Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Exiles: The MLR Review!

We had been eager to read Ron Hansen’s Exiles. He is easily the most acclaimed novelist—whose work is always well-received by critics and film producers—who is proud of his Catholic faith, and here was a novel that was about Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of his favorite poets. It’s a perfect storm of Catholicism! (Excuse the tumultuous maritime pun.)

The exiles to which the title refers are six characters: five German nuns leaving Bismark’s kulturkampf, hoping to start a school in Missouri (which, for our many international readers, is a state in the Midwestern United States). They never reach their destination, dying in a shipwreck off the coast of England. The sixth exile is Gerard Manley Hopkins, who at the start of the novel—that is, at the time of the Deutschland’s wreck—is a young priest in Wales. Reading about the death of the nuns, he is inspired to write a poem for them, and the novel traces his struggles writing what would become “The Wreck of the Deutschland”—as well as his personal, religious, and health problems—until his own early death.

Hansen’s affection for Hopkins, and his sympathy for the priest’s struggles as an artist, are clear; we also enjoyed the details of the everyday lives of these holy people. Hansen makes them human and imperfect, but never diminishes their sacrifices or their holiness. Indeed, it is their apparent normalcy that makes their decisions to enter Holy Orders compelling.

Still, we couldn’t help but feeling a bit let down by the novel. The main reason for this disappointment is the telling-instead-of-showing that Matthew Lickona observes, which makes the novel seem impersonal. The novel is short (just over 200 pages), so there’s not enough room to engage with six characters in very much detail. Hansen devotes about half of the novel to the nuns and half to Hopkins, which makes formal sense. The trouble is, he’s totally democratic with the nuns—they each get the same amount of back-story, the same attention in the present, etc. We suppose it would seem a bit crude to determine that one of these nuns is better than the others, or more worthy of our attention. For the sake of the novel, though, the author needs to make that decision, and I would have liked to have seen Hansen write that particular half of the novel from the perspective of one of the nuns. By trying to show us all of them, we end up not knowing any of them very well. They are all admirable and likeable (and, because they’re human, unlikeable) in different ways, and of course their deaths are very moving, but their narrative is unfocused, and not as powerful as it could be. (This same impersonal feeling is even true of the Hopkins half of the novel, as Hansen rushes through much of the priest’s life.)

Another formal problem arises because of the time differences between the narratives. At the start, there are only a few days difference between the departure of the nuns for America and Hopkins’s attempt to write the poem. Toward the end of the novel, as Hopkins nears the end of his own life, there are years between him and the wreck, but the novel alternates between the two plot strands as it had in the start. By now, though, the time difference makes this alternating seem forced, a formal relic from the start of the novel that seems irrelevant by the end because Hopkins was no longer preoccupied with thoughts of the shipwreck.

I’ll end with a minor gripe. At one point, Hansen refers to “a handwritten poem in Shakespearean blank verse of five accented syllables per line.” There’s no such thing as Shakespearean verse as opposed to plain old blank verse; blank verse is more complicated than just five accented syllables; and the lines that he actually provides aren’t blank verse, either. That just annoyed us; we assume that Hansen knows what blank verse is, and was simplifying the definition for his readers, but there’s a difference between simplifying and getting it wrong.

This is not a bad novel, only a disappointing one. That disappointment could be as much our fault as Hansen’s, since we built unrealistic expectations for The Great Catholic Hope. For now, though, we still prefer his short stories (in many regards, especially the understated presentation of the tragic deaths, this novel reminds us of “Wickedness”) or his essays in A Stay Against Confusion.

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