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What I'm Working On and The Book of Envy
Regular readers of the Chatner may recall I spent July in Massachusetts as part of my first writer’s residency at Mastheads.
I am right in the middle of the manuscript of my first novel, Women’s Hotel. It’s a book that’s very much concerned with middleness — the middle of the century, edge cases of middle-classness, middling talent, and insufficient ambition. It’s also reminded me how very difficult it is to write a pretty-good novel.
I knew that I was unlikely to become a radically different person over the course of a three-week residency, so I planned my procrastinations in advance and even brought a few of them with me. I had a daily word count goal for Women’s Hotel I aimed to reach each day, but I had two “B” and “C” projects I could stop and switch to as often as I liked, in the hopes of funneling my need for distraction into something productive. This mostly worked, I’m glad to report, and I got a lot more done than with my usual distractions at home (walking the dogs, endlessly tidying the kitchen, Sid Meier’s Civilization 6).
I don’t yet know what will become of either the “B” or “C” projects. The first I’ve been calling my Heartburn pastiche (will there ever be a reissue of Heartburn with a halfway decent cover, I wonder?) and follows the fortunes of a very difficult older woman, who cannot keep a best friend any longer than nine years, but is desperate to try again. Writing in the third person is sometimes wearing for me, and it was so much fun to take the occasional break back into something very chatty and judgmental and first-person:
If you take a vacation with a close friend and it’s not the best goddamn time either of you have ever had in years, it was a flop, and marks the end of the good times between the two of you forever. Or if you take a vacation with a big group of friends, and at the beginning you and your best friend always pair off whenever it’s time to pair off without having to say anything about it, but by the end of the trip you’ve once or twice come down to breakfast and she’s already there talking with someone else, then it’s over, absolutely it. That might sound drastic but it’s true. I’m not controlling when it comes to my friends, and I don’t begrudge any of them breakfast with someone who isn’t me, but what I mean is that if you had the kind of friendship where you always teamed up in a group and everyone else in the group knew the two of you always teamed up, but then that suddenly changes on a group vacation and now your friend sometimes teams up with you and sometimes with other people, it’s because you’ve done or said something to lose her, or maybe you’ve failed to say or do something that would have kept her. Either way she’s eating croissants and coming up with funny nicknames for the resort waiter without you. This has happened to me more times than I can count, not that I go on a lot of group vacations to all-inclusive resorts. As it happens I think that’s sort of tacky, but I have gone on a few group vacations to a resort, because I’m perfectly willing to do something tacky once in a while if it’s for a really good friend. I’ll do almost anything for a really good friend.
The second is a sort of Salieri pastiche, about a fictional Trappist monk living at Gethsemani Abbey at the same time as the real-life Trappist monk (and our narrator’s enemy) Thomas Merton, who died under suspicious circumstances during a religious conference in Thailand in 1968. The working title (and by “working title” I mean “I have a title that I don’t like”) is The Book of Envy. I’ve never had especially strong feelings about Thomas Merton personally, but there’s always something interesting about a “famous monk,” especially one from a century that was known for one of the greatest craterings in the monk/nun population of all time, and I am always, always interested in envy.
Here’s a portion of the first chapter:
They tell me my old enemy Thomas died yesterday afternoon while getting out of the shower. I must therefore be very careful to avoid sin today. First I must avoid the obvious sin of gloating over his death and likely damnation.
To that end I pray from Proverbs, chapter 24: “When thy enemy shall fall, be not glad, and in his ruin let not thy heart rejoice,” and also Ezekiel, chapter 18: “Is it my will that a sinner should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should be converted from his ways, and live?” I confess that I have been glad to hear that he is dead, and I have rejoiced that he died in such a ridiculous fashion, because the bathroom is of all the rooms in a house the positively worst one to die in.
I confess it, but I have not simply rejoiced that he died in the bathroom out of the grudge I have for him, but also because I have sincere cause to hope this will arrest the cult that has sprung up around him from his first days at the monastery. For no saint I can think of has ever died in the bathroom, and I have long been afraid that the Pope might someday declare him a Servant of God. Which if you do not know the process of becoming a recognized saint, it is the first step, after which a candidate is declared Venerable. This does not mean the candidate is definitely in heaven already. He or she may still be subject to the refining processes of Purgatory. But being Venerable does mean that one’s life is officially considered to have been heroic in virtue. And while things might stop there – in Thomas’ case I believe they would necessarily stop there, that no Dicastery for the Causes of Saints – that is the administrative body responsible for investigating candidates for sainthood – could ever, even with the most pro-Thomistic bias imaginable, ever have beatified him – someone who has been Beatified is understood by everyone to be presently in Heaven enjoying the Blessed Vision, and entitled to receive intercessory prayer from those of us still living.
A Beatified person may appropriately receive veneration in the form of pilgrimages. One might bow or even make the sign of the cross before the tomb of a Beatified person, for example. So if Thomas were ever to be Beatified then he might draw untold numbers of people further into error in death than he ever did in life, and since he has died ignobly in a conference-room shower in Bangkok it is now very unlikely that he will ever receive Beatification, because who has ever heard of a Saint or even a merely Blessed Person who died slipping in the shower? And I have heard that he did not merely slip and hit his head against the railing, but he slipped and tried to steady himself by grabbing an electric fan, which may have had a faulty wire and possibly electrocuted him. It may be that he was not electrocuted, of course. Or it may be that he was electrocuted to a degree that would not have been fatal, but that it brought on a sudden heart attack which was fatal, but either way I have heard that the man who found his body, whose name is Father François de Grunne, saw a large floor fan lying across his midsection, which was clothed in short pajamas and must have made him look ridiculous, especially at his age which was 53, and now we are safe forever from Thomas Merton, Beatified.
It is for this reason that I think not all of my happiness is dangerous, for Proverbs, chapter 21 reminds us that “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous and terror to evildoers.” Thank you God, for my enemy has met with a shabby end, and has died in the shower. But correction is better than laughter, and mirth belongs to the heart of fools, so it is better to be edified by the image of Thomas my enemy dead in a pair of shorts than to find humor in it. But a monk should not wear short pajamas, whether in his own cell or at a conference hotel, and a man over 50 should not wear short pajamas, for even if as a young man his legs might have been what we used to call well-turned (I do not know what they might be called now as I have not had the opportunity to participate in any conversation about legs for many years now) they certainly cannot still be anything worth displaying at such an age, and would invite others to think that, as it is said in Hosea chapter 7, “Yea, grey hairs also are spread about upon him, and he is ignorant of it.”
I do not mean that I believe it is a sin for any person to wear shorts. I am not – Thomas did not have a monopoly within the brotherhood on open-heartedness, although he certainly did his best to give that impression in his public writing. For the very active, for the very young, it might be a perfectly appropriate, even wholesome, garment. I do not begrudge anyone flexibility and freedom of movement. Moreover it would be absurd to seek to impose a monastic standard on the rest of the world. It might even be wrong, not merely an error of judgment but a misuse of the will. I have no particular feelings about shorts qua shorts for the general public. Let Caesar dress Caesar. But this was ever Thomas’ besetting sin. He would ridicule, in his actions if not always in speech, our code. But who made him a monk? (Thomas would have said the voice of God.) There can be value in rebellion. I will cheerfully admit that, so long as the rebellion is pitted against the imperfect works of men. But ours is a willing and joyfully close Rule, and we chose it for the sake of perfecting our own obedience, to graft and shape our wills together in an orchard of souls. Thomas came to us in 1941, not 1190, and many doors were open to him. He might have joined the Army and worn short pajamas all his life, if he liked. For all his protestations, Thomas never really tried obedience. He took little glancing darts at it, nibbled occasionally at the bait from the corners, but never struck on the hook and impaled his spirit directly. If he had he would not have minded about the shorts. Most men in 1941 did not become monks, and the ones who did almost never had to. One makes a donation of oneself. Thomas was forever trying to make an exchange. Probably this is why God finally killed him with this fan, to force a decision one way or the other.
The other sin I must be careful to avoid today is that of superstition, which is fundamentally a misattribution of cause and effect. I must not attribute Thomas’ droll, wet death to my own efficacy. I did not cause him to die either by doubting or disliking him, and none of my prayers, not even the silent and implicit ones, which still count when it comes to measuring sin, have ever been for him to slip and fall and be electrocuted during a conference in Thailand, nor even for him to die of sudden, natural causes. I hated him, and he died, but he did not die because I hated him.
For even if I had prayed for him to die God would never have answered such a prayer, as it is said in James, chapter 4, in the warning against pride, “You covet, and have not: you kill and covet and cannot obtain. You contend, and war, and you have not: because you ask not. You ask and receive not, because you ask wrongly, that you may spend it on your passions.” I did not pray that he would die, first because it would be wrong to do so, would wrongly ascribe to divine perfection my own human failings, and second because it is not efficacious. If I had prayed that he would die, I would have only hurt myself. As I say, I did not pray for him to die even once, but I cannot deny that I have often hated him, and that I am very glad that he is dead today. Therefore part of me is at risk of misattributing this glorious good death to my own personal power, or even as a sign of God’s favor. Just because God was (likely) displeased with Thomas (I say “likely” not because I doubt God’s goodness but because it is important not to believe God always dislikes the things one dislikes oneself) and killed him while he was wearing shorts and looking ridiculous instead of dressed correctly like a monk does not necessarily mean that God is pleased with me. The best thing that a monk can look like, when he is dressed like a monk, is himself; the worst a monk can look like, when he is dressed like a college boy on summer holidays, is an old fool. But a point against Thomas is not in effect a point for myself, is what I mean.
I don’t yet know what all this will shape into later; I’m looking for more writing work these days and trying to come up with a reasonable schedule for the next few books, which is both daunting and exciting. I’ll leave you with these choose-your-own-adventure options:
To see the BEST-FRIENDLESS WOMAN caustically describe more SOCIAL RITUALS, press A.
To see the SPITEFUL MONK investigate the death of SPIRITUAL BESTSELLER THOMAS MERTON, press B.
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Alternately, of course, tell me what books you think I ought to write next in the comments, and I’ll add ‘em to the list.
You should apply for next year residency if you have a mind to! It’s terrific.