Review: From paradise to inferno in a world of spectacle
Using the literary framework of Dante’s three-part epic poem “The Divine Comedy” as a lens through which to cast a sardonic eye on the present moment is hardly a new idea, but it has proven to be a durable one.
To take just one example, it’s hard to think about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” without its many haunting allusions to Dante’s “Inferno.”
There is always opportunity for provocation and mischievous commentary in this game of “compare and contrast.” When writers and playwrights take classic narrative structures and play them off against diverse settings and time periods, there’s a chance that new insights will be revealed—like transforming Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” into “West Side Story” or Jane Austen’s Emma into “Clueless.”
Using “The Divine Comedy” as a lens through which to cast a sardonic eye on the present moment is hardly a new idea, but it has proven to be a durable one.
In Dante’s Indiana, the Canadian novelist and University of Toronto professor Randy Boyagoda has added a witty, rambunctious and occasionally touching entry to this list. The second novel in a planned trilogy, it continues the story that began with Original Prin. There we met the eponymous Prin (short for Princely, son of Kingsley), a somewhat feckless academic of Sri Lankan heritage, attempting to navigate the treacherous, highly politicized waters of contemporary university life, sustain a marriage fallen on hard times, bear with a pair of occasionally overbearing parents and confront his own wavering faith in the Catholic Church.
What made Original Prin so wincingly effective was the way Boyagoda’s satire merely extrapolated already cartoonish trends and phenomena. Some of this consisted of the skewering of progressivist pieties in academia—hypersensitivity to alleged “microaggressions,” endless conundrums about which sorts of speech are free and which are not, and the emerging alliance between politicized ideologies and therapeutic culture.
But at its best, Original Prin went beyond the clichés of Fox News outrage items to explore the ways that higher learning has increasingly compromised its traditional educational mission. (The only evidence of the protagonist’s college’s prior incarnation as a Catholic institution is the persistence of Sister Contra Melanchthon on the faculty.) As Prin learns to his cost, the efforts of Big Academia to survive difficult economic times (and its own bloated budgets) has led it to enter into dubious alliances with Big Business and Big Government (including foreign governments)—with mixed results.
As Dante’s Indiana opens, Prin has been recovering from a traumatic event that took place when he was asked to go to a small Middle Eastern country and lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of P.T.S.D., his greatest anxieties now seem to center on the expensive, large-scale renovation of his home in Toronto (he has blown his savings by adding a swimming pool to the deal) and the trial separation that has taken his wife and four daughters to Milwaukee. So when he is contacted by an eager young agent with an offer to lecture on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” at various venues in Indiana—in exchange for a hefty paycheck—he impulsively agrees.
It is during this lackluster speaking tour that he comes to the attention of an older man named Charlie, who has retired and turned over his business to his son. Charlie is the proud owner of one of the finest collections of Dante manuscripts and related materials outside of major university libraries, and he has a plan for two down-at-the-heels sports arenas in downtown Terre Haute. He wants to turn them into theme parks based on Dante’s “Inferno” and “Paradiso” (“Purgatorio” being off-limits as a Catholic thing). Charlie, it seems, is convinced that Prin can be a “translator” between a motley trio of professors who are advising him on the project and the people who can actually make it happen.
Cue the absurdity, you are thinking. And you’d be right.
Dante’s Indiana is about how religious people can succeed at almost completely emptying their faith of meaning, choosing spectacle over substance.
But before that happens, Charlie reveals something significant in his conversation with Prin. It turns out that his interest in all things Dantean stemmed from his service in Vietnam, where a fellow soldier—who had been a daily reader of Dante—was killed in action. After that, “I started reading Dante in country,” Charlie says, “and I didn’t understand a damned thing except that a man could live or die from reading it.” In a novel like Dante’s Indiana, so full of the bizarre, the fanciful and the ludicrous, one can detect here the actual hard edge of reality—literature as a meaningful response to trauma, as a life-changing force.
There will be only one or two more moments in the entire book where reality makes an appearance as direct as this, so naturally Charlie completely misses the deeper import of his experiences and commences to involve Prin in his grandiose and profoundly tacky theme park project. And, oh, there’s a ton of fun to be had along the way. As Charlie puts it:
So there’s going to be rides, floor shows, I don’t know, acrobats, sorcerers, spaceships, choirs. People walking around dressed like angels, devils, demons, fireworks, light shows, ice capades.
Other ideas include a romantic whirling teacup ride based on the Paolo and Francesca episode from the “Inferno” and a roller coaster called Geryon, after the Monster of Fraud in a lower, darker part of Hell. Along the way, Prin will take research trips, such as to Genesis Extreme, a biblical theme park in Kentucky—and the home of a national television series called “America’s Got Jesus”—that features a trademark ride, “David’s Sling…which put people in cars shaped like smooth stones that went flying above the park’s main causeway and into the smoking, smashed-in forehead of a snarling, brass-helmeted Goliath.”
If Original Prin was largely about secularized institutions and the ersatz religiosity that tends to fill the vacuum when true faith departs, then Dante’s Indiana is about how religious people can succeed at almost completely emptying their faith of meaning, choosing spectacle over substance. What saves the new book from being yet another heavy-handed thumping on evangelical Christianity is that the narrative remains firmly centered in Prin’s own personal struggles. In Terre Haute, for example, he encounters a Sri Lankan gas station attendant who calls himself Payatta (as in “pay at the pump”). Despite Payatta’s constant gifts of cuisine from the home country, Prin allows the class difference between them to stand in the way of making a genuine connection. His sin remains pride, which he later dutifully confesses.
What Prin encounters with Payatta is echoed in several other moments in the novel when reality barges in upon the fantasy Charlie and others are attempting to build—in the form of the opioid crisis, racist police violence, the economic woes of aging or obsolete industries, and the consequent struggle to find new ways to create dignified employment. If “The Divine Comedy” begins in the middle of a wood—and the middle of a life—Terre Haute is, as one character says, “the middle of the middle of the middle.” Or as another character says, they don’t live in “flyover country,” they live in “flyswatter country.”
Prin’s own inner tensions and contradictions keep us grounded. He inhabits a world of white privilege, but his own racial and ethnic background is an issue for his white peers; he genuinely loves teaching but finds it hard to do that within mainstream institutions. These and other fears fuel his self-doubt. Late in the novel Prin manages a reconciliation with his wife, but by the end there are flames licking at the edges of the theme park.
It is unclear what the third volume in Boyagoda’s trilogy will bring. If the first two volumes are any indication, there will still be plenty more “Inferno” to come, but we can still hope for a glimpse of “Paradiso.”