Enon: A Novel: The Catholic Book Club's October selection

Recently, Randy Boyagoda, a professor of English and a writer of fiction and essays, offered a provocative call to reflective Christians to put down their Flannery O’Connor and Dostoyevsky and pick up some hard cover fiction in order to revive the Christian literary imagination and Catholic literature. While I do not agree with his criticism of Mr. Paul Elie, who is—I think—presently working quite hard to accomplish the things that Prof. Boyagoda urges him to begin, Prof. Boyagoda’s impatience with the dependence of Catholic readers and writers of fiction on the greatest hits of Christian writers is well founded. And so, over the next few months, I hope to select works of fiction that do not have a clear religious character for the Catholic Book Club.  

For October, I have selected Enon, a novel by Paul Harding. Harding wrote Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer prize in 2010. Harding’s writing resembles that of Marilynne Robinson. The prose of Tinkers is subtle and careful and bare and haunting. Harding’s description of a grand mal seizure as a wild electrical storm in the brain of one of the main characters remains vivid in my mind four years after reading it. Like TinkersEnon is stark and beautiful like a harsh New England winter.

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When I read Harding, I keep thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur.” Indeed, this poem is on the list of greatest hits from which Prof. Boyagoda urges us to turn our attention. Yet Hopkins’ poem helps me to understand the expanse of wet and bone and thicket and swamp that Harding depicts in the New England landscape of his two novels. Hopkins writes:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears men’s smudge and shares men’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
 
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

For Harding, there is a power of life that emanates from the liquors of rot and decay that form in pools of sodden leaves manifest in the melt of late March. There is some force of hope or human kindness or trace of joy that weathers the most violent storms of grief. There is a stubborn freshness deep down in the soil that drives the continuation of life, and, when one is brought low or made quiet in some way, a person can sense it vividly. 

Enon is a fictional town somewhere on the north shore of Massachusetts. Its name stems in part from the first sermon preached there in 1642 in a meadow. The preacher spoke about John 3:23 and John the Baptist’s work baptizing the multitudes. In the gospel, John baptized at Enon because there was much water there. There is much water in Enon, Massachusetts as well. There are lakes, creeks, ponds and swamps. It is around the bend of Enon Lake that Kate Crosby—the 13 year-old daughter of the narrator of the novel—is killed while riding her bike. Toward the end of the novel, there is also a baptism of sort—a purgative self-plunging that takes place after a prophet like figure confronts the narrator’s over indulgence in grief and wild despair. The prose moved me close to tears, and I am not a sentimental type. I offer just a snippet of this self-plunging scene.  The narrator and father of Kate thinks the following to himself while underwater:

…But that was only how I’d felt since Kate died. I felt as if it was always true and that I was merely deluded before, that I believed in, was enchanted by, a lie of love and goodness, simply because I had it so good for a time.  But it was not a lie while I lived it. It was true. It was as true as my despair after her death. I would never have called myself an optimist, or even happy in the sense of being satisfied.  I was always restless and ill at ease, running too hot. But Kate gave my life joy. I loved her totally, and while I loved her, the world was love.  Once she was gone, the world seemed to prove nothing more than ruins and the smoldering dreams of monsters (217).

A few days ago, The New York Times offered a perfunctory review of Enon that claimed the novel to be plotless. This is not the case. Perhaps, this is exactly where the reflective—even religious—reader may serve to break open the riches of such subtle, bare prose. And so, I ask that the Catholic Book Club consider Enon this month. Consider its presentation of a world bursting with some power that throbs with fecundity even amidst death. Consider its presentation of grief, despair, addiction and transformation. Consider what triggers the transformation and how this transformation might be incomplete. Above all, consider how God is either present or hauntingly absent in the narrative. This is not an overtly religious novel. In fact, it seems stripped of faith. But, please apply your Catholic, religious imagination to its interpretation and consider the following questions:

1.  Is Charlie Crosby a good man? Is he a man of extraordinary depth?

2.  Can you identify with the level of grief that the narrator attempts to convey through the novel?

3.  Is the agent of Charlie’s transformation hope? Is it somehow a Christian hope?

I would appreciate any comments you wish to contribute.

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Kevin Spinale
4 years 1 month ago
I offer two additional points for discussion. First, broadly speaking, does fiction assert a claim? Are novels, in some sense, an argument about some aspect of human life? (If this is the case, what does "Enon" offer as a claim about human life?) Secondly, have we relied far too long on the greatest hits of Catholic or religious fiction? Have we spoken of Flannery and Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and Dostoyevsky far too often? (If this is the case, to where - to what novels and short stories - should men and women of faith turn their attention?)
Sara Damewood
4 years 1 month ago
First, I think fiction is an amazing art form that does "assert a claim." Too bad so many of us are too busy to read much fiction. I bet that's more of an issue than the choice of the fiction. I would have read O'Conner if I'd had the time. Please consider offering some non-fiction occasionally.
Sara Damewood
4 years 1 month ago
By the way, what is November's selection?
Tim Reidy
4 years 1 month ago

Someone by Alice McDermott. Thanks for asking!

Kevin Spinale
4 years 1 month ago
Sara, greetings. Thank you for your posts. I am glad that you have begun the novel. The last 60 pages or so are brilliant. I encourage you to keep reading. "Enon" - I think - asserts a claim about despair and grief and what allows one to emerge out of such powerful emotional states. I certainly agree that novels make a claim about human life. Next month, the book club will read "Someone" by Alice McDermott. It is another novel. In the last nine months, the book club has read three novels (including November's selection), three works of history, and a work of theology. December's selection will most likely be non-fiction. Please feel free to suggest titles of works that you believe might be good for the Catholic Book Club to engage. Thank you again for your comments.
Sara Damewood
4 years 1 month ago
I have read 1/4 of the book thus far. So far, I can empathize with Charlie. I can imagine the overwhelming grief of losing a child. So sad that it led to his marital separation. It sounds like Katie was the glue that held his marriage together. I'm not going to judge whether he was a "good" man, but I do feel sad that he wasn't able to love his wife in a way that would have enabled them to stay together and grieve together.
THOMAS KIEFER
4 years 1 month ago
I would say that Charlie is basically a decent man, doing the best he can until his life is torn apart by the death of his daughter. His marriage does not seem especially strong and his relationship with his daughter is where he finds his joy and happiness. His drug induced hallucinations and imaginings allow him to explore both the depths of his grief and the deepest meanings of what his daughter meant to him when she was alive and what she means to him in death. I have a daughter roughly the same age as Kate and I found the descriptions of Charlie's grief heart wrenching. It's so hard to imagine what losing a young child would feel like. We all like to think we'd be able to find the strength to carry on but I'm sure many people would react the way Charlie did. It was painful at times to see Charlie sinking lower and lower, with the bottom seemingly nowhere in sight. I could understand it though and until he was chastised by Mrs. Hale, there was no reason to see him pulling out of his death spiral. I think Charlie did have hope at a very deep level. The time he spent wandering through the cemetery and the woods of Enon were a form of contemplation, which I think eventually allowed him to see beyond his self-destruction. He experienced a type of communion with the natural world, not to mention the supernatural world. The various ways that he tries to meet his daughter in some nether region between life and death is haunting and evocative of the deep love he felt for her. In some ways it feels like a meditation on the communion of saints. I believe it is a Christian hope that transforms Charlie in the sense that even though his daughter is gone, he is able to deeply experience her presence in so many ways that she will always be present to him.

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