f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of <em>Jesus Saves</em>—I Hear You Loud and Unclear

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Day 3 of Jesus Saves—I Hear You Loud and Unclear

One way of looking at this is that author Darcey Steinke simply has more guts than I do. In a million years I would never, ever have chosen one of my point-of-view characters to be an abducted teenage girl being put through physical, sexual, and mental horrors. How could you even hope to enter into their thoughts enough to present a coherent narrative? And why would you want to?

I still don’t fully understand why were are taken along into Sandy Patrick’s hell, but Steinke makes a justifiable choice in how it happens. Steinke chooses to present Sandy’s voice as fractured nearly beyond comprehension through the trauma she’s put through. Her defense mechanism has been to withdraw into a world of memory and comforting illusion whenever she can. It offers no physical defense (which makes much of the story that much harder to read), but it shields her spirit and soul at least a little.

Steinke takes us into Sandy’s madness (that’s what we’ll call it for lack of a better word) slowly. She doesn’t dump us into the heart of it, but eases us in. Sandy’s first narrated chapter is nearly all coherent. It places us, places her, and gives us an introduction to her imprisonment. It is third-person-limited but very self-aware, as though she were watching herself from outside. Finally at the end, chained up and desperate she begins to remember and falls into a waking dream of her family. It lasts only a paragraph of two. We are taken through more narrative during which Sandy finally and fully realizes that the man who has abducted her is insane himself. Understanding what this means, she takes her one opportunity to flee.

She does not succeed. I think this more than anything is the button the author pushes to send Sandy over the edge. Her hope has dwindled and in the crushing weight of it she begins to go insane. Fantastic animals (a bear, a caterpillar, and a unicorn) eventually become her companions, their conversations at the heart of the fairy tale world she creates for her escape. Here’s a section:

“[The troll] drove leaning forward, headlights off, trying to navigate like a moth by moonlight. The passage was tight, branches flicked against both sides of the van, and the mud road made oozy sounds. The party, Sandy decided, was for the turtle because he was seventy-six. She wore false eyelashes made of spiders’ legs and a wreath of violets around her head, and the caterpillar, who was so much younger and always looking for bits of wisdom to improve his rhetoric, asked what she’d learned in life so far.

“‘Not to eat bad grass,’ the turtle said.”
So in that we get the narrative information that Sandy is being driven somewhere and the delusion along with it. This is the style that plays out through the rest of the portions. You find yourself grasping for fragments that make sense and keep you moving through the story. It’s a “difficult” kind of reading and one that will simply appall or turn off many people (on a variety of levels.)

So why do it?

There’s no one simple answer to that question and really it’s not all that important a question to ask. Literature is on a continuum of ease of comprehension. You have simple stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar; you have intricate children’s stories like Holes; you have straightforward novels like DaVinci Code; you have non-linear novels like Mariette in Ecstasy. A book like Jesus Saves is far easier to understand than, say, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

The better question isn’t why? but more specifically, what is gained?

There is no doubt that seeing the world through Stacy’s POV takes us deeper into the horror of this world than we would have otherwise been allowed. This isn’t a glass-bottom-boat tour of hell; this is full-scale tour, complete with tour guide. I winced the first time I saw Stacy’s name at the chapter heading as narrator. That kind of effect simply wouldn’t come any other way.

Other fractured narrations offer different opportunities to authors.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem tells a detective story through the POV of a man with Tourette’s, jazzing both language and action because of the disorder. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime does the same thing with Autism. Neither of these stories are quite as fractured as Jesus Saves but they’ll give you examples of slightly less difficult and intrusive ways it can be done.

In the end, writing a novel is about communication. Sometimes, though, you want to communicate the disorder, the confusion, the garbled noise that keeps us from understanding each other. Sometimes you want to put words to the inexpressible to prove that it truly is inexpressible. That’s where talking caterpillars and backwards-speaking-Lynchian-dwarves, and all sorts of interference will come in. You just have to prepare your reader and know that you may lose some folks along the way. Hopefully, those that do come along will be enriched for the risk that you take.