Both were assigned reading. One was a friend’s favorite novel: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. After repeatedly recommending it, she finally sent me a copy all the way from Germany. I couldn’t not read it. But it was a challenge. It’s about training dogs, I kept thinking through the first hundred pages. I like dogs, (we have four of our own), but how could this book have been such a bestseller? Right around then, though, the dogs and characters coalesced into a gripping mystery, and I read all night long.
The same happened with Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast. A colleague organizing a conference featuring the novel’s author asked if I’d participate in a panel discussion of its “Christian elements.” The assignment made me leery. If there’s anything I can’t tolerate in fiction, it’s a sermon, which I assumed the presence of discernible “Christian elements” would comprise. When I sit down—or, more often, lie down—to read a novel, I want to be entertained. If there’s a message, I like to discover it myself, as with Jesus’ parables. “If you want to preach,” I tell my fiction workshop students, “write devotionals, not novels.”
My colleague’s new to our department, though, and I didn’t want to alienate her. Plus, running a conference is hard work; I wanted to offer support. Accordingly, I said I’d read the novel and, if I liked it, join the panel.
So, I started Beggar’s Feast, the syntactically gnarled tale of a boy mistreated and abandoned by his benighted family who subsequently fights, smarms, and schemes his way through the docks of Ceylon to become wealthy and powerful. A Ceylonese Horatio Alger, minus (thank God!) the moralism: Boyagoda’s protagonist, the self-named Sam Kandy, is no tractable boot-black. He despises everyone, even his own children, and murders two wives in the course of the story. Indeed, he’s such a baddie I’m struggling to discover Christian elements in his exploits.
What made me dislike the book initially was that it was so hard to read. Those gnarled sentences— barrages of images so jumbled and knotted they defied sorting into logical wholes, even by someone who makes her living sorting sense from mangled prose. It was so linguistically maddening to follow this boy’s experiences—worse than Benji’s in The Sound and the Fury—that I decided my difficulty must be Boyagoda’s fault. That, though the novel was roundly acclaimed, he was incapable of writing a sound sentence.
Even as I thought this, though, I knew it wasn’t true. For one thing, despite my struggle to pin down what Boyagoda’s sentences were saying, their images and rhythms and little imbedded amusements carried me forward in a narrative that grew increasingly gripping. And, as the story developed and Sam sorted himself out, the prose did too. Soon I wasn’t laboring but just lying back, enjoying what happened next.
It eventually occurred to me (I’m slow, I know) that the sentences’ incoherence mimicked Sam’s, that a person so broken early on would likely perceive and express life brokenly, especially at first. What’s maturity, after all, beyond the accrual of coherence? As I progressed through the novel, I increasingly sensed and trusted, beneath the verbal chaos, Boyagoda’s guiding hand, shaping Sam alongside my experience of his story.
I hate devotional writing that’s just one long metaphor, but I guess that’s what this is. These two reading experiences reminded me of life—of how often I wade through a slew of confusing and often vexing mundane events unrelated to (or, worse, antithetical to) what’s really important only to realize, much later, that it was all relevant, every bit of it, all its elements, positive and negative, part of some bigger vision.
We are, each of us, part of a better story than we’re sometimes aware of, a story that unfurls only slowly, only slowly displays its meanings. Life may seem pointless or muddled or just plain wrong at times, but beneath and behind and above and within it all is its capable Writer, pulling us toward him.