A few weeks ago I wrote about the opening pages of Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife and lamented their overly explicative nature. Now, I made those statements form my long-standing position that we don’t have to explain that much for a nonLDS audience to understand our stories, but Mette wasn’t trying to prove my hypothesis and I can hardly blame her for it. But, happily, the universe has provided another new, nationally released mystery/thriller this December 2014 by an LDS writer about LDS characters, and now I can compare them.
Wirkus’s novel, like Harrison’s involves everyday Mormons tossed into dangerous circumstances including murder. (Note: I’m writing about City of Brick and Shadow slightly before reaching the halfway point. Also, like Harrison’s book, this was sent to me gratis by its publisher. Also! Like The Bishop’s Wife, I expect to get more than one post out of this novel. So yes, I will be comparing it to Millstone City at some point.)
Wirkus’s protagonists are missionaries serving in a Brazil slum, a location certainly more prone to ugliness than Draper, Utah, but still: it’s not like they put out a PI shingle looking for long-legged dames with murderous lovers to come looking for them.
How they do get into trouble is worth talking about, but all I’m interested in today is how Wirkus’s worldbuilding compares to Harrison’s and, ultimately, why it is, in one humble thopinion, better executed.
Let’s get started by comparing two paragraphs that are rather similar in intent. Harrison first, then Wirkus. Telling details underlined; exposition and arguably-out-of-character-thinking-to-tell-the-audience-something in bold (I’ve removed itals from book titles to cut down on clutter).
Samuel thought I understood what he was talking about. He was supposed to think of any sexual feelings as wrong and suppress them, according to the church. I supposed there were advantages to this indoctrination. At least the church taught clearly that it was not his right to satisfy sexual urges on any girl he thought was pretty.
Or maybe Elder Amorim would bring up the way Elder Toronto spent his p-day. On their one day off in the week, while Elder Amorim washed his clothes or wrote letters to his family or just lounged around the apartment, Elder Toronto sat at his desk in his tattered basketball shorts and faded green T-shirt reading books, magazines, and newspapers, none of whose titles appeared on the approved missionary reading list: A Field Guide to the Birds of South America, Analyzing Firearm Ballistics, Essential Writings of Friederich Nietzche, Understanding Game Theory, The New Journal of World Dance History, The Calcutta Gazette, Cooking for a Crowd, Introduction to Logic, Bandeirantes: A Legacy of Discovery, The Joys of Organic Chemistry, And Advanced Training Manual for Interrogators, The Lusiads. He did this all day long, reading and reading, never uttering a word to his companion. (13-14)
Both paragraphs occur early in their respective novels and both have the intention to tell us something about the dynamic of the character being discussed as both an individual and in relation to churchy expectations. Both also say things I don’t really agree with (I hate it when people say the Church says sex is evil—even though some people in the Church do, a character like Linda should demonstrate more nuanced understanding—and, as for this former missionary, I never saw p-day as a “day off”. (Aside: I love how he doesn’t say what the p stands for. It wasn’t necessary. Though I do think the phrase describing it as their day off was also unnecessary. But I’m a minimalist. You know that.)
City of Brick and Shadow throws out Mormon and Portuguese words and just expects us to keep up. And we can because the context is so well defined. I have never heard of an x-calabresa before but no need to stop the narration. We’re in a restaurant and we’re eating x-calabresa. I don’t need more than that. Was it necessary to add, after the comma, “Bishop Claudemir, the congregation’s leader” (25)? No. But how much storytelling is accomplished without explication when
Elder Toronto and Elder Schwartz each grabbed an armload of chairs and began setting them up in a row behind the first one.
“I apprecaite the gesture, elders,” said Bishop Claudemir, “but I think a second row of chairs would be overly optimistic.”
The story goes on to explain (without charting out the handbook-differences between wards and branches) how a ward could be so small.
Harrison has moments of strength like this as well, such as on the second page when a member of the ward shows up unexpectedly to visit with Linda’s husband, his young daughter with oatmeal down her front. Telling details.
My aesthetic opinion is that the telling detail is always better and almost always (maybe always) available. This isn’t a radical opinion of course. We all know that pausing for explication damages narrative momentum. Perhaps Wirkus’s publisher trusted its audience more than Harrison’s. Perhaps not everyone shares my high opinion of Potok‘s failure to explicate. Perhaps many readers prefer explication to feeling even the slightest bit lost.
I’m not interested in “proving” that my opinions here are better—just that they’re my opinions. You are welcome to share your own.
Attention: Both The Bishop’s Wife and City of Brick and Shadow were released this December and while the deserve to be considered for Whitneys, may not get sufficient nominations. Consider nominating them on my assurance of quality. You have less than a week.
Note on gender: I’ve already talked with the complicated and interesting way The Bishop’s Wife engages with gender in Mormon culture. I would be remisss not to address the possibility that I am biased in favor of a novel by a male author starring male characters. Such biases can lie deep in the subconscious. I hope that in a focused post like this I’m above reproof, but you are of course welcome to arrive at other conclusions.
more posts on The Bishop’s Wife
more posts on City of Brick and Shadow