Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ockham's Razor: A Review

I'm not a big fan of fiction. I will occasionally read literary classics like The Brothers Karamazov or the Divine Comedy or The Lord of the Rings (does that count as a "classic"?), especially if they are of historical importance, or if they deal with theological or philosophical themes I'm interested in. More rarely, I'll read a novel that a family member or friend has given me as a Christmas gift, just to please them. (I managed to make it through the first Twilight book for that reason, but haven't been able to work myself up to the point of picking up any of the others that have been sitting on my book shelf for coming on three Christmases now.) Given a choice, I'd almost always rather bury myself in history or theology or scripture (Jewish or Christian or Mormon or Gnostic or Mayan or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim... you name it).

All the same, I found Ockham's Razor, a fictional account of the relationship between two gay Mormons, by Alan Michael Williams, to be a gem, a little masterpiece. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down until I had finished, and I am certain it will haunt me for long after I turned the last page. The characters are vivid and believable, and the story powerful and almost perfectly told. And like all truly great stories, it leaves you at the end unsettled, with a few really good questions and no answers but those you must work to supply yourself.

I suppose it bears asking -- since the novel enters the philosophically and theologically fraught engagement between homosexuality and Mormonism -- whether a good novel can have a philosophy or a theology. Perhaps a novel should by definition have only the viewpoints, philosophies and theologies of its characters. Only a poor novelist would force his views on the reader by making its characters speak only for the author instead of for themselves. And so, in a good novel with realistically drawn, believable characters, if important perspectives appear to be missing, one can acknowledge that a novel can only be the story of the characters it is about, and an author is not obliged to tell a story from the perspective of a character the novel is not about. I felt some important perspectives were missing from this novel, but I still found the conversation carried on in the pages of the novel worth listening in on, and I found myself speaking back to the story, and in turn being interrogated by it. And a story must be well written indeed to do that, so congratulations to the author are in order.

The story of Ockham's Razor revolves around two gay Mormons. Micah never really believed in Mormonism, and left the LDS Church as a teenager, but still engages it because it is the religion he was brought up in and is the religion of his family. Brendan wavers between belief and unbelief, and wrestles to make sense of the apparent clash between his feelings of same-sex attraction and the teachings of the Church. Both characters long to find a place of belonging. Micah believes he has found his sense of belonging in an intimate relationship with Brendan. Brendan must ultimately choose whether to find his sense of belonging in Micah or in the LDS Church. In the process, each character wrestles in his own way with questions related to choice and determinism, isolation and connection, absolutes and relativity, addiction and health, normality and perversity, lust and love.

Gay Mormons are portrayed in the novel as occupying a space that is of necessity liminal. "Every gay person in the LDS Church is fated to float in doubt and skepticism," the main character, Micah, editorializes. Apparently, part of the doubt and skepticism in which we must float is the question of whether "gay" is even a valid category; though there must be some reason we identify ourselves as "gay" enough to be condemned also to float in doubt and skepticism in relation to the faith that might otherwise serve as the ground of our existence. I've seen gay Mormons all across the theological spectrum "float in" and wrestle with both kinds of doubt.

But if we are "fated to float in doubt and skepticism" for at least some portion of our lives (and I have not yet met one of us who hasn't), we can't remain in that state forever. We are ultimately forced to find a harbor somewhere, to make a faith for ourselves and choose a path. And it seems that the choice must always be one pole or the other, either to embrace one's gayness or to embrace one's Mormon-ness, but never both. To be sure, at one point in the novel, Micah urges Brendan to
Choose the center path. Be Mormon and gay. ...[I]t's like meeting fate half way.
But Micah urges this path on his friend Brendan only because he (correctly) senses that Brendan will not be able to abandon his Mormon-ness. He himself rejects such a middle path by utterly rejecting Mormonism. He never seriously gives Mormonism a chance. Ultimately he's offended and infuriated by the choice to be Mormon, and finds it incomprehensible; just as Brendan, in the end, can only deal with his gayness through denial and selective amnesia.

This was my greatest disappointment in the novel. Attempts to reconcile being gay with a genuine Mormon faithfulness never move out of the realm of the philosophical and the abstract, such as Micah's attempts to argue that not all souls must, of necessity, be heterosexual in the eternities. Such arguments come across as disingenuous, presented as they are by a character who never seriously considers embracing Mormonism. They would have a completely different resonance had they been presented by Brendan, the character who ultimately commits to Mormonism. But Brendan is presented as incapable of asking these kinds of questions. Unfortunately, Brendan's relapse into Mormonism (it is presented almost as a kind of psychological break) is portrayed as a frantic kind of denial rather than a rational choice deserving the kind of respect that Micah expects for his insistence on loving Brendan.

To the author's credit, neither choice is presented as unproblematic. Micah describes Brendan as "broken," and Brendan seems to acknowledge the truthfulness of that assessment. But Micah also comes across as desperate, lost and broken in his own way, and admits, "I'm barely happy with myself." The closest he comes to any spiritual path at all is toying with a pop-psychology version of Buddhism, whose primary merit appears to be that it "doesn't have absolutes." Neither character achieves a place of groundedness or happiness. The novel ends with both wrestling with varying degrees of doubt. And while there are characters -- Micah's mother, for instance -- who seem certain that groundedness and happiness are possible for gay people within Mormonism, we don't see examples of gay people achieving it.

I found the novel powerful because of its realism. The characters in the novel, and their perceptions and struggles, were real. But these were characters for whom doubt is more real than faith. Even Brendan, who chooses faith, does so more out of neurosis and insecurity than out of hope. Where is God in this? Where is the "I-Thou" encounter that sustains faith over the long haul?

I loved this book. I loved the questions it asked. I loved the emotions I felt. I was grateful for the light it shone on my own choices and challenges, though quite different from both of the main characters. It's worth reading, and I hope many, many others will. If you are gay, or Mormon, or neither, there are wonderful moments in the novel that bear witness of beauty and truth and humanity and love.

I should caution that there are a number of sexually explicit scenes in the novel. Alan has argued that the scenes are necessary because they reveal important things about the characters, and advance the story in important ways. I tend to agree. The novel explores the intersection between body and spirit, between physicality and relationship and meaning, and exploring how sex relates to all these things is an important and legitimate part of what the novel is trying to achieve.

Nevertheless, unfortunately (and ironically), the very difficulty of sorting these things out means that sexually explicit material in the novel will make it inaccessible to some of those who could benefit most by reading it. In an important scene in the novel, Brendan cries out in distress and anger that sex between him and Micah came "too soon! How could you not have known it was too soon?" And I wonder if the same isn't true of the sex in the novel. Not everyone will be ready for it. Perhaps Alan will someday feel it worth telling a story that explores these same themes in a way that can be accessed by devout Mormon family members or friends, or gay men or lesbians who need to explore these issues more gently, and with more diligent exploration of what it means to find faith (and not just grasp ineffectually at it). If anyone could do it well, Alan Michael Williams could.


Coming soon: a review of Jonathan Langford's No Going Back.

1 comment:

alan said...

Thanks very much for this review. I wanted to let it sit for a while before I said as much.

I also wanted to say that the queer Mormon essay I'm working on will officially show up in Dialogue (Spring 2011 issue). I'm excited to throw it into the world.