A Worthwhile and Long-Awaited Story: The Agitated Heart, by Scott Bronson

Title: The Agitated Heart
Author: Scott Bronson
Publisher: ArcPoint Media, Orem, UT
Genre: Novella
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 201 (but only about 40,000 words)
ISBN13: 978-0-9743155-1-5
Price: $12.99 from Amazon.com
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. (Electronic review copy received from the publisher.)

This is a story that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read. Fifteen years at least, since I first started hearing about it under its original title “The Whipping Boy.” It’s good, people told me. The best unpublished story in Mormon literature. It’s a mystery why no publisher has ever picked it up.

Thanks to Scott Parkin’s ArcPoint Media and to Scott Bronson’s own persistence, that long wait is now over. And I have to say: the story pretty much lives up to its hype — with some quibbles that I’ll get to later.

(And now I have to stop and say that there will indeed be spoilers. Because I can’t possibly review this story the way I want to do without referencing the ending. Not that the ending is a particular surprise; it’s foreshadowed for essentially the entire story, and if hearing about the ending puts you off, you probably aren’t someone who should read this book. Just saying.)

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Liner Notes for Fast Offering

My short story “Fast Offering” was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Dialogue (if you’re not currently a subscriber you can buy a PDF copy of the story or issue individually — or even better sign up for a subscription and get access to it right away as well as to all of Dialogue’s archives). Electronic subscribers got access to it a couple of weeks ago. Print subscribers should soon receive their copy (if they haven’t already). Whatever way you access it, note that the issue also includes poems by AMVer S.P. Bailey and Emma Lou Thayne plus a bunch of other great writing.

The following liner notes to the story don’t contain any spoilers:

1. “Fast Offering” is the most traditional Mormon short story I have written: it’s solidly in the faithful realism school of Mormon lit (e.g. contemporary literary fiction that deals directly with Mormon [often Utah Mormon] characters and assumes that the LDS Church is true but complicates what that means for the lives of the fictional characters depicted) and features a setting—a small southern Utah town (Kanab) in the early 1980s—a situation-adultery—and a character—a precocious deacon—that scream faithful realism so much that I almost didn’t send it into Dialogue. This is not a William Morris story, I thought, with a bit of chagrin. But, of course, it very much is. I just had a moment of denial about it.

2. I didn’t plan on writing this story. It snuck up on me. Indeed, the idea for it came to me a few months after I had decided to take a break from writing Mormon fiction except for the occasional Mormon Lit Blitz entry. What caused me to fall off the wagon? I read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro in June 2014. Two things from that reading experience infected my mind and wouldn’t leave without the exorcism of writing the story: 1) the detailed, merciless attention Munro pays to the emotional lives of her characters and 2) the way that she is willing to switch point of view characters in a short story. I probably could have fought off the first. The second, however, was a formal experimentation thing and that’s like catnip to me and all of a sudden my mind came up with a uniquely Mormon way to transition point of view changes throughout a fairly standard literary fiction short story. The idea occurred in June. I wrote 1500 words of the story, sat on it for a few months, and then wrote the rest of it in October and November.

3. The story originally had two more point of view characters and was 3,000 words longer. Dialogue Journal’s wonderful fiction editor Heather Marx suggested that I pare down the povs and reduce the story down to a more traditional ~6,000-word length. She thought it needed to be more a short story and less the start of a novel. She was right. So I made the cuts. I’m very pleased with the end result. I may also have plans for the characters I axed. But right now I’m not focusing on Mormon fiction. I’m back on the wagon and writing only genre fiction. Of course, you never know what might knock me off it again.

4. “Fast Offering” takes place in Kanab, Utah, in the late spring of 1981. The main character Welden Shumway lives in the third ward of the Kanab Stake. I lived in the third ward of the Kanab Stake in 1981. The story isn’t autobiographical in the sense that I was only 9 in 1981, the adulterous couple and the house they live in are completely made up, and I was pretty happy to live in Kanab when I was kid and, other than a vague idea of attending BYU, never thought about whether I might need to leave the town up some day up until we moved away the summer I was 12. On the other hand, many of the physical details are pulled from memory. And the overall sense of what small town Mormon life is like is somewhat autobiographical, although it’s also been warped by the passage of time as well as my reading of Mormon fiction. This story might be as much Doug Thayer fiction as it is William Morris memory. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

5. After reading through the prior four points, I’m frustrated by the reluctance I sense, that it’s almost an apologetic, as if I have to explain the existence of the story because it conflicts with my own personal sense of who I am as a fiction writer and a voice in the world of Mormon Lit. There might be something to that. But I think there’s something else going on. “Fast Offering” feels like an inflection point for my Mormon fiction writing (that, remember, I’m not actively pursuing at the moment). I don’t think that it’s all that different from the stories in Dark Watch and other Mormon American stories (now available—your purchase supports my Mormon alternate history anthology) — not on the reader end. But on the author end it felt very different. And it’s frustrating to me that this is the story that feels like that. Partly because it is somewhat autobiographical; partly because it is faithful realism; partly because I don’t necessarily like the characters I write about in the story (even though I love them). It feels like both a step backward and a step forward.

6. Stay (patiently) tuned?

The Writing Rookie #12: Realism and Artistic Convention

Here’s a somewhat belated addition to my series based on insights from writing my first novel, No Going Back. For the complete list of columns in this series, .

If art is, in part at least, the imitation of reality, it’s an imitation that’s largely bounded by and grounded in artistic convention. That’s something I’ve long been aware of from a literary/critical perspective, but writing a novel myself — and then seeing the reaction of different readers to the specific choices I made about where and how to be “realistic” — has borne that truth in on me in a particularly vivid fashion.

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On Writing a Realistic Novel

I’m cross-posting this from my blog partly because I think it’s relevant to our site focus — and relevant to some other recent posts — and because I don’t think very many people even know yet that my blog exists. Thanks for your indulgence.

It’s interesting being the author of a novel about a topic that matters so much to a lot of readers. Sex and religion are topics that people care about passionately (if you’ll pardon the double pun), and when they intersect, there’s little that’s more potentially volatile.

That’s all to the good when people like my book. I’ve gotten some amazing comments from people, not just about how the book affected them as a story but about the positive good they think it can do in the world. I’d like to believe those comments are all true. But it can be especially unpleasant when people don’t like my book — especially those who share my religious beliefs.

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On the History of LDS Literature

In November 2005, I discovered, in a review of the Wikipedia article on Mormon Fiction, that the authors of the article thought Mormon Fiction essentially didn’t exist before 1979. Since I knew this wasn’t true, I corrected the article, and many others have added their own corrections and improvements. (I drew my information principally from Eugene England‘s Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects, lest someone thinks I’m some kind of expert on the field.)

But last week I finished reading William’s graduate school paper (available in his July 31st post, Slowly Flowering: My grad school paper on Mormon literature), and I realized that I’m uncomfortable with the way that England has presented this history. I’m not sure it tells the whole story. And I’m not even completely sure that most literary histories tell the whole story.

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