Tag Archives: literature

Feast of Laughter 3

Feast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. LaffertyFeast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. Lafferty by Ktistec Press, R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Welcome to the feast of laughter. The banquet has been set, the feast is open, endless, varied, and delicious– if you want rich fare and strong drink. Yet the banqueters are few. One of the opening (reprinted) essays of this, the third volume of a festschrift of sorts to the wild, wonderful, and largely neglected author R. A. Lafferty, sets out the imagery: those (in this volume and elsewhere) who have discovered and celebrate Lafferty’s works are the Family of the Empty Hall.

If this is true, I’m struggling to find a metaphor for what the third volume of Feast of Laughter is. It’s more than a toast given in one of the echoing corners of the hall. It is, perhaps, a congregation of fellow discoverers gathered around a table, in the light of a sputtering flame, discussing, sharing, tasting what they have found.

Feast of Laughter is now in its third volume, and rumor has it the indefatigable editors are putting together a fourth. Once was an event and twice a happy coincidence, but three times seems to imply we’ve struck a vein of precious ore (to abruptly switch metaphors here) and are following it out, mining it through, bringing to light as much of the rich writings and life of the spooky old man from Oklahoma as possible.

So what have we found this time around? Here we have another (thicker) collection of essays, analysis, correspondence, interview, and imitation of Lafferty. Some of it, as with previous volumes, is original, some reprinted from hard to find sources. Most all of it is pretty good.

Yet it’s also for a closed audience, of sorts. That’s not to say there’s anyone who would be unwelcome to the feast. But it is to say if you’re new to Lafferty you don’t necessarily want to start with this (though the volume does include two of Lafferty’s own stories, including “The Configuration of the Northern Shore,” which I’ve always found especially haunting). Rather, you want Lafferty himself first un-distilled and uninterpreted (perhaps by dipping into one of the three or four collected volumes of his fiction out or forthcoming from Centipede Press). But if you’ve read him and are bemused or enchanted, maybe a little confused or delightfully bewildered, and you want to get at his work from other eyes and angles, this is where you want to be.

Literary analysis is not necessarily my thing, and I find often find myself most annoyed with essays that repute to explain the deeper meanings of some of my favorite authors (some of the recent work on Gene Wolfe immediately springs to mind). But what I enjoyed about this volume is that several pieces focused on Lafferty’s novels, including interpretations or reprinted forwards for The Devil is Dead, Fourth Mansions, The Annals of Klepsis, and at least a few on Past Master, I found these quite helpful in approaching works that have seemed (and sometimes remain) a bit of a tangled thicket to me, even as I’m enjoying pushing through them. Reading these pieces helped me catch the things I had missed and see overall structures and themes click into place.

As far as the included correspondence and interviews, these are priceless and help Lafferty come alive, especially useful for those of us who discovered him after his time. The exchange with Alan Dean Foster, brief as it is, reveals much of Lafferty’s character and whets the appetite for the rumored forthcoming biography.

And then there is the part where people do their own stories inspired by the master. These are a nice garnish to the main course, but not really central to the feast (and I of course include my own contribution in this judgement). The two that stand out are “People are Strange” by Christopher Blake, which to me felt most clearly like a Lafferty homage, and J Simon’s “Bone Girl,” the best original piece in this collection, which could have easily found a home in any professional market and here really makes the rest of us look better just by being alongside it.

Flip the magazine over. There, on the back cover, is an image of the famous Door to Lafferty’s office. There’s a lot to be said (and a lot probably will be said) about this particular door, but this image alone is what you need to know about the man if you need to be convinced his words (and books like this filled with words about his words) are worth you time. It’s covered with clippings of art, diagrams, stickers, captions, and paintings in a contained sort of organized fractal. But totally covered so you can barely see a single spot of wood. Imagine walking down a hallway of doors (I don’t actually know where Lafferty’s office was– home or business or whatever) and seeing one like this.

Imagine the kind of guy who would be waiting on the other side.

Crack the cover, and come on in to meet him . . .

Invaders

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of LiteratureInvaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does it mean to write science fiction? On some level, it means writing stories that get published in magazines featuring artistically-depicted spaceships and robots on their covers. It’s creating content involving science or at least scientific ideas playing out in new and interesting directions. It remains relevant because of the ways science continues to inform who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going.

Who’s writing important science fiction today? Things get a bit fuzzier here, because though there are certainly people (a lot of people) doing wonderful, interesting things inside the genre universe, sometimes it seems very few of them bleed out into more mainstream or “literary” waters—by which I mean publishing works in broader magazines or winning literary prizes not named after celestial objects or science fiction editors.

It’s a bit easier to see things going the other direction: important literary or mainstream authors venturing into genre territory. That’s what makes a collection like Jacob Weisman’s Invaders possible. If you think you know science fiction, or you want to get to know science fiction, or you want a new, sophisticated take on some of the angles you’ve poured over in the pulps, here’s an anthology to note.

Invaders encompasses twenty-two short stories, only a few of which are by established genre writers or originally appeared in genre magazines but all of which explore familiar aspects of science fiction in original ways. The tropes are all here—mad scientists, alien encounters, post-apocalyptic wastelands, sex-bots—borrowed from the pages of the pulps and filtered through the imaginations of some of the top mainstream writers working today. (I started to make a list of all the different awards listed in these author bios—because a guy likes to dream, you know?—and had reached forty before the list was complete.)

These stories are better than good. They’re sharp, subtle, and unfailingly well-crafted. Sure, some lack the excitement and straightforward pizzaz you might expect from magazines in which the editors are tasked primarily to entertain. Yet even these, such as J. Robert Lennon’s “Portal,” Max Apple’s “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky,” and Kelly Luce’s “Amorometer” are still lovely and mysterious. There are think pieces in here as well, like Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” or Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”. There are also two stories that take what may be the most tired science fiction trope of all, the alien encounter, and make it something new without actually doing anything different but by writing with a style that makes them positively luminous. I’m thinking, of course, of “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss and “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler.

This stuff is science fiction as literature. These are stories written by artists who have abducted the genre for their own designs. They’re haunting, pristine, and sometimes devastating.

And then there are the pieces that are a whole lot better than good. Even if every other story in this collection had been a dud (and none of them are), four stories in here would still make Invaders completely worth the read. I’m thinking here specifically of Julia Elliott’s “LIMBs,” which tells a smart and heart-breaking story of geriatrics and technological advance, as well as love and aging; Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “We Are the Olfanauts,” a piece about personal sacrifice and the cost of success in a bizarre but strangely believable interpretation of the internet; and “Monstro” by Junot Diaz, which is somehow Akira meets Attack on Titan set in the Caribbean and told with a linguistic flare I could never hope to emulate or capture.

Finally, there is George Saunder’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” which wherever it was published (it was the New Yorker), genre or not, embodies what makes both great science fiction and great storytelling. It’s clean, simple, and as brutally efficient as a razor. I think, from now on, my writing prayer might simply be, “God, help me write a story as good as this one.” “Spiderhead” is the story of an idea just over tomorrow’s horizon taken to its unexpected and yet in retrospect unavoidable conclusion in language spare and merciless with characters simple and agonizingly real.

If you like science fiction that makes you think, and if you like stories told by writers who are masters of their craft, who use language as both a tool and a palette, this is the anthology you’ve been looking for.

If you’re already familiar with great science fiction authors who fit this description but are looking to expand your horizons further, you’re also looking for this book.

Now, my question: would it be possible to do this trick backward? That is, could you create an anthology of “genre” authors, writers who primarily work in science fiction and are not well known beyond it, that contains works of theirs falling outside the traditional boundaries of science fiction? Invaders is an anthology of literary authors writing science fiction; could we have a similar anthology of science fiction authors writing literature? (I think we could, and I can name a few writers who would almost certainly be in it, but I’ll save that for another post.)

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One (completely inappropriate) way to read this book is as a zombie book. It’s a book about Patient Zero and the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. In fairness to this theory, it has several of the expected elements: the cataclysmic ending and the struggle for survival, the setting in the hot, thick swamps of south Florida, in the midst of the drama the fateful but at the time apparently minor bite, the strange symptoms, the descent into rage, and the possible spread of the infection. In this (absolutely incorrect) interpretation, Janie does not survive the fate of her husband Tea Cake; she carries the infection back with her to the village they left behind and the true horror begins after the book’s conclusion.

But that’s of course absolutely not what this book is about. I don’t think Zora Neale Hurston had zombies in mind when she wrote in the late 1930s. And even though rabies makes a brief and horrific appearance, Hurston isn’t that interested in exploring the terror of this infection (likely the inspiration for lots of zombie and zombie spin-off stories). Instead it’s simply the melancholy end of what for the novel’s main character has been a life of deferred hopes and frustrated imaginings.

Janie is a black girl living in Florida in the early days of the twentieth century. Her grandmother still remembers when the slaves were freed. But the book isn’t about the relationship between races as much as it is the relationship between blacks. The longest discussion on race that takes place in the book is a dialogue Janie has with a black woman who is prejudice against the more “negroid” members of their own people “holding them back” from integration with white society.

Janie’s world is a world on the periphery though, and that periphery is defined by race. Her childhood begins with being raised with white children and only learning to her surprise that she was black, at which point society dictates separation. Her second husband rises to power as the mayor of an all-black community and spends his life trying to create a society that mirrors white society, a separate community in the Florida wastes on the fringes but with all the trappings of a commercial white city: a thriving store and a large house, street lights, industry. To do so though he must constantly clamp down on the traditional black culture that keeps cropping up like a weed, to his frustration and Janie’s growing alienation.

Finally, Janie finds herself and her third husband on the absolute fringes, working cane fields at the edges of the Everglades, the “Muck,” staying over seasons while migrant workers come and go. It’s in this society though, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures only an anthropologist could sort out (and this is exactly what Hurston was), that Janie finds the joy and freedom she never had before. Ultimately though, the racial lines are drawn most sharply in the final scenes, when Janie stands trial for her third husband’s fate.

The thread that weaves this all together is Janie herself: a woman who is searching for freedom. She wakes to herself beneath a pear tree (the cover of this edition and perhaps the most iconic scene of the book). She’s married off by her grandmother to a gruff old farmer and then runs away with a man who evolves into a small-town dictator. She finally finds the freedom she’s looking for in Tea Cake, with whom she shares years at the dizzy edge of existence before it’s turned upside down by a hurricane and a bite from a rabid dog.

It was an easy book to read, but it felt dated. I felt that Hurston went a bit too easy on me. That is, I was set up for the difficult twists and turns Janie would experience, and she does, but it’s all told in a sedate, matter-of-fact way. Even the eventual fate of Tea Cake, which in a modern book it seems would be full of riveting, harrowing detail, seems softened, like we’re with Janie remembering back on this years later now that the details have been blurred by time.

The language was stunning throughout. This was especially effective juxtaposed with Hurston’s dialogue. Her characters speak in thick Floridian accents (or what I have to imagine are Floridian accents), and she writes this out phonetically so that it actually takes a bit of getting used to to read what her characters are saying. But it means you know how they’re saying it. And her narration throughout is luminous. There are expressions that catch you with their beauty in the same way that Janie wakened to life beneath the pear tree.

Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first significant accomplishment of my “affirmative action” fiction reading plan for the year. I would have eventually gotten around to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven, but I probably would never have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had I not made a conscious effort this year to read fiction written by minorities. I poled several literary friends on suggestions via Facebook, and this one was at the top of multiple lists.

It was a difficult read, and part of that was probably the point. Ellison’s prose is vivid, almost too vivid, and at times I was overwhelmed with the shear volume of description. He makes you see everything with a cinematographic vision, focusing in on color, sound, texture, and description until the tableau snaps into focus in your mind as though you’re staring a screen. This is especially effective in his description of crowds in the city or of tumultuous scenes of action or disorder. Ellison can describe a march, a mass meeting, and a riot with an almost painful slow-motion exactitude.

It was this slow-motion exactitude that made the book an grueling read in places. Because the plot itself was rather slow and meandering, the places where it slowed down, heavy-laden with description, were sometimes a painfully vivid slog. The story on one level quite simple: a black man whose name is never given (similar somewhat to Swanwick’s bureaucrat in Stations of the Tide) trying to find his place in the world. Yet the point of the book, and Ellison’s genius in describing it, also contributed to making the book a difficult read. I kept trying to put the narrator into my own framework of a clear and upward narrative or personal progression. For an “effective novel,” my mind seemed to keep telling me– or at least my expectations kept waiting for– we’d see the hero conquer personal and exterior difficulties and arrive at a new position of status and success.

But this was frustrated over and over again throughout the novel. From the narrator’s original fall from grace at the southern black college where the book begins to his ultimate disillusionment with the socialist Brotherhood in which he has gained a position in Harlem in the novel’s second half, he– and my narrative sensibilities– are continually stymied. Throughout, I found myself frustrated more with the narrator himself than the situations in which he found himself: he was constantly second-guessing what people thought or expected of him, constantly trying to make himself the person he felt particular social groups or situations expected of him. And then it hit me that this was exactly Ellison’s point and the reason this novel was so significant: this was the story of so many black men in the decades after the Second World War.

It gets a bit at the concept of awkwardness Adam Kotsko discussed in his monograph by the same name. Ellison’s character is constantly awkward: he doesn’t know what is expected of him, he’s constantly stepping into situations– between different social classes in the south, between union and management in the north, between the people and those who represent them in Harlem, between white women and their sexual perceptions of black men– where there simply aren’t social rules for governing interactions. Or where, he keeps believing until his revelation at the novel’s conclusion, he simply doesn’t know them. But that’s the point: this is a world in which a black man has to completely invent himself or forever be at the mercy of other’s expectations. It’s a world in which he doesn’t have a place.

This is a novel about looking through the eyes of others. And it’s uncomfortable, because it makes me realize how my own assumptions about progress, about what works and what doesn’t both dramatically and socially, simply don’t map onto other situations, other experiences, other social and ethnic and cultural groups. The narrator’s experiences portray life for a black man in both the south and the north, portray its frustration, disjoint, and in some respects its sheer randomness.

The narrator first buys into the mode of progress and education represented by his southern black college and the inspired example of its president; when he realizes the futility of this, he attempts to make it in the industrialized north. Eventually he finds a place as an orator and community organizer, but even here he comes to realize that people are less interested in him than how they can use him. Maybe that’s a realization ultimately true for people everywhere, but in the awkwardness and social chaos the narrator has moved through– a constantly shifting landscape in which the default social relationship has been exploitation– it’s a shattering one. No one truly sees him. He is invisible.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frustrations can lead to rash actions. Regardless of how one feels about the frustrations boiling up in cities like Boston and Ferguson and the resulting actions, my white, middle-class frustrations in response were largely regarding my own lack of comprehension. Here I am, surrounded in a comfortable middle-class environment by a bunch of comfortable, middle-class friends and family. I don’t have a good understanding the frustrations of others. I don’t have a grasp at any significant level of what it must be like to be a minority living and working in America.

Then I looked at the fiction I was reading and realized it was more of the same: it wasn’t helping me reach any sort of understanding of minority perspectives. My books are like my friends: a bunch of white guys I love to death. But not terribly diverse. So I made what may have been a rash decision. It’s certainly a decision that looks kind of pathetic in light of the backdrop of unrest in which it was made. But it’s a step, and one has to start somewhere. I decided for the rest of the year I would start reading works of fiction exclusively by minority voices. Call it an affirmative action program for my own reading list, a way to swing the balance a bit from a life of reading in which Harper Lee and Flannery O’Conner were about the extent of my diversity.

(Note I say “start”– this allows me to finish the couple novels I’ve already begun by old white guys, and it doesn’t hold me to finish a novel if I pick a few duds. I should be able to be colorblind when it comes to not finishing crappy writing. But it does mean I finally get off my metaphorical butt and read some of the things people have been telling me to read for quite a while.)

The first book on my list was Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which had been recommended by a friend and which I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. I’ve read several works of nonfiction on the Native American narrative in North America, and I was told Alexie was the person to read if I wanted a view into the life of contemporary Native American society. (Alexie uses the term “Indian.” I’ve been taught that this isn’t a politically correct term to use, but is it more awkward using a term they don’t use for themselves? This is an excellent example of the awkwardness Adam Kotsko discusses in his book Awkwardness where fear of causing offense presents an additional barrier to dialogue across social or ethnic divisions.)

Lone Ranger and Tonto is the collection of short stories that rocketed Alexie, a Spokane Indian who grew up on a reservation in Washington state, to the national spotlight. Alexie’s “reservation realism” is supposed to capture aspects of the essence of life for Native American youth today. The stories are spare, sad, and for the most part revolve around the day-to-day frustrations, disappointment, and lost wonder of Alexie’s generation. The characters drink, fight, play basketball. Portions, Alexie admits, are autobiographical in some sense. Fatherhood is a common theme throughout, both on the side of sons losing their fathers and– in what I thought were two of the most powerful pieces of the collection, “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”– becoming fathers with varying degrees of reluctance.

Yet I had to keep reminding myself these weren’t white people. I don’t know if that means I’m colorblind or that I have difficulty extricating my own racial prejudices in visualization when I read. On some level, Lone Ranger and Tonto seemed a collection of windows into the lives of people my peers used to call “white trash”– living with nowhere to go in trailer parks, watching days pass without aim or intent. It was only when Alexie reminded me with descriptions of ribbon shirts or the color of skin or braids or references to pow-wows that I switched the colors in my mind. I’m not sure what this means.

For the most part, Lone Ranger and Tonto is a collection of haunting stories, tinged with despair and yet also beauty. It’s the beauty of a bleak field, of peeling paint, of the winter sky and bare branches. It’s the stories of a community stripped of hope and purpose, a community unrooted and lost even as it has absorbed the Diet Pepsi, diabetes, television, and alcohol of the culture in which has been lost. Yet the parts where it seemed most “Indian,” most indicative of a different view of the world, are the parts where the narrative is least realistic, least straightforward. It’s where the narrative veers toward magical realism or even surrealism, as in the post-apocalyptic dreamscape that pervades the middle of the volume. In that particular story (and more subtly throughout) we get the reminder that in some sense the reservation is already post-apocalyptic: these are the survivors of a culture that was utterly overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and transformed beyond recognition. They’re all survivors here.

In these narratives, where the Western realism slips, we seem to get a glimpse into the mind of another culture. And here’s where I must tread carefully, because on the one hand a work like this shows us how similar we all really are; yet on the other hand the work– I think– can illustrate how unlike we are as well. Not that race need divide, but that culture informs our perception of the world, and straightforward narrative prose seems a dominantly Western approach. Alexie at times approaches something that I think Lafferty (himself not an Indian) accomplished in his work Okla Hannali: a story told in the way you half-believe a real Indian would tell it, an Indian who knew that stories didn’t have to make logical sense to be true or realistic to be life-like.

The important of stories is the backbone of this collection of stories. Many of the stories, especially those featuring the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are stories about telling stories. There’s something significant here, and something I think is central to the experience of any marginalized people: the stories become a way of survival, essential to culture and identity to an extent we– whose narratives are so dominant that our own stories are ubiquitous and we begin to believe they are the only stories– cannot grasp.

The Violent Bear it Away

The Violent Bear It AwayThe Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why are Catholics so good at making monsters? Our friend Daniel Otto Jack Petersen might eventually have some good answers for us, but at this point– having concluded my audit of the twentieth-century Catholic novels course taught by my good friend Dave (okay, not quite concluded as I skipped Brideshead Revisited and fell off the boat before our final novel, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins)– I can venture something along the lines of G. K. Chesterton’s “all is grist.” For the Catholic novelist, it’s all real and it’s all fair game for creation. There aren’t “bad things” off limits. All is useful for building stories, because all– even the dark and twisted– can be redeemed.

But the real, unlike for perhaps an agnostic or atheistic writer, extends far beyond the sanctity of matter to include the reality of the spiritual. Throw all that in the mix, and you get monsters out the other end. For a writer with the bizarre, piercing humor and science fiction tendencies of Lafferty, these monsters become the fleshy, jovial horrors of “The Hole in the Corner.” For the steady eye of Flannery O’Conner in the stagnant heat of southern woods, the monsters take on a stranger and more human aspect.

Because it seems to me that at the core The Violent Bear it Away is a story about monsters.

There are four monsters (five if you count the agent of the sudden, lurching violence of the penultimate scene). The first is the boy protagonist’s great uncle, who considers himself a prophet called by the Lord and who raises the boy to know the Lord’s work in a splendidly wild and woody isolation. His death at the beginning of the novel initiates the book’s plot. The second monster is the boy’s uncle, who considers himself the rational antithesis to the old prophet’s madness and who, when the boy finds his way to his doorstep upon the prophet’s death, sees the possibility of freeing the boy from the prophet’s mad shadow.

The third monster is the boy himself, who drinks himself to a stupor upon his great uncle’s death, refuses to bury his body, and instead burns down the home in which they lived before wandering into the city to find his uncle. It is this monster’s stubborn battle to resist both the compulsion to carry on the Lord’s work placed upon him by his great uncle and his “rational” uncle’s frenzied effort to reform him that forms the primary tension of the novel. The boy is taciturn, isolated, arrogant, and desperate to live out his denial of his great uncle’s holy legacy.

All these characters are monstrous, twisted, and unpleasant to observe. And yet O’Conner pulls us along with them. We are captivated by their misery, by their mutual hostilities, by their failure to accept any sort of redemption from each other.

And then there is Bishop, the fourth monster, the son of the boy’s uncle. Bishop is a child, an idiot “waste,” who can do nothing but follow along innocently– uncomprehending and unconcerned– as the boy fights against his great uncle’s imperative to baptize Bishop and his uncle’s determination to break him of this compulsion. Bishop is the pathetic eye of the storm and the focus of the only genuine moments of pathos and tenderness in the novel.

This is an Old Testament story, and the god looming on the horizon of the boy’s mind is a god of blood and fire and fury, despite metaphors of the bread of life– that tired, stale bread the boy refuses to eat. As with Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, the conflict here is primarily in the mind of the boy, but this makes it in no way less real. It makes it instead more tight and tortured. And it makes it all the more terrifying for where it leads.

This is not a book to read for pleasure, unless of course for the simple pleasure of reading good writing. For the story itself, the only pleasure might come in assuring yourself how far your god is from the dark and stormy god of the warm, stagnant forest and how far you are from the pathways of the boy’s own mind– until, of course, you actually read the Old Testament and are forced to ask yourself how thin the line between madness and holiness might really be.

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the MatterThe Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Greene is interested in the paradoxes that arise from pushing Catholic doctrines or dogma to their extreme logical conclusions. The epigram at the start of the book is a quote from the Catholic author Charles Peguy, who wrote of the selflessness we should have that would damn ourselves if it would save another. This is the apparent motivation of Scobie, the novel’s protagonist. He lives and works in World War II British West Africa, finding satisfaction in a go-nowhere police posting in a desolate port town beautiful for approximately five minutes each day. His wife is as drained and worn down as the town itself. Greene expertly shows the painful pity that motivates Scobie– who simply wants peace– in placating her and keeping her despair at bay. The everyday agony of their relationship, the weariness, the stratagems Scobie undertakes to distract and comfort her, is the driving force of the first third of the novel. Greene’s strength here is in the characters: the pained goodness and heavy generosity of Scobie, the faithfulness of his African servant, the machinations of the Syrian merchants of the town– all live (except for the enigmatic Wilson, who seems flat and patchy throughout the novel) against a sharply drawn background of the cloying West Africa Greene knew from personal experience.

In the novel’s second act, Scobie has found the peace he craved by making possible his wife’s passage to South Africa and settling into his own quiet routine. This peace is shattered by war though (a war which, even at its closest approach, remains a forbidding but distant presence over the horizon) as the survivors of a U-boat attack arrive in Scobie’s world. Here his pity (or what he represents to himself as pity) is captured by a young widow. Their quiet affair– whatever else it may have represented– quickly becomes once again a trap and loss of peace for Scobie, compounded by his wife’s sudden return. Greene has now set the scene for the excruciation of the third act, where the narrative action slows and spirals inward to a claustrophobic focus on the conflict warring within Scobie’s own mind.

Whatever Greene’s eventual and ultimate relation to Catholicism, this is unequivocally one of his Catholic novels, in which the conflict depends on the reader buying into– or at least buying into the character’s buying into– the reality of Catholic belief. Scobie believes he is in mortal sin but knows leaving it would mean abandoning someone who depends on him. He’s like the proverbial donkey starving halfway between two piles of hay, crucified on the horns of a dilemma. Whether divided by hunger, pride, or (as he makes himself believe) duty and pity, he can only conclude that both– that everyone– would be better off without him, who seems only able to cause pain despite his every attempt to avoid inflicting it. By this point of the novel, it’s difficult to have patience with Scobie as a character, yet we never lose faith with Greene as an author. Indeed, the telescoping conflict, in which aspects such as Scobie taking communion in a state of sin take on a heightened, almost delirious and certainly cinematic vividness, give the novel its sharpest moments.

The novel reaches the inescapable conclusion you see coming, but it feels all the more powerful for its inescapability. Scobie is trapped in his own mind, hedged by his own dogma, damned– in the paradox Greene relishes representing– by his own generosity. Greene provides no answers. He leaves us with only questions, which is what prevents the novel collapsing into a simple cautionary morality tale. Whatever Scobie’s motives (because it remains difficult to believe pity alone motivates the affair with the much-younger Helen), he is relatable and vivid in as much as anyone has felt trapped between irreconcilable conclusions, alone and cut off in the web of their beliefs. Whether he’s ultimately damned, he’s lost the peace he craved. In the construction of his isolation and misery– which Greene offers in magnificent detail– we get an illustration of how C. S. Lewis described hell: not as a place you go but as a place you gradually construct around yourself.