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Swimming with Scapulars: Lent and Its Discontents, by Matthew Lickona
When I was confirmed at age fifteen, I took St. John the Baptist as my confirmation saint. ‘A voice crying out in the wilderness,’ I thought, full of adolescent pride. By Lent of 2003 I was a little older and a little more humble—if only as a result of years of sin and failure to do much crying out... An excerpt from the new spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.’

True Confessions of a Young Catholic: An Interview with Matthew Lickona, by Angelo Matera
In his spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars,’ 30-year-old Matthew Lickona lays bare the soul of a young traditional Catholic. We spoke to him recently about his book, his faith, and what it’s like to be the literary envoy for the ‘New Faithful’ Catholic revival.

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Catholic-Lit Revival: A Review of 'The Mystery of Things'

It’s a love story, a murder thriller, and a religious drama all wrapped into one. Is Debra Murphy’s 'The Mystery of Things' the next great work of Catholic literature?

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I have a sneaking suspicion that most people who buy and read chick-lit are, well, chicks. Something about those pink covers, festooned with strappy high-heeled shoes—hard to picture them nestled next to a bachelor’s bedside.

I do not begrudge these chicks their lit. Reading can be a portal into worlds that would otherwise remain utterly foreign. (I think of Peter De Vries’ gratitude, expressed in the preface of Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, that J.F. Powers had opened for him the doors of that mysterious world, the parish rectory.) But reading can also provide, amid glimpses of “Ah-ha!” recognition, revelations about more familiar worlds. If books can be spy-glasses, they can also be mirrors, mirrors with a power to reflect perhaps something more than we expected. If a single gal in the city wants to take delight in the story of a single gal in the city, then she has my sympathy. I read pretty broadly, but don’t I take a special pleasure in stories involving Catholic characters? Their struggles, their attempts at resolution, their delights and sorrows, the way they have been shaped, for better or for worse, by their experience of Catholicism? Yes, yes I do.

Literary-minded Catholics like me are forever griping about the disappearance of ‘Catholic’ writers like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and J.F. Powers.
This makes me, I suspect, something of a rare bird. There isn’t much of a market today for Catholic fiction—meaning, in this case, fiction that includes Catholic characters, Catholic themes (although any novel which treats of sin and its consequences may be said to have a Catholic theme), and even the fabled “Catholic sensibility.” Chicks may read chick-lit, Evangelicals may read Evangelical fiction, but Catholics don’t seem to have much use for this brand of Catholic lit.

And that’s fine. I think fiction is beneficial, but it is not a vitamin. It isn’t something you can swallow against your will and still experience its good effects. You’ve got to enjoy it first, and there’s the rub. Life’s too short to read novels out of loyalty. When I first fell in love with Walker Percyone of those “Catholic” novelists whose name has become worn with repetitionit was because Love in the Ruins delighted my heart. There was plenty of meaty material to mull in later moments, but it started with Dr. Tom More, “these dread latter days.” and too many gin fizzes.

So it was with not a little trepidation that I undertook to review Debra Murphy’s novel The Mystery of Things for Godspy. First, she advertises on the site. (Don’t screw the advertiser.) Second, she’s trying to start her own publishing house, Idylls Press, and is making her own work the Press’s first product. (Who wants to stomp on a seedling?) Third, the book is something of a mash-up (a characteristic which also makes it difficult to summarize in a review). It’s a love story, a murder thriller, and a religious drama, all set within the Heisler institute, “a place of advanced study dedicated to the principle that Art and Idea shape the structure of our world.” The place is “a cenotaph for Dead White European Males,” as the local paper puts it. Shakespeare worship in downtown Milwaukeehm.

The Prologue was catchy enougha fellow asking (in Latin) for divine cleansing and protection, borrowing his words from the Mass, before pitching himself “head first to the rotunda floor eight stories below.” But the real opening, the very first bit of prose, was the line from Sonnet 76 that gave the Prologue its title: “What is Already Spent:” So all my best is dressing old words new/Spending again what is already spent.

Every chapter (and each of the book’s three Acts) takes its title in that waya few words from a lengthier quotation, either from Spenser’s The Faerie Queen or some bit of Shakespeare or some other suitably poetic source. Rather dizzying heights for a murder thriller.

Murphy can treat ideas (and even poems!) as if they have power – which, in fact, they do.
Cause for worry, worry that grew deeper when the descriptors “blood-dark” and “steel-dark” appeared within the first three paragraphs of the first chapter. Murphy loves words, so much so that I sometimes tripped over her sentences and was sent skittering on to the next line, hoping for easier going. From that first chapter: “A claustrophobe by nature, James was bypassing the sluggish elevators in favor of the moderately less objectionable stairwell when a startling flash of lighting beyond the glass whitened the air around him.” She doesn’t fall prey to excessive adverbs, thank God, but the adjectives can sometimes pile up.

And if the adjectives don’t slow you down, you still have to contend with occasional bits of questionable dialogue. A couple of examples from the early pages: a character says that if Shakespeare had treated the legend of St. George and the Dragon, it would have been “written in the most glorious language ever uttered by anyone who was not God.” Another describes herself as “an erotic gourmande, eager to sample every dish on the buffet table. Pity how society has become so diet-conscious these days…The anorexia nervosa of the libido.” These don’t sound quite like natural speech to me. But then, I don’t have much experience with graduate students.

Finally, the book lumbers at the outset. The mash-up of genres means that Murphy has to roam from police investigations to Shakespeare to a freaky Catholic fraternity to the history of the Guadalupe tilma to porn production to… Suffice to say, the streams that eventually join up as the story flows on toward its culmination have pretty disparate headwaters.

Or at least, they seem to. After I finished, I found myself going back over those opening chapters, picking up echoes and hints, nodding at intimations. Which brings menow that I’ve just about finished my list of complaints about The Mystery of Thingsto the good stuff, starting with just that: Murphy knows how to build a story.

All those chapter openings from Shakespeare and Spenser? Their inclusion makes sense, both in terms of what’s said and who’s saying it. Gradually, the poetry begins to bleed into the prose, sometimes explicitly. (Interestingly enough for a “Catholic” novel, the hero gets lined up with Spenser and the villain with Shakespeare…)

Because of the academic setting, Murphy can treat ideas (and even poems!) as if they have powerwhich, in fact, they do. And not just ideasimagination: “We make celebrities out of killers,” says one character, “because we live in a time without the vision to make celebrities out of heroes…yet the fabric of a murderer’s and a hero’s life are woven out of the same cloth, the same textum.” He goes on to say that “in a world grown as devil-ridden as ours, a thirst for beauty is the most revolutionary and countercultural of passions.” As if to drive the point home, Our Lady of Guadalupe is put to good use. But the ideas don’t bog things down. Once we were past the preliminaries, I followed the confluence of all those streams with mounting pleasure.

Whatever its formal appearances, The Mystery of Things is a novel about sex, with beauty as a kind of corollary.
For me, the turning point came when Murphy interrupted the narrative for a hefty dose of backstory, in the form of an essay written by the book’s protagonist, James Ireton. James is a Brit and a scholar, and Murphy shifted voices completely (and convincingly) as he related his experience with both Catholicism in general and The Student Apostolate of North America, a Catholic organization with far too much emphasis on the latter term. (“No matter how noble the cause,” warns a sage, “when you mix fallen human nature with ideology and a militant organizational structure, alchemy will operate in reverse: gold will be transformed into lead.”)

Suddenly, the language was easy and rolling, the account captivating, the character sympathetic. “Why couldn’t the whole book be like this?” I wondered. Happily, when the essay ended and I returned to the narrative, I found my initial frustrations had subsided. Whether or not this was the effect of the essay or the progression of story, it is difficult to say. But I never looked back, and I seemed to stop tripping over even the more elaborate sentences.

That essay, together with numerous other examples, brings me to my second bit of praise: when it comes to understanding the Catholic faith’s effect on character, and the proper presentation of that effect in a story, I think Murphy gets it. I am sensitive to preaching in my Catholic fiction perhaps not as much as I should be, but still. There’s a lot of teaching-type talk in The Mystery of Thingsit’s set in a grad school, after all. But I don’t recall ever thinking that the book was forgetting its businesstelling a storyand starting in with the education. It probably helps that James, a bitter lapsed convert, is himself sensitive to preachingto the point of pugnacity.

If the teach-slip happened anywhere, it was when I was in the presence of the woman who catches James’s attention, Lupe Cruz. So, a few words about Lupe: I can see where some readers will want to take issue with her. She borders on saintlinessthe real, tough-minded, saintliness that is neither shocked nor aloof in the face of sin, and presses on in steadfast love. Tricky material. When James tries to disgust her with his sexual history, she doesn’t get mad. She sees past her own pain and into his: “Isn’t this what it's all about? Hurting me as badly as you can so I’ll take it all back and you won’t have to deal with it?”

Suddenly, the language was easy and rolling, the account captivating, the character sympathetic.
She’s a walking Theology of the Body (and what a body: “the measurements of Miss Universe 1957.”). Aflame with desire, teetering on the edge of intercourse, she still manages to cry out, “Oh God, everything’s c-c-connected, and we’re trying to cut it up, and I don’t know how or where to cut. There’s bone everywhere beneath!”

That stutter is, sadly, a bit of a giveawaynot unlike Father Weatherbee's wildly rolling eyeball in Walker Percy’s The Second Coming. When you want to sneak some perfection in unawares, cover it with a lesser imperfection. (But I did like that she lost the stutter when she got mad.) And even her spiritual weaknesses seem only to endear her, render her human, when in reality, she’s practically Dante’s Beatricegrace itself, come to lead man toward heaven. Maybe Murphy can make an argument in Lupe’s defense; I’m not going to try to do it for her. All I will say is that I was charmed enough to be content that she was so; she had me at H-Hello.

Well nowI’ve gone and mentioned lust, porn, an erotic gourmande, and impending intercourse between our romantic leads. It seems that there’s a sexual element in this Catholic novel. More than an elementan atmosphere. It’s tied up with the love-story angle, of course, but also with the thriller, and even withquelle surprisethe religious drama. It might even be fair to say that, whatever its formal appearances, The Mystery of Things is a novel about sex, with beauty as a kind of corollary. On that score, it is frank, even explicit. But not, I think, salacious, not prurient, and most importantly, not dishonest.

The novel acknowledges the power of sex without fetishizing it, and when it speaks in opposition to unbridled lust, it does not scold. Force, says the aforementioned sage, quoting Simone Weil, turns “persons into things,” and is also “one of the sure signs of the diabolic. Or, to use the language of the police, forced entry is a sure sign of crime…That includes the form of psychological forced entry we so delicately term ‘seduction.’” Better still, the book often avoids such talk altogether, and sticks to illustrating character with action.

The novel is Catholic in its fleshy heart – a heart which is thoroughly, refreshingly human.
The Mystery of Things
gives you love and murder, sex and violence, God and the devil, the Virgin and the dragon, plus Catholicism vs. a perverted, self-righteous, hollowed-out image of itself, set against the everyday backdrop of urban and rural Wisconsin. It’s a love story in which loving wrongly does damage, a murder thriller unafraid to probe the juncture of sex and death, and a religious drama which doesn’t sacrifice the natural on the altar of the supernatural.

Literary-minded Catholics like me are forever griping about the disappearance of “Catholic” writers like Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and J.F. Powers. We pine for esteemed writers, masters of their craft, respected by Catholics and seculars alike. But it would be wise to recall that Percy’s biggest seller was The Thanatos Syndrome, a thriller. Is The Mystery of Things the next great work of Catholic literature? No, but it doesn’t pretend to be. What’s more, it doesn’t need to be. It’s a good story, well-told, Catholic in its trappings but also in its fleshy hearta heart which is thoroughly, refreshingly human. I enjoyed reading it.

May 22, 2006

MATTHEW LICKONA is the author of 'Swimming With Scapulars: Confessions of a Young Catholic' (Loyola). A staff writer and sometime cartoonist for the weekly 'San Diego Reader,' Matthew was born and raised in upstate New York, and attended Thomas Aquinas College in California. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife Deirdre and their four children.

Copyright © 2006, Godspy. All rights reserved.

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08.30.06   tfrei says:
I think Lickona's review is right on. I really enjoyed reading the book. Catholics interested in faith and culture should read it.

05.31.06   fpk3 says:
I wonder how it stacks up compared to other academic novels, like David Lodge's Small World . . .

05.30.06   Godspy says:
It’s a love story, a murder thriller, and a religious drama all wrapped into one. Is Debra Murphy’s 'The Mystery of Things' the next great work of Catholic literature?

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