Somehow I missed that Eugene Woodbury had posted an essay titled on his Web site. Or perhaps I knew about it and then forgot about it and then rediscovered it. Whatever the case it’s a fantastic read. So go read it.
It was written as a response to an essay by Stephen Carter and Stephen and Eugene did their duo-presentation at a Sunstone Symposium and the back in 2007.
Eugene (summarizing Stephen) begins with:
We propose that narrative fiction constructed in a Mormon context and for Mormon audiences often strays from conventional storytelling in several ways. Principal among these is the negation or diminution of the “second act.” These stories skip from the first act (the set up) to the third act (the reassuring resolution), leaving out the struggle in between.
This is dead on. Of course, the problem is that the Mormon fiction that gets to the second act sometimes don’t manage to get to the third act — but that’s a different discussion.
There is a lot of good stuff in the essay. But I want to focus on one aspect in particular. The authors quote Julian Gough, who notes that modern literary fiction values the tragic over the comic — which leads to dull, dreary, pseudo-suffering serious fiction.
The remedy to this is fools — specifically holy fools. Those who say the unsayable or even unthinkable, who wrestle and dispute with God. As the Eugene notes, comedy comes from incongruity:
…laughter is a reaction to incongruity. A tragic fact is a settled fact; humor is up in the air. The human comedy is a Hail Mary pass thrown into the end zone. A religious philosophy that acknowledges only settled facts on the ground can never be funny. Or compellingly dramatic.
And here’s the thing: if you really look closely at Mormonism a) there are a lot of unsettled facts and b) at the same time it’s good ground from which to observe the incongruities found in other philosophies, worldviews and ways of life.
And I think Eugene has explained a bit the enduring appeal of Angel of the Danube for me. Barry Monroe is very much a holy fool — and not just because of his California dude accent. The best moments in the book are both comic and spiritual, where Barry experiences both the incongruities in life and touches something of the divine. And even as the ending lapses into old romantic formulas, there is a sense that he has earned it. The second act isn’t missing. He has struggled and the end only happens by grace.
The hallmark of good criticism is that it cause you to look at texts in a new way. By that measure, “Pelagius and the fools” is successful criticism. And a very important step in the development Mormon lit crit.
Corrected author information 1.29.09 based on comments from Eugene Woodbury below. ~Wm