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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

October 24, 2012

Book Review: The Book of Neil

The Book of Neil

But for the kindness of my friend Meryl Zagarek (http://www.mzpr.com), it's quite likely that I would have missed the release of Frank Turner Hollon's latest novel, The Book of Neil (Publisher: MacAdam/Cage; On Sale: Nov. 16, 2012 ; Cost: $20.00). As a bit of reference, Mr. Hollon is a prolific author of children's books and short stories, but one who also boasts two novels that have been turned into films (Barry Munday; and Blood and Circumstances, which is currently in production). I think it's safe to say that Hollon's novel will not be remembered for its prose, which is at times repetitive and understated. But the novel's staying power is its exploration of a complex theological question, using an extremely minimalist writing style.

The theme of Hollon's novel centers on the proposition of Christ's return to earth in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Here's how the press release describes Mr. Hollon's work:

In The Book of Neil we are asked to consider what would happen if Jesus returned to earth in 2012, at a time when people are driven by consumption, self-indulgence, and a preoccupation with social media. Are we so cynical that Jesus would be dismissed as just another mentally ill street-preacher?

The idea is striking because the return of Jesus to Earth is one of the few aspects of Christian theology that mainstream Christianity tends not to debate. These days, our theological and moral disputes tend to include issues like determinism, theodicy, Biblical inerrancy, literalism, gay marriage, abortion and once upon a time questions about stem cell research and the like. But these issues are more on the periphery and clearly not central to the tenants of Christian faith itself (viz., Christ's return to Earth).

So, what would it look like if Jesus came back to Earth, say, today? How would the event unfold? What would the reaction of believers be as opposed to the reaction of non-believers? Hollon's novel offers readers his interpretation of the answer.

What's obvious from the first page is that the work is no typical novel. Hollon's writing style is minimalist to the point of distraction (more on this later). His characters are sketches of what characters should be. The details Hollon provides are sparse. Days bleed into one another without paying heed to the logical progression of time. In this way, Hollon's work is not a cheap knock off from Joyce, focusing on the minutia of the day to day. Instead Hollon's style keeps the focus on life's panorama of the forest. The big picture accented by big themes. 

The first theme readers encounter is Hollon's embrace of absurdism, which not only provides the justification for Hollon's experiment but also paves the way for some of the other ideas explored in the work. Absurdism suggests that human efforts to divine meaning are absurd on their face because the exercise is impossible and doomed to fail. Absurdism's implausibility of truth justifies the minimalist introduction to the work beginning on page 1 of the novel. There, Neil casually meets Jesus on the 14th hole of the local country club. After exchanging pleasantries, Jesus notes, "You're probably wondering what I'm doing here." Without waiting for an answer, Jesus replies:

"I'm playing golf," He said. "A frustrating game. I don't really have the patience for it, but I enjoy playing anyway." p.11.

Aside from being a bit presumptuous, Jesus' opening line in the work is rife with absurdity because of how mundane the introduction actually is. It's a bit like an off-Broadway production of Seinfeld, a scene about nothing using next to nothing to make the point. Hollon's early pages make the search for meaning futile because they take place on the blandest of all locales to which the Son of God could possibly return. To make the point even more pronounced, Hollon fills the mouth of God Incarnate with the same, tired clichés about golf uttered by every other hack with a set of clubs.

This absurdist framework creates a justification for everything that follows. Specifically, Hollon can continue his experiment because it is not a search for meaning. Rather it is an exercise in potentiality, an experiment illustrating what could be. There is no deeper truth to Hollon's work because it is a hypothetical, and searching for the Truth in a hypothetical is folly because hypotheticals are by definition works of fiction. 

Of course, the book would be relatively short and uninteresting if page after page of the work recounted the folly of man's search for meaning set amid scenarios and scenes that have never happened. Almost of necessity, Hollon's embrace of the absurd requires him to explore the implications of his premise which is by far the more interesting exercise of the novel. This analysis begins with the simple observation that a world void of meaning presents a rather large opening for individuals (and ultimately society) to descend into nihilism. 

The book's eponymous anti-hero Neil describes the matter as follows:  

It's the never ending balance. On one side is the absolute knowledge that nothing whatsoever matters. There's nothing any of us can do, nothing, that makes any difference at all. The world will continue to spin, time will continue to run, and each of us, every single one of us, will die, go back into the earth one way or another, and be forgotten in the blink of an eye.

On the other side, we wake up every morning and convince ourselves how important it is to provide for our children, bring the dog inside when it's cold, mow the grass, pay the electric bill. And we ignore the irreconcilable differences between the two, the dichotomy. How can we not? Utter hopelessness is only a thought away, and the dogs are at the door. p.123

If we grant Hollon his absurdist introduction, then Neil's summary of the matter is the natural result. Throughout the novel, various characters struggle to make sense of Jesus' return, and invariably this forces them to evaluate the mundane and traumatic in their lives vis-à-vis the hope that life itself is not absurd and void of meaning. Much like he does in the New Testament, the figure of Jesus brings hope to individuals that takes them beyond the nihilistic conclusions of absurdism, and beyond the empty existentialism of crafting a subjective meaning from life's routine.

Hollon uses this otherness of Jesus to advance the majority of his novel's plot. Readers see stories of individuals demonstrating the effects of Jesus' return on the micro-level. As the scenarios play out in the characters' lives, this has the effect of rescuing hope from the clutches of the absurd in the novel. Some of the characters find hope and inspiration through Jesus' return. Others are forced to confront whether they believe in an alternative to nihilism and the existential routine of truth as subjectivity. 

While the novel is rich in major themes and presents nearly all of them in a sophisticated manner, the emphasis on big picture has the effect of diminishing Hollon's prose. This is not a novel to read if you long for the descriptions of Tolstoy or the punch of Hemingway. Hollon does not pretend to be anything other than what he is: a thoughtful writer, intrigued by the ideas of his work. But as a result some of his prose suffers. Portions of the novel are repetitive. Phrases, jokes, witticisms all make more appearances than necessary. And to be fair, most of the characters lack depth. We learn little of their backgrounds, aspirations, and even motivations in some instances. But this is deliberate. Prose, character development, and style are all sacrificed for Hollon's experiment with big concepts. The novel is bold in this regard even though this quality could easily be off-putting to the casual reader. 

Still, it is Hollon's boldness that makes the work a success. For all of its faults stylistically, Hollon's insistence upon exploring big ideas more than makes up for the novel's ultra-minimalist style. The question going forward will be whether Hollon's hard work and focus on the forest will find success in a culture and readership that is increasingly more interested in the trees. 

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October 21, 2012

Fatherhood: First Impressions

Baby Clark

This past Monday, on October 15, 2012, after a protracted, thirty-hour labor, Gwyn and I welcomed our first-born son into the world. Clark William Fodder was born at 9:52 AM here in Tucson, weighing in at 7 lbs on the nose. It's strange to think of instantly loving a child, but the parenting instincts really kicked in without a problem. A few years ago, I called children parasites, as of Monday I called this one my "little buddy" and my Son. Naturally, much has changed in the past week. 

As a quick example, it's about 12:30AM on Sunday night as I sit down to write this. Clark is snoozing in his bassinet, a structure I am very much tempted to call a crate à la our Pooch Alexas. Though the hour draws late, it's really only the beginning of my night. In a surprise to no one but me, late nights over the past week have delayed my ability to do much of anything. So many friends and family had warned us about the coming dearth of sleep but I stubbornly assumed that any spawn of mine would prove the exception rather than the rule. The result of tempting these fates is that Baby Clark seems to have inherited, in manifold, my penchant for late nights. This party is just getting started.

Clark's typical "night" includes waking up around 11PM/12AM for dinner. After 10 to 15 minutes of feeding, he falls back asleep for an hour or so, before waking up for yet another meal. The scenario repeats itself until around 7AM when he finally drifts off for good until breakfast around 10AM. Sleep for me and Gwyn occurs between feedings, leaving us in a zomboid trance most of the day, mindlessly wandering between Clark's crate and the kitchen in search of coffee (brains!). 

The Mayo Clinic actually offers a number of helpful tips to soothe the disconsolate newborn, but at 4AM our ability to think rationally is usually fairly well gone. I find that I've developed a number of superstitions to help me cope with the uncertainty. My ritual when putting Clark to bed includes gently placing him in the bassinet and gingerly walking backwards as if the slightest wrong move might trigger the baby bomb's explosive mechanism. And when Clark successfully remains asleep, James Bond has nothing on this sleep deprived father. 

I'm not sure that my rituals help but like so many tricks of parenting, they impose a bit of order on what is in reality a muddled process, adding structure to something that is utterly beyond my control anyway. This is the hardest part of being a parent really. Nothing and everything is simultaneously within my control. As first-time parents, there are any number of things that could go wrong at any point and none of these exigencies are within my ambit of control (illness, acts of god, diapers that don't quite keeping exterior clothing dry, etc.). And yet all of the choices related to Clark's rearing are within my control (selecting a pediatrician, purchasing a safe car seat, buying a different brand of diaper, etc.). It's really a maddening dichotomy when you think about it.  

The crux of what I've learned in the past week is that the only way to navigate the contrariety of Fatherhood is give it the old college try. Do the best you can. Give it a go. "Keep Calm and Carry On" as the meme says. But don't get caught in the lie of believing that there's a best or even better way of doing things. For every opinion given, there are completely different schools of thought that say the opposite. So, just pick one. Everyone who has ever parented a kid and whole segments of the population who haven't, seem to have theories about the best way to swaddle a newborn. Accordingly, there are no less than ten different websites selling wares meant for swaddling newborns, with each company claiming to sell the best product for swaddling (and let's be honest, the Miracle Blanket is really the best product on the market). Yet, the same act can be accomplished by a bit of folding trickery with a receiving blanket, $10 for a pack of 4 at Target. There's no right way. Just your way. 

Anyway, in case you missed the lead I just buried, the point is just that there's really no right, better or best way to rear a kid. This realization makes me appreciate the decisions that my own parents faced when I was a child. And in retrospect, I have to say that most parents (mine included) end up doing a pretty good job - even when they've had to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.  

And so, with already 6 days on the job and roughly 6,564 days until Clark turns 18, as the hymn says, time is now fleeting, the moments are passing. Here's hoping that when the bell tolls, we'll have done a pretty good job too.

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October 12, 2012

Thoughts of an Anxious Father

An Anxious Father

"The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them."

- Ecclesiastes 1.11

We had our weekly doctor's appointment today. I'll do my best not to reveal too much information although this is surprisingly difficult to do when discussing a pregnancy. In brief, Gwyn is progressing quite well and is nearing the stages of early delivery. In terms of timeframe, Baby Clark could arrive any day now. 

Being the eternal ray of sunshine that I am, his birth triggers a lot of conflicting thoughts for me. Naturally, I'll start with the more melancholic.

I suppose I turned to the passage above from Ecclesiastes because it reminds me of our collective lot, set amid the vast pantheon of begins who have lived and died on this terrestrial plane, and are now forgotten. Thinking of my son, I want him to exceed this very low bar set by Ecclesiastes. I want his life to have meaning. I don't want his name relegated to the dusty annals of history. I want him to be…great!

Of course, greatness, by definition, is rare. When I think of the great men of history, I think of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson. John Locke. Bing Crosby. William F. Buckley. Henry Ford. Steve Jobs and even Ernest Hemingway. Just a few names. But all men who lived lives of consequence. Hoping that Clark will assume a post among the great men of time is surely the blind ambitions of a joyful father. Yes, I know that the humble, appropriate thing to do is to pray that he lives a life of character - and I will pray for that. But just for good measure, I'll tack on a prayer that he live a life of consequence. However that is defined.

I suspect such prayers are what most parents want for their children. Given my present station in life, I feel that this is a bit like the blind leading the blind. But the arrival of children does a strange thing to us parents to be. My life has become less important to me than the reality of my child having a better future. This sentiment so often struck me as a cliché. I'm amazed to know this is what parents really feel. For myself, I merely pray for the vision to help make these things a reality for Clark, even as he charts his own course. 

Not all of my thoughts are so morose. The second section of Ecclesiastes takes what has become a circumspect, existential view of life. For me, this means that the best I can do is live in the present - not in hopes of what things might come. The present reality is that my son will be here very, very soon. 

As the sun streams through my kitchen window, I have to smile when I think about his tiny feet. Feet that have yet to set foot on this ancient sphere. I think of his tiny fists - fists not clenched in anger but in warmth and love. I can imagine his tiny eyes, not yet fully able to take in his surroundings. Sleepy eyes that have never seen the evil and sorrows of this world.

Simply put, he is pure. Pure in every conceivable, normative sense of the word. An angel. Better still, a son.  

One day, we will throw passes in the yard, just as my Father and Grandfather did with me. Perhaps when he's able to, we'll read a book together, or settle in for a game of Call of Duty. Maybe when he's much older we'll have cigars and scotch on the porch. I hope he likes that sort of thing. For that matter, I hope he will like our pooch, Alexas. She can be rambunctious. Unrelated, I also hope he is a Republican so that we can complain to one another between election cycles. And I hope that I don't drive him away. But when I do, because it's inevitable that I will, I hope that he will come back.

So many hopes. So many joys. So many worries.

But for now, we wait. 

Take your time, Dear Son. Enjoy the love of your Mother's belly. We'll be waiting to care for you when you come into our World. 

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October 5, 2012

October Skies

Autumn Skies

With Baby Clark's birth so near, today seemed like as good a day as any to give a quick update on life, as opposed to the book reviews I've lately been posting.

I suppose this is true of any couple, but Gwyn and I have spent much time preparing for our Son's arrival. We obviously have a name picked out but we didn't do a big announcement - at least until he actually comes into the world. I don't much believe in Karma but better not to take any chances. One of the more interesting aspects of our preparations (besides nearly weekly trips to Babies "R" Us) has been coordinating travel plans with our respective families. Gwyn's family has plans to depart from Indianapolis, while my family will make the trek from Southwest Oklahoma. Given that the baby is not nearly so interested in advance planning as we are, coordinating things has been quite the feat. We've more or less accepted the fact that it's entirely possible no one will be here when he's born, except for me and Gwyn - unless, of course, the stars align, itineraries converge, and Baby Fodder proves to be every bit the Type-A planner his father is. And really, no one would wish that on him at all. 

On my afternoon bike rides, I find my mind wandering more and more toward the type of world our Baby Boy will soon enter. As an erstwhile political junkie, given that we are in the midst of the Presidential Election, it's impossible not to think about the type of country my Son will grow up in. By any fair measure, the political/economic/social state of our union is at a crucial juncture. With my generation facing massive debt, fewer financial opportunities than the generation before us, and a stagnant political system that has offered no solutions, I am convinced that this election will have tremendous ramifications for our Nation going forward. And as a partisan, I'm also quite convinced that the Nation needs a new vision other than the one offered by the current Administration. Naturally, I was quite pleased with Gov. Romney's performance during the first debate on Wednesday. I think the AP Photo here, more or less sums up the feelings of both sides following the 90 minute skirmish.

But setting aside partisanship for a moment, it's interesting for me to think about this election in terms of how it will affect my very near-future offspring. I've heard politicians and wannabe politicians clamor for years and years about how elections are all about the kind of future we want to leave for our children. More often than not, I wrote off the remark as that of an older generation trying to kiss up to a younger generation. Maybe a lame attempt to keep granny out of the home for a couple of years, who knows? But as a soon-to-be Father, I find myself asking, "Who would run our ship of state better? Who can I trust to steer us in a direction that will allow my Son to have opportunities that I could not, say 18 - 20 years from now?" Having never really done it before, it's a strange thing to think with the mind of a parent. 

And of course, I've had many thoughts about the greater world - mostly at night while having a cigar on the porch. Overseas, the war drums beat, though perhaps not quite so loudly, between Israel and Iran. The world watches to see what position, if any, the U.S. will take. Meanwhile, the American embassy in Lybia burns and our FBI teams have only just entered the country, some three weeks after the assassination of our Ambassador by terrorists. The latest question to arise over the incident this week is whether our government actually ordered a cover-up of the whole thing.   

To be sure, our Son will be born during a critical hour in history. As a captive of my moment, I would like to think that these challenges are unique but if I give my parents' generation and my grandparents' generation any credit, it's clear that each has faced its own critical moments. But as a future parent, the status quo simply isn't acceptable to me. I actually want my Son to grow up in a peaceful world. Strange, isn't it? I'd like him to travel and explore other cultures that are currently restricted by the tensions of world powers (e.g., Egypt, Venezuela, even Iran). Of course, there's actually a self-interested element in all of this as well - for all I know, my Son could pursue a career in the armed forces; he could command a fighter jet over the Pacific (although with his mother's eyesight, I highly doubt this). He might even join the special ops, and genuinely mean that he would have to kill me if he told me what he actually did. Suffice it to say, if I were a military parent, I'd rather my Son serve during a time of peace with his missions more akin to Johnny English than Jason Bourne

As a fall air gradually begins to blow across Tucson's alluvial plain, the only certainty I have of late is the blue, October sky above. As a would be parent, this leaves me extremely unsettled. So much is out of my control and I can't help but think that I know so little about life. And yet this little life, due in two weeks or so, needs me to help him make it make sense. 

And so I do the only thing I can: I pray that my Son might flourish, even in the desert of our age. 

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