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To Read or Not to Read: The Confessions of X

Who is X?

Confessions-Front-Cover-FinalNo, this isn’t about the new X-Men movie. This is about a mysterious character, one who has remained a question mark through many generations of readers.

Now, thanks to the imagination and research of author Suzanne M. Wolfe (Unveiling), readers have a chance to draw closer to, and gain a clearer picture of, this character — who she might have been; who, in some ways, she must have been.

Many years of blogging have taught me not to launch a new series of posts on a whim. Often, an idea that sounds good at first fizzles when set in motion. And sometimes, my schedule changes and I run out of time to sustain a series.

So I am tentatively — very tentatively — beginning this new series: “To Read or Not to Read?”

Disclaimer: It will be intermittent at best, due to the busyness of my schedule in the coming months. But I’ve been meaning, for a long time, to start serving writers and readers more directly on this website. It’s time to take a strong step in that direction.

Another disclaimer: I approach this subject with fear and trembling. Blogging is a fast-paced and often rough-drafted affair. While I’ll focus on the excellent writing of other writers, and while I’ll do my best to write these posts carefully, this is my blog. This is where I write and share things that are written hastily and spontaneously. I wish I had the luxury of time to revise and edit these posts to a point that they’re worthy of being published in print, but no — my writing life, which happens in spare moments outside of my full-time employment, does not currently afford me such time. So bear with me.

With all of the best intentions, here goes: A series focusing on the first chapters of books in my library.

Let me revise a line from Roger Ebert: My focus will not be on what the books are about — my focus will be on how those books are about their subjects. It will be about the craft of writing. I want this series to encourage readers to pay closer attention to the art of what they read (assuming that they actually read books), and to encourage writers to bring new lenses to their own writing for purposes of revision (assuming that they actually revise).

My primary questions will be these:

  • What do the opening pages of the book in question accomplish?
  • How do they accomplish it?
  • Who is the intended audience of this book, based on how it is written?
  • What can we learn about capturing readers’ attention without stooping to cheap tricks, sentimentality, or heavy-handed “shock and awe”?
  • Do we want to keep reading?
  • And if so, why?

This series is inspired by the discipline of literary annotations that I learned while earning my MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, with the guidance of my mentors: authors Paula Huston and Lauren Winner. While the 62 annotations I wrote there were more formal, and less like a first-person journal entry, they taught me to find joy in a regular ritual of reading and then writing about the craft of what I’ve read.

And I’ll begin with a book that seems like an obvious choice for the initial post…

The Confessions of X, by Suzanne M. Wolfe

Want to read an interview with author Suzanne M. Wolfe? She was interviewed by her husband Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of Image, at Image journal’s blog, “Good Letters”:  Part OnePart Two.

Want a quick glimpse of what the book is about? You can read all about it here.

But rather than focusing on a plot summary, I want to walk us into the book without any setup, just to see what we can gather from Chapter One.

If you want to get the most out of this, read Chapter One first (it’s short). You can access the text through “Look Inside” at Amazon, or via this link at Google Play.

When you’re finished, come back and read my page-by-page commentary on just how Wolfe casts a spell over her readers.

Paragraph One: The curtain lifts on a courtyard view: We see a well, and we see it through the eyes of a first-person narrator. It’s a present-tense description — this is happening now, with engaging immediacy.

A “young man in a dark tunic comes to draw water,” and soon the dogs are lapping up what’s been spilled. Thus, even before we know our narrator, we know this: Thirst. And not just thirst, but a blessing, a grace, as the dogs are only drinking because of what’s been spilled as the boy draws water.

But what do we see most vividly in this paragraph? The boy himself — his neck showing “white below the hairline, tender like the milky stems of new grass in spring.” Why is the narrator so intent on the boy? Right away, whether the reader knows it or not, the seed of a question has been planted. This narrator notices this youth, takes some tender time with details. Why? Is this boy an important character? Does he resemble someone?

The text doesn’t explain this. It’s a suggestion. It gets the imagination working. That’s what good art does. It invites participation. We begin asking questions, making guesses, collaborating with the author on image-making.

Paragraph Two: And then the boy blesses our narrator with a gift: “Here, Mother.” The intrigue deepens. Mother? He cannot be her son, for she has observed him as a stranger. But he knows who she is… and he calls her Mother. Perhaps she’s from a convent, or perhaps this is a formal title of someone known and respected.

Suzanne Wolfe previews her novel for The Chrysostom Society: chrysostomsociety.org

Suzanne Wolfe previews her novel for The Chrysostom Society: chrysostomsociety.org

Paragraph Three: Our narrator does not introduce herself formally to us. But already we are gathering information through osmosis, as events unfold. She replies to the boy “I think you, you who could be the son of my son’s son.” Aha! Her age comes into focus.

Paragraph Four: She describes a very, very old woman she once saw, with vivid physical details. “I have become that woman,” she says. Notice how effortlessly, and how creatively, the author sketches her narrator’s appearance without compromising a first-person point of view. And we might assume that this woman who is “old past counting” must be someone with all the answers.

But in Paragraph Five she humbly deflects that assumption:

When the people in the courtyard ask me what they must do in such times, I am silent; when they ask where God has gone, I am silent; when they show me the bloated bellies of their children, I look away. They think endurance is wisdom and perhaps that is so, but it is not the wisdom of men but of women, for though we live longer, history does not remember us and so we are a mystery to each generation.

Without stepping out of the specifics of her circumstances to deliver exposition, the narrator has just opened up questions that sound like they might frame the whole novel: Where is God? Why all of this suffering? Do faith and experience lead to answers?

And, perhaps more importantly: What is the wisdom of women?

Most readers will already know, going into this book, that our narrator has a history with a famous figure. But this paragraph gives us our first textual clue that this is the “confession” of a voice that has been kept offstage. In fact, we’ll find that it’s the the voice of a woman who influenced one of literature’s most famous innovators. This will be the opening of a treasure trove, a glimpse of world-changing events, of world-changing ideas, through a head and a heart that history’s male voices have neglected. In this, there is a sort of reconciliation — the provision of a puzzle’s missing pieces, and a gesture of justice and compassion in honor of a human being who was unfairly silenced. She is, in fact, the “X.”

What’s more, we may begin to guess what the author of this book is, herself, driven to explore. Suzanne Wolfe, we can safely assume, has questions on her mind, questions that require her to take imaginative measures, questions that require something more than mere reason. The “What if?” of fiction allows us to entertain possibilities in ways that mere argument cannot. We can consider speculative scenarios to see what “rings true” beyond the grasp of clinical explanation. I suspect that Wolfe herself did not know where this story would take her, or what it would reveal. Authors who are open to discovery, who perhaps undertake a novel in order to discover, often write with a contagious energy.

In the next few paragraphs, notice how gracefully we’re given a geographical and historical context without ever lifting our attention from the matters at hand, without drifting from the narrator’s immediate scenario. Notice how we begin to learn the details that have shaped her, the scars and burdens she carries.

And if there is any doubt about who this mystery of history might be, that is all but solved — at least for a well-read audience — at the bottom of Page 2:

I have come to this place to sit beneath the pear tree he planted to remind him who he is.

In the history of theology, memoir, autobiography, and philosophy, there is one pear tree that towers over the rest. It’s the pear tree that became the scene of a crime, which led to a profound evolution in the character of Saint Augustine.

And so the stage is set: The woman Augustine loved and “left behind” is our guide into this untold chapter of history, into an intimacy that Augustine’s own confessions denied us.

A note about audience: These first pages are written with eloquence, with evident research, and with a poet’s vocabulary. What can we discern about the audience for such a book? I suspect that it was not written for people who merely want to be entertained, who need constantly sensational events. I suspect that it was written for an educated audience, one that is interested in history but that can also believe that figures from centuries ago can still speak with relevance into our lives. I suspect that it is written for people who are willing to be patient as the author slowly draws them into an immersive story. I suspect that it will not appeal to readers who just want to read about young people, or about violence, or about good guys versus bad guys, or about the easily intoxicating fizz of an adolescent’s idea of love. It’s about — and for — adults who care about becoming fully human, rather than adults who want the shallow comforts of a sanitized or simplistic story.

I could stop there, but I want to highlight what happens in Paragraph Eleven, so keep reading.

An old dog makes his home in the courtyard and lies beside me when the shadows shrink to knives against the walls.

The ensuing scene finds our narrator writing with affection for this animal, one who does not fear her (perhaps because he, too, is old and suffering?), one who has been “abandoned by his master in the exodus” as she was. How does she behave with this animal? She treats him tenderly; she feeds him bread “piece by piece.” There is no mention of old Augustine, but we are already being schooled in the character of this “abandoned” woman, and how she may feel toward her famous former lover.

This is one way to develop relationships in a story: To suggest things about a character’s attitude, thoughts, and behavior toward another by a forerunner.

And I would be remiss if I closed my reflections on this chapter without highlighting just how much Wolfe’s prose wants to be read out loud. Read this line about the narrator’s lost son from Paragraph Thirteen: “Never have I loved with such rapture, that tiny body bequeathed me out of blood, a long laboring through the night and then the day coming and with it, you, my son.”

This is the voice of an eloquent and educated character, someone more learned than most women of her day. That may come as a surprise. It may hint at the revelations to come.

And what is more – there is poetry, music, in this speech. The alliteration of body, bequeathed, and blood; the rhythms of the line; the obvious and the subtle rhymes.

When we arrive at the end of this short Chapter One, we read this:

Long ago he said that when something is lost to us, its image is retained within us until we find it again. Crippled by the loss of it, the memory demands that the missing part should be restored. This I believe.

An Augustine scholar might have been tempted to begin the chapter with this — a huge idea, one that demonstrates knowledge of Augustine’s beloved memoir. But Wolfe is wise to close with it. We have been drawn in by specifics, by suggestiveness, by a scene, by characters, by beauty, by music. And now, as we arrive at this large idea about memory, loss, and longing, it feels earned. We have particulars that fill in the blanks. We feel the love within our narrator for her long lost companion, her respect for his intellect—and yet we don’t see her as a woman who exists to exalt her man. She is an individual. An equal. She has thoughts of her own and a voice worth hearing. And through her recollections, we will read Augustine’s own confessions differently.

More importantly, we will — if our conscience is awake and alert — become more inclined to seek out the voices of women on matters that have historically been left to men.

So… to read or not to read?

I don’t know about you, but I am hooked. I’m excited. So much work has been done in such a few pages. This novelist knows what she’s doing. And this novel wants to expand my understanding and my world. Let’s grow.

 

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.