Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Canticle for Leibowitz: Take two

So I finished A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I would like to retract my first appraisal, in which I rather casually used it to represent all of "genre fiction." That was uncalled for. I now think the book can hold its own with anything we call "literary." And I really think you should read it, if you haven't already. Maybe you have. I tend to be late to these parties.

What I find most interesting about my changed opinion is that it falls in line with the argument I was trying to make in that earlier post: that determining whether a piece is "literary" or "genre" need not hinge on the function of character. Yes, CfL's characters are tools to advance the plot--or in this case the "theme," as Miller's plot is just the long spelling out of a philosophical conundrum--rather than the other way around. However, they are no more so than, say, Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov (or possibly anyone in BK). In the third section of CfL in particular, the characters are literally torn apart by their desire to love--and forgive--a God they are not willing to admit is seriously flawed (if he even exists). The questions, to me anyway, are as powerful and relevant as anything Dostoevsky wrote. I didn't get attached to Walter Miller's characters; but I was very moved by their struggles--especially at the end--which take place amid nuclear holocaust, and so are pretty damn relevant. I cared more about the outcome of these struggles than I often do in the character-focused domestic dramas that seem to dominate contemporary fiction. CfL takes on the biggest of all human ideas and refuses to provide easy answers. Also there's a lovely image at the very end, of a derelict sea plane, and big fish eating little fish--all diseased, mind you--and a shark swimming out to deeper water looking for food. Chekhovian, or even Melvillian.

I admit it: I'm a sucker for novels about religion. I was raised by secular humanists in a very Catholic town and still have a bad case of religion envy. (Yes, I know I was lucky in many respects--but you guys who had it jammed down your throats all those years: what a wealth of material you have! The imagery, the rituals, the lingering sense of the supernatural in everyday life! Not to mention the whole rebellion experience! Whereas I had...Washington Week in Review.) So maybe that accounts for some of my fascination. And I also gave Miller a pass for a somewhat tedious middle section. There's a little too much blah blah back-and-forth which began to feel like filler to me. But the last section really tied everything up--not in a tight little plot package, but poetically, with a series of striking events and images that would have been pure schlock in other hands (two-headed woman, spaceships, end of the world as we know it, etc.).

Anyway, a pretty impressive book, and an important one. If you ask me.

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