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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
On All the Living by C.E. Morgan
There are two subjects that pose near-insurmountable difficulties to any novelist who wishes to write about them with accuracy or grace: sex and God. The former is a widely recognized trap for writers, so much so that the British magazine Literary Review has, in every year since 1993, doled out an annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And lest we assume that this is a trap more likely to ensnare inexperienced writers, it’s worth noting that the list of award winners includes names like Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer (although perhaps it is instructive to note that seventeen out of the twenty winners have been men). John Updike received from the Review a Lifetime Achievement Award for his efforts.
But even the perils of writing from the bedroom pale in comparison with those that plague our attempts to write about what happens in houses of worship. Fiction that deals in faith may be mocked less by the literary community than fiction that features particularly breathy sex scenes, but perhaps this is only because the former is so much rarer than the latter. I’ve tried, and failed, to compile a list of recent, noteworthy fiction that deals in spiritual quandary or fulfillment—Darcey Steinke’s 2005 novel Milk comes to mind, a book in which sexual appetite is often confused with (or fused with) spiritual longings, but little else does. On the other hand, sex—the act itself, the desire for it, the ubiquity or lack of it—is an essential part of modern fiction. A recent piece in the New York Times wondered, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and bemoaned the absence of would-be successors to writers like Flannery O’Connor.
The modern name that comes most easily to mind, I think, must be Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead explored the inner life of an elderly preacher in Iowa who struggled to delineate his experiences and his theology for the young son he would not live to raise. And it is no mistake that Robinson’s is the name mentioned in the blurbs on the paperback edition of All the Living, a debut novel by C.E. Morgan first published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2009. To say that the book was ignored at the time of its publication would not be entirely fair; it was chosen as a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and Morgan (a woman, and a former student of theological studies at Harvard Divinity School) was named one of the 5 Best Writers Under 35 by the National Book Foundation. But the attention paid, to my mind, has not been nearly enough for this extraordinary book. Morgan writes near-perfect prose, whether she’s describing the mountains of Kentucky or sex or the acute longing for consolation that brings impoverished farmers together at church each Sunday. If we can all agree that it’s a struggle to write well about sex, or about God, then we’d all do well to spend some time with C.E. Morgan’s novel, one of the most astonishing fiction debuts of recent years.
The comparison to Robinson comes to mind, no doubt, in part due to the book’s homespun setting. Aloma, an orphan, first encounters Orren Fenton when he visits the Kentucky missionary school where she has lived for nearly a decade, first as a student and then as the piano teacher. He begins visiting each evening, driving her around in his truck until nightfall, and one thing of course leads to another: “when he pushed up inside her for the first time, she was unable to move for the surprise of it, not because it was unexpected—she had anticipated it in the unthinking way the body has of presuming its physical destiny—but because it brought the fact of Orren into a proximity she had not previously imagined…it moved her in a way that had nothing to do with pleasure.” When his mother and brother are killed in a car accident, Orren moves back home to try to save his family’s tobacco farm, and Aloma joins him there. They live together, sleep together, but do not marry. And that, at the most basic level, is all that happens.
All the Living—the title is taken from scripture, from a verse of Ecclesiastes that assures us that “whoever is joined with all the living has hope”—follows the couple through their first summer together, a drought summer that threatens Orren’s farm and so his livelihood. Aloma is forced to acknowledge that sex has brought her no closer to understanding the man she’s followed, however powerfully she feels herself drawn to him. And she finds herself increasingly drawn to another man: Bell Johnson, the soft-spoken local preacher who hires her to play piano at his church.
While the dangers posed to the farm ostensibly drive the plot forward through the long, parched summer – and Morgan’s evocative language is perhaps at its sharpest and clearest when describing the unforgiving landscape that surrounds Aloma—the book is essentially a study in loneliness. Orren, like Aloma, is now an orphan, but this leaves him feeling not closer to her but more remote, marooned by his own stubborn ambitions and desires. Aloma, having accustomed herself to living entirely in her own mind, now feels the lack of companionship all the more bitterly after having allowed herself to fall in love, something she’s never observed and does not even know to call by that name. And in her foundering, she seeks comfort and conversation from Bell, who has set his own longings aside for the good of his community. With Orren, we are told that “even as she grasped at him ever tighter with her hands, allowing him no distance at all from her chest, she sensed that she was merely knocking at the door of his flesh.” Bell, on the other hand, looks at Aloma and sums her up with little fanfare—sometimes you got a cagey thing about you, he tells her. Like you can’t decide if you want to run off or get took in. Later, when Aloma has disappointed him and wounded him deeply, he cautions her, “Don’t grant yourself permission to be ungodly just because you’re young. Maybe you think it’s some small thing to stir up love, but you’re wrong.” As the novel unfolds, Morgan sketches these three portraits of isolation, giving us these people and their clumsy efforts towards solace.
But while both Orren and Bell are well-drawn polar opposites who, taken together, represent both the things Aloma knows she wants and those that she does not yet have the emotional or spiritual vocabulary to realize she needs—this is Aloma’s story. Morgan’s writing is both unassuming and masterful, her descriptions of the physical world at times both unsparing and lush. It is these moments that remind us, again, of Robinson, this use of the language of prayer and faith, of a religion that leaves Aloma untouched, to describe the all-too-human world she sees around her. Second only to the sense of place and landscape are the descriptions of a young woman carefully examining the man she finds so powerfully attractive:
She let him lead her around the side of the house and she peeked at him as he looked up at the height of it, squinting, his thin lips flattening further. He hitched up the waistband of his jeans and he crossed his arms over his chest and she saw clearly she had been mistaken. He had not turned old in three weeks’ time, it was as though someone had come along with a plane and sheered off all the extra that once cushioned him. He was like something corded, every movement curtailed.
There is a sense here of one woman exploring her own consciousness—something she’s never been asked to look at too closely—vis à vis her own body. It is this close tie between the physical and the emotional, the sexual and the cerebral (and, as her friendship with Bell deepens, the spiritual) that makes this book, the story of such a very particular part of America, thrum with anxieties and longings that should be familiar to any college freshman, to any newlywed—to anyone, in short, who has ever been young.
Aloma makes her way to the church, initially, because the only available piano at Orren’s house is so decrepit that it produces “no sound, just a sponging broken depression.” But it is Bell’s first sermon that fills her with an “uneasy” joy:
I been lonesome too—nobody’s immune after the cradle—but I got wind of God from a good upbringing so I knew, even in my dark hour, to reach out…God said, I’m coming in. All I did was only let him. Yet I had to give up, I had to submit me to something I didn’t want, to the will of another. That’s the opposite of the world, to rub your own self out. World wants you to take up ever more space, brothers and sisters. But God asks us to be less so that others might be more.
I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that it is almost impossible to read this book as a first novel. Morgan’s prose is so lovely and yet so guileless, her voice haunting and yet warm, frank, honest. First-time writers can so often intrude upon their own stories, insert themselves, as it were, everywhere in the text. Take up ever more space. But this first novel is written with all the deceptive simplicity of a poem and yet the incantatory resonance of a prayer. In All the Living, Morgan gives us three lonely people—Aloma, Orren, Bell—and breathes life into them, bathes them in sympathy and grace, and then gets out of their way.
Angelica Baker is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is a first-year MFA student in Fiction at Columbia University. She is originally from Los Angeles.