f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Ezekiel’s Shadow – On Themes and Art as Exegesis

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

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Day 4 of Ezekiel’s Shadow – On Themes and Art as Exegesis

You're going to want to read Mark Bertrand's piece on Theme at his website first and then come back to visit here.

The most difficult part of the exercise is knowing how much to say about the “meaning” of the book. I’ve written this before but IMO the author is last on the list of folks who get to say what a book “means.” If you read the book closely and form a valid opinion, I have no right to say you’re wrong or misguided or missing something. If you’re missing something, was it even there to be missed in the first place?

And this makes me gun-shy to even speak to the “intent” of the book. I don’t want to affect your read of it. But we’re at the hard place where theme and meaning meet and I think it’s an important exercise to try and figure out, as writers, how we approach these things.

Personally, I think this is where the book has the most potential…and falls the shortest.

The simple reason: I was intentionally trying to say too much.

ES was a thematic book in my head. The thing I wanted to talk about most particularly was “being haunted by your past” and whether you could truly escape that. And so with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, I found images and characters who supported those notes. My greatest frustration about ES is that there is no melody and harmony to my plots and subplots. I have a four-part chorus worth of characters and ideas and I had them all singing the same melody. This was the inexperience of a first-time novelist.

So: Ian Merchant has a stalker who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Ian’s own books. A veritable spectre emerging from the remnants of his sin.

You have Katherine Jacoby, plagued by the notion that her father was a Nazi.

You have Kyle Turner, still harboring grudges.

You have Kevin Contrade, writing and rewriting some terrible tragedy, unable to move on.

You have Howard Kepler, running and running from whatever it was he did back in Baltimore.

You have Oakley’s mother-in-law, forever seeking water.

You have the passage from Ezekiel. A valley of dry bones who don’t remember what it means to live until God breathes life into them again.

It’s too much. Really, only Rebecca escapes this theme. She, and maybe Pete and Jaret, are the only characters who aren’t “haunted” during the book.

Mark says: “No one reading Ezekiel’s Shadow will come to the wrong conclusion about what the story signifies. But maybe they should.”

It crushes me to say this, but he’s absolutely right.

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On other things he’s said, I’m not as convinced.  So to spice this discussion up a bit, I will take umbrage/issue with one of Mark’s points. I’ve been a good boy, taking my lashes without a peep and now that we’re nearly done I thought I’d get petulant.

He says:
“Merchant uses them as any Christian would and learns from them what every Christian should. This is writing from a Christian worldview, but not a particular Christian’s worldview. What the imagery in Ezekiel’s Shadow needs is particularization. In fiction we desire what would, in theological terms, be inadmissable: private interpretation. First, there should be room in the narrative for Merchant to make of these things what he will—in fairness, there is, but perhaps there should be more—and secondly, there should be room for the reader to make something of it, too.”

I don’t disagree in principle but in practice, particularly in this book, this becomes particularly complicated. To whit:

Much of the art in Ezekiel’s Shadow (both Katherine’s and Howard’s) are direct commentaries on Scripture. Howard is literally photographing the Bible—perhaps the most private interpretation of Scripture imaginable—while Katherine has a few sculptures that tackle specific images or portions. Including the skeleton windchime from Ezekiel.

Ian as an artist is struck by these pieces, in particular because they seem to be offering answers to questions for which he has none yet. Howard and Katherine look into the Bible and find inspiration—Ian’s a new Christian for whom much of it is baffling. And the two questions he’s seeking answers for are: Can I write horror? and Who am I if I can’t?

In the end, he finds his answer in the basement, staring at Katherine’s sculpture—which illuminates a portion of Scripture. This is art as exegesis. I think it’s what we do both as artists and admirers of art.

Mark’s real complaint is that it is too “familiar.” That I have no answer to. If it is familiar to him, I can’t argue. But I’ll offer just a couple of things:

1. I’d been a believer for four years when I started ES. This was as much an exegesis for myself as it was for Ian.

2. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think most Christians in this country are terribly clued in to the imagery of dry bones from Ezekiel. Not to say I should offer facile answers or simplistic interpretations—and I may have done just that—but I think Mark’s a victim of his own Biblical proficiency at that point.

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Let's hear your thoughts at the Discussion Board. Who's right? Dave or Mark? (And remember who theoretically could publish you. *hint*hint*)