Friday, August 16, 2013

What We're Reading: First Novels

Elders, by Ryan McIlvain

We have all seen those young men in the Mormon missionary uniform---the white, short-sleeved shirt and tie, dark pants and dress shoes---walking neighborhoods or passing by on their bicycles. They have risen of late in our consciousness, less by their trademark door-to-door encounters than by a recent presidential candidacy and the popularity of the musical parody The Book of Mormon. When you see the elders these days, they have a more self-conscious air. If you want to understand a little more about them as real people and learn something about the personal struggles and sacrifices they make on behalf of their faith, Ryan McIlvain’s fine first novel is a sympathetic and poignant literary debut that will take you beyond the caricature. There is in this country, among those who think of themselves as the enlightened, a contempt and dismissal of “believers” that limits empathy for the experience of those who struggle with their family’s faith. And yet this is the experience of so many millions of young Americans who grow up in received religious traditions, traditions that are self-defining and perhaps sustaining, but that to many of them also prove to be suffocating, legacies that they must come to terms with in choosing their own course in life. In this sense, Elders is a fundamental and representative American story.

We meet Elder Seth McLeod in the home stretch of his mission in a fictional Brazilian city, Carinha, in 2003. It is the time of America’s invasion of Iraq. Brazil is gripped by the unfolding national drama of its team’s advance to victory in a major South American soccer tournament. Both of these events are a backdrop to McIlvain’s story about Seth and his assigned senior mission companion, a native Brazilian Morman convert, Elder Christiano Passos. The Elders hope to convert a local woman, Josephina, their only real prospect after months of tedious and frustrating door to door knocking in search of souls. Josephina lends a willing ear to the earnest appeals of the Elders, but her husband eventually reveals himself to be not very interested in the message of the Elders and he is suspicious of the reasons for their interest in his wife. That is rub: The Elders promise Josephina that she can be baptized, but when they seek approval from the mission bishop it turns out that for theological reasons, and as a calculated way to sustain the growth and retention of membership, the church has decided to restrict baptism to families. Baptizing Josephina without her husband is not an alluring prospect. The Elders are told that Josephina cannot be baptized alone and that they must continue to work for her husband’s acceptance of the faith.

This evangelical “problem” is the frustrating event that brings the latent cultural and religious differences between McLeod and Passos to the fore and strains both their working relationship and what seemed for a time a budding friendship. McLeod is angered by the decision and finds it yet another manifestation of unreasonable bureaucratic and religious constraint. Passos shares his fellow countrymen’s impatience with America and Americans, and views McLeod as arrogant, unsubmissive, and childish. He harbors a secret affinity with the anti-American excoriations of other Brazilians (he doesn’t stand up for his companion McLeod who bears the brunt of these) and he feels there is a kind of imperialistic insensitivity in the Mormon Church hierarchy to local traditions and the world of poverty from which Passos has come.

And yet, Passos sees in the church a path to fulfill both his spiritual and economic ambitions. He wants to rise in the hierarchy and he wants to go to go to America and attend Brigham Young University on a church scholarship. He is conflicted about his decision to join the church and pursue his personal ambitions while leaving behind his younger brothers and struggling family. McLeod, on the other hand, seems to be uncertain of his faith and mission and is rebellious against a course he has taken largely in a desire to please his father. His father is a bishop in the church and has what proves to be the awkward dual role of being both his father and spiritual advisor. It turns out that the loneliness, sexual abstinence, the abuse and contempt he suffers as an American in a foreign country, and the practical and bureaucratic frustrations of the mission serve less as a challenge that confirms his faith than one that makes clear to him what little faith he has. Neither his experience nor his mere endurance of it is likely to result in any personal testimony of belief. The mission demands Seth’s sexual abstinence, and his repressed sexual desires and those of his missionary companions are a major undercurrent in this novel. Seth has a sexual interest in Josephina, as her skeptical husband recognizes and as Seth must finally admit to himself. It is a realization that finally forces him to a moment of crisis and resolve about his mission and his faith.

The biographical blurb on the book jacket tells us that McIlvin resigned his membership in the Morman Church in his mid-twenties. How much of this story is his own is uncertain. Elders may remind some readers of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, a novel of a similar theme written at the close of the Victorian era, but different in tone. McIlvain displays here a degree of sympathy with McLeod and Passos that makes us feel he has made peace with both his lost faith and his younger self. Elders has neither a feel of condescension nor of bitter apostasy. Perhaps this is achieved at least in part because McIlvain writes about the world with a remarkable sense of beauty. While the major and supporting characters here are all finely drawn, and this is what we think of as a “character-driven” novel, the conflicts and ambiguities that are the substance of this story unfold under the presence of a sky from which rain, color, and light fall to soften the shards and rough edges of the physical world. McIlvain’s writing is filled with wonderfully descriptive passages that are brought to life by finely observed visual and aural detail. Elders is a moving and impressive debut, and  McIlvain is a writer to watch.

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