f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Talking About <i>Liars and Saints</I> by Maile Meloy: All Things Catholic

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, November 24, 2003

Talking About Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy: All Things Catholic

There isn't much of a secret—you become a better writer through practice. You must write and write and write. But, unless you're one of the rare geniuses, you must also study. And study, in the discussion of writing, means reading. You must see how others have done it and learn from both their successes and their failures.

That's why any website claiming to be about the pursuit of better writing must include a discussion of books that have already been written. I'm hoping two spend a few days every other week looking at fiction that deals, at least in part, with spirituality or faith. Most will be contemporary. Some will be classics. I welcome your suggestions, particularly for books that reach outside Christianity. Examining how authors confront Hindu beliefs or the Muslim faith, among many, should be instructive as well.

In this short week, I'm going to look at Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy. This book is a marvel, a wonder of storytelling that somehow intertwines and illuminates the lives of 5 generations of a Catholic family into 260 pages without feeling thin. This alone could be studied for days. Instead, I'm going to put it on the backburner and turn my attention to a topic more germane for this website: the role faith plays in the book.

Other Than That Crushing Guilt Thing, Catholics Have It Easy
Rough estimates point to about 61 million baptized Catholics in the US. We can take a whole lot from this statistic.

First, unless you are spectacularly sheltered, you know somebody Catholic. There's even a 25% chance you are Catholic. What this means is a wide-spread, if often sometimes completely wrong, familiarity with Catholicism.

Second, we know that while 61 million may be baptized as Catholics, not that many are filling the pews. Catholicism is the like Judaism in our culture, in that it has become secularized. Much like being a "non-practicing Jew", one can be a "lapsed Catholic." This means the social and familial aspects of Catholicism are just as important as the faith aspects. It makes it possible to write an almost entirely secular novel from within the confines of a religion. This is a nifty option that, say, Pentecostals don't really have.

Finally, Catholicism brings with it a great number of trappings and outward expressions of faith. Confession, the Eucharist, daily attendance at Mass, atonement, etc. These are all outwardly visible expressions of faith. Compare this to many Protestant denominations which often stress avoiding the orthodox, which have stripped Communion of a great deal of meaning, and which make confession and atonement matters to stay between you and God.

Liars and Saints is not a Catholic novel. But it makes that same secular use of the religions trappings (and the religion's finally honed ability to manufacture guilt in those who've gone astray) that I mentioned above. It serves as an unreachable ideal, the measure against which each character holds his or her life and finds themselves lacking. It also serves as the great hope, the wonderful promise of love and acceptance. A reader's general knowledge of the religion turns it into a touchpoint off which the author can play her tropes of family. No other religion, I don't think, can serve as that without much more backstory. She uses it to perfect affect and the religion's fullness and dichotomous role (liar/saint) is part of what helps bring a slim story into grand fullness.

In case you are interested, here are many reviews of Liars and Saints, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and more. They range from very positive to mildly mixed.