I Knew You'd Be Lovely
by Alethea Black
I'm a nonreligious person, but I usually don't have much trouble reading the works of those who are in that way inclined. (I have yet to try Amish fiction). Mary Gordon comes to mind. Her work captures the lives of Catholic Americans in conflict with reality and their ideals. Her characters and stories are sad, tragic: the conflicts are not resolved and we as readers feel their uneasiness. The characters are less tools, more realistic reflections of our own disappointments in trying to find answers.
It's only when they're used as tools for beliefs or philosophies that we feel an uneven uneasiness: we don't feel uncomfortable with them, we're just uncomfortable. Alethea Black quotes Samuel Goldwyn in her notes: "If you have a note, send a telegram." Black, a person whose faith is evidently quite important to her, even comments on her insecurity--the possibility of proselyzing, of crossing the "fine line between a character with a strong opinion and a story that has strong opinions..." And in her debut collection, I Knew You'd Be Lovely, perhaps these lines are crossed.
We have Kelly in "Proof of Love," who finds love in Jesus and hopes to find something like it in Nash, a damaged nonbeliever who is uncomfortable around her religious figurines. We have the sister in "Someday is Today," who annoints her sister's husband (also a nonbeliever) with holy water before he dies. The difference between the characters in an Alethea Black story and a Mary Gordon story are the reflection of humanity that they have. Whereas the people of Mary Gordon are imperfect and guilt ridden, Black characters are innocent and well meaning, though the result of their efforts are never exactly how'd they imagined it: "I guess I figured it wouldn't do any harm," says the sister in "Someday is Today." Her sister becomes infuriated at the act, but gets over it in a paragraph. The loose ends are tied up at the end. If anything, Black's stories are neat. Neat in the way that these "feel good" tales. The Christian proslzying is the least of the book's concerns.
Even outside the the realm of spiritual search, her characters are all good guys, well-intentioned people who are simply lost: Bradley in "That of Which We Cannot Speak" who seeks to find his voice, Felix in "The Thing Itself," searching for a new career, Hannah in the title story who seeks out the woman her husband may or may not be cheating with. These stories are about good girls trying to make it in a mostly good world (though sometimes they're given lousy luck).
Yet good girls rarely make history. The same is true in fiction: good girls rarely make good stories. These stories are neither memorable or heavy. Here is light reading exploring the lives of characters in existential crisises--if there is such a thing, Black perhaps captured it:
"'The point of life,' he said 'as I thought I'd taught you by now, is to try to suck as much pleasure out of each passing moment as you possibly can.' But Katie was convinced there had to be more to life than pleasure-sucking"
Her stories though are not without its beauty, depth, and humor, as the passage above shows. Her characters are erudite. Indeed, even out of the context of the religiousity, there is a spiritual/existential hunger in her characters and the wise conclusion that perhaps we can't ever reach spiritual calm, perhaps we don't even want it (as in "Double Blind"). Black is wise and a good craftsman. She has the keys to her characters thoughts and unlocks their quirkiness: from Jesus freaks to temporary mutes, from eccentric singer-songwriters to restless youth. Her voice is also wholly her own: something of a Lorrie Moore crossed with something of a Flannery O'Connor, yet something else.
Nonetheless, as a whole, Black's work is lacking. While much can be said of Black for trying to give the literary genre a optimistic spin--the literary world usually highlights only the stories that demeans the human condition--and her characters are lovable for their sense of humor and personality (one does close the book with a type of longing and regret), Black mimics the flaw logic of faith. Faith exist to tell you everything will be okay. The result in Black's work is not only an overbearing self-righteous philosophy, but also weak fiction with characters who never truly see their own flaws or narrators who can't even see this. Within flaws we find conflicts, explosions, stories. Her characters, her philosophy, only skim the surfaces of the issues at hand and as readers, I would think we want more: more doubt, more ambiguiety, more subtext, more honesty.
Black is at best a writer of quiet skill.
Forgive me, but I like my writers troubled.
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