament meeting with a someone who is both an investigator and a boyfriend–and rarely pause to look inside themselves. Even though they are unchaste every time they are together Eliza can’t seem to understand why Eric can’t feel the Spirit during the missionary discussions. When they finally indulge in actual intercourse Eliza is surprised that she doesn’t feel worse about it, not realizing that she was rationalizing their sinful behavior from the beginning. Eric, who likes the idea of religion but can’t seem to hold on to any of the actual tenets of the gospel, doesn’t understand what he’s done when he gets baptized and subsequently cheats on Eliza, citing Joseph Smith to support what he was doing. Also, when Eliza takes Eric home to Utah to meet her family Bigelow’s satire of “Utah Mormons” is biting and entertaining, but it furthers the alienated feelings that characterize Eliza and Eric. The only character to ever makes the connection between physical actions and the spiritual state, the only character with a shred of wisdom, is the wiccan ex-lover and her wisdom is gained through potion-making and pagan rituals. In the end there are an awful lot of Mormons in the book, but very few Latter-day Saints. (Are you enjoying my use of those terms William?)
Bigelow’s story is ambitious and his characters are intriguing–he’s obviously a talented writer–but the book falls apart. The story gets lost in all the satire and by the end the characters are left hanging awkwardly between the last page of forced reconciliation–thanks to a priesthood blessing!–and the canned, happy-ending-going-to-the-temple epilogue. It is all about the bizarre aspects of Mormon culture, failing to yield new insights and is not ultimately faith-affirming. While a worthy effort, it doesn’t reach the goals Zarahemla Books has set for itself. Kindred Spirits is caught between the conflicting desire for acceptance and the instinct to remain marginalized, producing not art but cognitive dissonance.
p.s. I wrote this review last night right before I went to bed and I was pretty unsettled about it all night. While I was feeding my kiddos it finally occured to me that I was troubled by use of the term “misfit”. Now, to be clear, I don’t believe there is only one way to be a “good” latter-day saint. Nor do I believe that we all need to be automatons to qualify for the Kingdom. It wasn’t the fact that Eliza and Eric were misfits that bothered me so much as the fact the text never accounted for this choice. To me it seemed like the book have very little rhyme or reason behind it. Maybe that’s because of the postmodern feeling Bigelow was going for, but I would have liked a little more exploration as to why they, especially Eliza, felt the need to be so different. This book gave a lot of the how but not much of the why.
2 thoughts on “Kindred Spirits by Chris Bigelow– a review”
Thanks for the thoughtful review. The novel doesn’t work for about half of the readers I hear back from, I think mainly because I put roughly equal amounts of satire and testimony into it, and that’s not a mix that’s easy to parse, especially for Mormon readers of a certain level of orthodoxy who expect clearer gospel propaganda. The novel is a strange brew that reflects my mockery of Mormon culture, my fascination with some of the faith’s weirder beliefs, and ultimately my own deep belief in the theology.
I don’t pretend that I followed some kind of strategy to put across some kind of message; I mainly just gave voice to my subconscious impulses, and perhaps the novel even reflects some of my passive-aggressiveness against the religion, the culture, and this earthly dilemma. You may find it interesting to hear that I originally wrote it with mainly a non-Mormon audience in mind, readers who would be interested in a Mormon story with no agenda to prove or disprove the religion, readers who might want to walk in the shoes of a flawed Mormon protagonist trying to find her place in the world.
I agree with Laura about the ending and this: “This book gave a lot of the how but not much of the why.”
On the other hand, I didn’t think that the satire went far enough. The bizarre thing is that in the end it follows the same narrative arc and ends up in a similar place to Mormon romance novels. I found it to easy to parse.
Which would be fine, but I think it needed to be a little more literary and a little less genre. I’m generally not one to want people to get all literary. I’m a big fan of genre fiction. But a little more Saul Bellow/John Updike would have helped the novel considerably, imo.
But I do want to point out that it has a unique place in the small world of Mormon novels and is worth reading (assuming, of course, that you won’t be put off completely by some of the things Laura talks about in the review). I read both it and Brother Brigham quite close together and initially thought that Brother Brigham was the better novel and the more interesting one in terms of Mormon fiction, but as time has passed my opinion has reversed.