Reviewed by S.T. Brant
300 pp Fortress Press
Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, the new collection of critical essays by Nick Ripatrazone, found me at a dark time and consoled me with its powerful and paradoxical meditations. There can be great power in tradition, as I picked up from Ripatrazone, even if it’s a tradition you have fallen away from or no longer profess to adhere to; tradition, especially one that you grew up in, never leaves you, even if you leave it; it remains a North Star in your conscience that is guiding you throughout life. Paradox, the great tool of all religious thought, Ripatrazone notes, is inextricable with Catholicism. He brings up Ignatius of Loyola, one of the founders of the Jesuits, as an example of the comforts of paradox, teaching us that the Ignatian spirit is to “find God in all things.” You can find God in something, and then discover God in the negation of that something.
The subtitle of the book, Faith and Doubt, then is a coalescence of that very point: faith is clear. If you have faith, you have some notion of the Promised Land and have the compass to lead you there. What if you are in doubt? You’re no less on the path to God than the faithful! In fact, you and the faithful walk side by side, if you would only look around. In this way Ripatrazone is able to link devout Catholics like Flannery O’Connor, Ron Hansen, and Alice McDermott with writers whose imagery and symbolism are Catholic by upbringing, or assimilation into the tradition despite themselves having fallen from devotion, or branched into an idiosyncratic union with God, such as Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy. God is equally within Flannery O’Conner as he is in the most God-abandoned world that McCarthy envisions; God is as forceful in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory as God is a force in the tradition that links the generations of brutality exhumed and indicted in Morrison’s Beloved. The absent God is the present God, and, discomfortingly, vice versa.
In this book, Ripatrazone’s essays cover an introduction that sets up Catholicism, going over many of the tenets and practices to help guide the reader through many of the customs and symbols analyzed throughout; he also uses the introduction as a brief touchstone for DeLillo, who will later be the individual focus of an essay, and pairs him with a devout Catholic, Ron Hansen, beautifully taking the reader through Hansen’s book Mariette in Ecstasy. Hansen presents us with a theology within his fiction that’s germane to all the other writers that will be discussed, which is that symbol is simultaneous with substance, which can be summed up, theologically, as “God is not abstraction or artifact.” Metaphor is not simply abstraction or an artifact of language. Rather, all figurations embody their abstractions in a way that produce in language a presence. “Language is God,” Hansen says; Symbol and substance are a “single consciousness” in the Catholic canon.
Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor follow with the true first chapter. We are introduced to corruption, grotesquery, to “the nature and limits” of belief as Greene states, to sin and suffering, and how all these very unvirtuous words amount to transcendence. What O’Connor learned from Greene, she says, is that, “the friends of God suffer,” which is something she explores thoroughly in her fiction, specifically the story Ripatrazone spends a great deal of time on, “Parker’s Back,” where the only road you can take toward transcendence is one on which you suffer greatly.
Walker Percy, most famous for his novel The Moviegoer, was a philosophical Catholic. Flannery O’Connor appreciated Percy and described the vision of his writing as an edification for us that “we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations.” Without a sense of something that can transcend limits, it is a tragic life to have an inner fire in you that feel is already burning at the limit, that there are peaks to your existence which you cannot crest, that all of your powers, practice, and devotion will ultimately lead you to a stopping point no matter the resistance of your will.
I remember reading Harold Bloom, in a reference to Hamlet, mention that charisma is our power over nature, which I’ve always found comforting (despite lacking any outward charisma) because all notion of limitation distresses me. Ripatrazone astutely references O’Connor frequently when trying to parse the vision of Percy because she saw it clear. She offers a good summation of the fiction of Percy and Andre Dubus: “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it.” Lacking hope, I find mortality (limitation) a despairing quality; by the end of the chapter I wasn’t able to come around to Dubus’s grand claim (though I wish I were able to) that “art is always affirmative, because it shows we can endure being mortal,” but Ripatrazone has done much to soothe the natural lamentation of my spirit.
Two of the authors Ripatrazone focuses on, DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, have a quality of the hurly-burly to their fiction, a confrontration with our restless age. An “entropic world” were Ripatrazone’s words about Pynchon’s world, referring specifically to The Crying of Lot 49, but suitably apt for Pynchon’s whole cosmology. Sharing in that “entropic world” is DeLillo, whose “constant literary tension [is] between the man in the crowd and the man alone in a room.” In a world that is endlessly moving, Ripatrazone teaches a very important lesson that you pick up on simply from reading him: patience, going slowly. Ripatrazone is a very skilled reader, necessarily a skilled thinker, and what you pick up on in these essays is how diligent a reader he is: you can imagine yourself in the room with him as he’s lighting upon revelations, making careful notes, and then sitting in contemplation while he works his way through what he read. Aside from the lessons in Catholicism and the valuable criticism of how Catholicism has shaped contemporary American fiction, Ripatrazone teaches us how to read, which is something that all good criticism should do. Teaching is something that clearly comes natural to him.
Still writing about DeLillo, Ripatrazone stresses this exact point in going over Catholic Mass and how DeLillo seems to have made collegiate football into Mass in his End Zone, “The concept of ritual: learned, practiced movements whose repetition instills a heightened sense.” This ritual isn’t reserved for the practice of Mass or football drills, but can be something each of exports for our own lives toward any activity we care about: finding a way to turn energy into contemplation, where activity and stillness coincide. I remember when I worked at Baskin-Robbins, the repetitiveness of the duties, especially closing, allowed me to perform them almost unconsciously—my mind was never on the task at hand because it didn’t need to be, the motion was automatic, but the mind, the spirit were elsewhere. While the body exercised in space, the mind was adrift in time, roaming through whatever it was I was trying to work out.
One essential that Ripatrazone outlines in his book is the soil of the fiction of his chosen writers. Their Catholicism serves to grow their ideas, provides them a bed, so they know the space they have to work with, and how much room to allot each thought for it to fully form. That backbone for trope is a structure, a guide, I didn’t realize I missed until reading Longing for an Absent God, but it struck home, reflecting on flaws I’ve been beginning to pick up on in my own writing. Sometimes I go wild with metaphors; I lack a symbolic continuity, so I often fail to take a single metaphor to its limit. I’ve never distinguished between trope and God, and I long for one longing for the other. The word has always been word to me. If I could find the right word, God would be there.
Morrison and McCarthy each receive their own essays, and they are writers who I found most relevant to personal needs of mine (what Emerson said was the God within responding to the God without). Morrison referred to herself as Catholic in a 2014 interview, after many ebbs and flows in that relationship, though, as Ripatrazone documents, there’s always been a great deal of heterodoxy involved, and Catholicism played an indelible role in shaping her “radical approach to the body,” because of its intense charge of “sensory detail, performance, and story,” qualities that naturally blended with African-American culture. Morrison said that “black people never annihilate evil…they accept it… like a fourth dimension in their lives.” McCarthy, a lapsed Catholic, but a cultural Catholic from birth, shares in Ripatrazone’s closing on Morrison, “The fiction of lapsed Catholic writers suggests a longing for spiritual meaning.” McCarthy utilizes throughout his books established symbols in the Catholic canon to imbue his novels with metaphysical power; this working within a tradition offers him the opportunity to be verbally inventive and offer us “the gravity of eternity” in his very earthly settings.
Louise Erdrich is the focus of Chapter Seven, “Two Cultures, Two Faiths,” where we are taken through how Erdrich assimilates her Catholic and Ojibwe identities into her fiction and how each of these faiths fuse to create a seamless construction of character and narrative. The concluding chapter, “Literary Faith in a Secular Age,” is dedicated to Alice McDermott and Phil Klay, Catholic writers that give us that Ignatian idea of God in all things, despite the godlessness of the age they write in. McDermott teaches us our inextricable place in the universe, that we settled in a History of the world. Despite the world’s ceaseless changes (for McDermott, an increasing secularity) time remains “a tight circle,” so no matter how far we seem to fall from the light, our Home will catch our fall. We will not be abandoned to the Void. Klay teaches us that prayer “will not protect you;” rather your “relationship with God” is what’s crucial, which tells us that it’s not ceremony but intention that is worthwhile, that in an age of performance, purity of heart still reigns.
There are times when the intensity of nothingness rests upon all sense of being and purpose and crushes your direction, confidence, meaning, moments of supreme negation when you haven’t the power to parry thrusts of worthlessness; your dreams have become a porous, sinking thing, and all you can do is witness their submission to the depths, time when what love you have for others, for life, turns into a taunting goblin in your soul pillaging your assurances, leaving you a burning city where love was home. It is on dark wings we fly through darkness into Grace. The Catholic rhetorical structure, its customs, offer a bridge between you and meaning, you and Power; offer guidance, help, Mercy, which I often envision maternally: the lips of Time coming to kiss and heal your inner wounds. When dark flights take you up you could save yourself if you had some tradition to comfort yourself that up is where you want to go, rather than into a solipsistic spirituality that locates the inferno all around you.
In those moments I have found myself meditating on Catholicism as I learned it from Ripatrazone and faced regrets about lacking it. There is immense value in Ripatrazone’s book, regardless of your faith. You come away appreciating silence, stillness, and systemization; you come away more reflective and hopeful. Writers rarely work in certitudes, so whether or not God can be found will always be a personal journey, but this book will help you along your journey toward yourself, teaching you to read and to reflect, to slow the world down and find some harmony in entropy.
S.T. Brant is a teacher from Las Vegas. They have publications in or coming from Door is a Jar, Santa Clara Review, New South, Rejection Letters, Quail Bell, Dodging the Rain, La Piccioletta Barca, Cathexis Northwest Press, and a few others. You can find them on Twitter @terriblebinth or Instagram @Shanelemagne.