2011-06-07

Reviewing the fiction in Dialogue

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I know I know I know. I've gotten terribly behind in my Dialogue-fiction reviews, so I'm just going to declare bankrupcy and start with the new issue edited by Steve Peck, BYU professor, Monsters and Mormons contributor, Dialogues's science editor and guest-editor of this issue themed on the environment.

The stories, however, seemed to have missed the theme memo. We can still talk about them though.

"The Birth of Tragedy" by Hugo Olaiz

This is one of the finest story openings I've read in a long time. A goodly number of characters brought to life in just four pages with depth and complexity and sincerity. And then the protagonist is brought to the crisis we knew must come, and then we are given some artsiness and a quotation from an obscure-to-the-layman German play first performed in 1800, and the story is over with not only no resolution but no climax even. We're cut off before The Good Stuff, plotwise.

Which isn't to say I didn't like it. As I said, this is a terrific bunch of characters (a boy raised both Episcopalian and Mormon, his crazy thespian aunt, his gay RM brother and his academic boyfriend, the surface-oriented bishop-in-waiting) interacting through fun-to-read dialogue and dressed up with the best sort of window dressing (food-based metaphors, fun!facts! on stage blood, useful German vocabulary, visionary episodes) --- all in four pages! So, in fact, I enjoyed the story very much.

I'm merely disappointed it decided to finish up with the most generic of capital-L literary sins: quitting before The Good Stuff.

Pity.

But please: read the first paragraph:

    “Is Mormonism still part of your Weltanschauung?” Aunt Doris asks me every time she sees me. She knows that at 2:15 on Sunday afternoons I’m blessing the sacrament like any other Mormon priest, even though I can be found Sunday mornings at St. James Episcopal helping administer the chalice—“the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in life everlasting”—and sometimes I even help lay out the cups and saucers for coffee hour. When I drive from St. James to Sacramento Second Ward, it’s like reversing the wedding at Cana—the wine becomes water, the priestly robes turn into dark suits, and the emaciated body of Christ, which at St. James is a wafer, miraculously rises to the texture of Wonder Bread. “That’s the way our parents brought us up,” I tell Aunt Doris for the millionth time. Dad is Mormon and Mom is Episcopalian, so my brother Steve and I were born Mormon-Episcopalians. Five years ago, Steve decided he wanted to be only a Mormon, which Mom and Dad said was fine; but after his mission, he moved in with his boyfriend Ramón, and now he says he’s neither.


"American Trinity" by David G. Pace

I realized in the first sentence this was a Three Nephites story and all I can say is brilliant. We should tap into this stuff more often (and Dialogue did it well recently with Roger Terry's "Eternal Misfit"). One great thing about how Pace introduces the Three Nephites is his casualness. He feels no need to beat us over the head with it---just lets us figure it out on our own. (Well, almost, but when he does finally drop the phrase "Three Nephites", the syntax is such not to draw undue attention.)

I couldn't read this story without comparing it to a Johnny Townsend 3N story I recently read (review coming to Motley Vision . . . someday). Like that story, this one makes them humans with human issues and feelings, and not gods---which is sensible, if not how they exist in the popular imagination. Like that story, sometimes the dialogue gets clunky and inelegant. Which is a problem, because as well as the story started, it doesn't quite meet that promise as it progresses.

Here's the issue: The story wants to be two things at once. It wants to be a deeply personal story of an immortal man. And it wants to be a compact series of philosophical, literary, historical and theological arguments. And that's too much. Honestly, I wouldn't mind the arguments if they a) didn't require the stopping of action for long discussions and b) were as beautifully written as the story portions of this story. Because the story is gorgeously written.

Here's another first paragraph for you:

    The other two are more patient than I am. They bide their time. What’s worse, Jonas is always telling me that I am shirking my duty. I haven’t talked to him in over a century. Hundred and fifty years the last time I talked to Kumen. Even though I have returned tomy mission of wandering and ministering, both would insist I’ve lost the spirit of the assignment. I avoid them now. I was just coming out of the Empire Theatre in Old New York when I last talked to Jonas. Word must have gotten out. Like myself, Jonas was dressed as a patron in tuxedo and gloves. Courtly old Jonas. “I like the collapsible opera hat,” I told him. “Nice touch.”

CLOSING REMARKS

Even though I have had negative things to say about both stories, my final impression of both stories is very, very favorable. I recommend both. Even the elements I did not care for I can readily recognize may be someone else's favorites. There is certainly room for disagreement here. And I hope you will.

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