David Borofka. A Longing for Impossible Things. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.
Fernando A. Flores. Valleyesque: Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.
WHEN I WAS TWENTY YEARS OLD I had an old canvas rucksack I kept filled with thirty-five pounds of books I lugged with me all over campus, never sure when I’d need The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, The Interior Castle, or the faded orange edition of Meister Eckhart I pored over hoping it would become less inscrutable the longer I stared at the words.
The pack had a variety of external pockets perfect for chunky paperbacks and a bag of the day-old bagels I subsisted on that year (six for a dollar fifty), which left its roomy inner compartment available for the true source of the weight I carried, both physically and emotionally: four hardcover volumes of the Liturgy of the Hours, the canonical prayers of the Catholic Church, which were at the time a curious obsession. Together with those medieval texts, they were the key, I thought, to my past and my future.
I had started carrying the Liturgy of the Hours because I was trying to write a novel set in a medieval convent and had convinced myself that the rhythm of monastic life would make me better attuned to the experiences of the characters I hoped to create. It also provided something of a sideways reckoning with my own real-life experiences.
Until then, as a religion major I had read far and wide in traditions not my own. My classes had me dabbling in Buddhism and Islam, Sanskrit and Hebrew. But the Catholic liturgy was most exotic precisely because it felt like my own personal Atlantis, a civilization lost beneath the depths of family history. Before I was born, my father and mother had been a priest and a nun; when they were the age I was then, their lives were entwined with the sounds of liturgy in a way that had echoed discordantly through my suburban youth. Understanding it meant understanding them, which of course meant understanding myself.
So writing the novel was something of a cover story. It gave me—despite my unusual clerical pedigree, a fairly typical lapsed Catholic undergraduate who had imagined himself free of the fetters of his childhood faith—license to steal away from friends and classes at odd times to read the Psalms aloud. It sent me back to Mass. It led me to visit a nearby monastery for weeks at a time, calling it “research” whenever anyone asked why I was going away. The novel offered me a way to dabble in being religious without the complications of belief. In a world of my own making, it did not matter what I believed—or more to the point, what I did not believe. Fiction let me pray and mean it. Stories, both in their making and their telling, provide a bridge not only to other people’s experiences but also to the stranger parts of ourselves, which, though we often keep them hidden, are at the heart of who we are.
Twenty-seven years later, with that novel finally out in the world, I have been reminded of some of my original motivations for writing it by other recent books. It has struck me that much fiction of the past few years has taken what might be called a spiritual turn. In some cases, writers not generally thought of as having much connection to faith traditions have explored religious characters and experiences with surprising sensitivity; in others, stories that at first don’t seem to have a religious dimension offer unexpected revelations. Together they have made me wonder if the great uncertainty of the pandemic era has inspired a generation of writers to grapple anew with the supposed certainties of faith in their fiction.
Scanning my recent acquisitions, I see Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, Lauren Groff’s Matrix, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets, Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus, Quan Barry’s When I’m Gone Look for Me in the East.… I could go on, but suffice to say there is a great deal of variety in literary fiction’s renewed interest in religion. The beliefs on display range from midwestern liberal Protestant to medieval Catholic, Navajo to Buddhist to Jewish, futuristic robot sun worship to the historical African American prophetic tradition. As diverse as they are, what these novels have in common is the use of religion as a guiding influence that is both of its world and apart from it.
Yet when I consider the strangeness at the core of belief, I think most of two short story collections that on the surface don’t have much in common with each other, or with my own efforts at the intersection of literature and faith. David Borofka’s
A Longing for Impossible Things and Fernando A. Flores’s Valleyesque each consist of a baker’s dozen stories exploring mostly American landscapes. The former is more traditional in its character-driven scenes, the latter flamboyant in its experimental cool. Neither is what anyone would call religious fiction. Each is in its own way an overflowing backpack of a book; in its pockets there are many rooms, spaces in which the mundane and the fantastical merge.
Borofka, longtime teacher of writing at Reedley College, sets his book’s playfully spiritual (or spiritually playful) tone with the first story. The narrator of “My Life as a Mystic” is Charlie, a hapless “appraiser of vineyards and orchards” whose eclectic head-in-the-clouds proclivities made me cringe with recognition. “In college, I read all the oracular literature I could get my hands on,” Charlie says, “the Vedas, the Kabbalah, the so-called Hermetic writings—and although baffling and mysterious, such works held me in their sway.”
He is, it turns out, a perfect avatar for examining the heady feeling of the transcendent barging unbidden into our lives. “Now and again, driving to work on a bright and sunny day in early spring,” he admits, “I was sure that God would step out onto the highway and flag me down, illumination as hitchhiker.”
In those moments, my head would get so light, my mood so euphoric I feared insanity, but a doctor friend, a shrink, claimed that these incidents were nothing more than a manic phase. “Wait a bit,” he told me. “It’s early yet.” My wife, on the other hand, insisted that I was experiencing an electrolyte imbalance. “Drink some Gatorade. You’ll feel better.”
So which was it, God, mania, or dehydration? In this and other stories that make up A Longing for Impossible Things, it’s likely all three: the spiritual jumbled with the practical; the sacred mixed with sad-sack accidents, miscues, and failures to launch.
In another highlight of the collection, “Oh Perfect, Perfect Love!” a similarly directionless character bumbles into a sex cult (and not just any sex cult, but a nudist, free love, perfectionist commune, spiritual descendants of the Oneida Community, those nineteenth-century pioneers of plural marriage, male sexual continence, and silver-plated flatware) where he watches members of all ages “cavorting naked in a muddy pond…in the muck like beavers.” “Christmas in Jonestown” introduces a guy cleaning toilets for a collection agency who recalls quitting college after getting caught plagiarizing in his New Testament Greek class. “Coincidence” gives us a teenage faith healer who stabs a classmate with a No. 2 pencil, makes the wound disappear, and later reflects, “God must have a sense of humor if he’s going to be healing people through me.”
Where else but in fiction—both reading and writing it—can one try on so many different kinds of salvation? The comedy of seeking is rarely so sympathetically portrayed as in Borofka’s hands; he captures perfectly the poignancy of dopey mortals dreaming and scheming to reach the divine. Making sense of the universe and one’s place within it is of course a deadly serious business—theologian Paul Tillich called it “a matter of ultimate concern”—but we are so often so far off the mark that the search cannot help but seem ludicrous too. The absurdity of other people’s spiritual striving is easy to see, of course. Only from the distance of decades do we wonder if our own heavy mystical rucksacks might have hurt our backs. Stories can help us recognize that our own beliefs and the actions they inspire are as weird as anyone’s.
Fernando A. Flores’s Valleyesque wears weirdness on its sleeve. Mexican-born, raised in south Texas, he is interested in the knotty terrain—physical, metaphorical, linguistic—created by borders. As with Borofka, readers of his stories never step into the same stream twice. “Zapata Foots the Bill” unfolds “in a land where the entire world was reflected in mirages—the desert.” “The Science Fair Protest” recounts a time when “the new gangsters got elected and took control.” And in “Ropa Usada,” a used clothing warehouse filled with garments shipped from the US to Mexico becomes a fantastical nation unto itself, a Narnia accessed not through a wardrobe but made entirely of things discarded from it. Flores conjures streets made of dungaree, hills of khaki, fields of flannel, and an entire village filled with “small houses made of broomsticks, parkas, and cheap coats,” and then a “tsunami of clothes” washing over it all:
T-shirts of old bands and businesses, discarded quinceañera dresses, pearl snap shirts, denim in every form, jackets, polo shirts, school uniforms, scarves, boots, chanclas, high heels, ties, sneakers, Oxfords with worn soles in every size, long skirts, miniskirts, shawls, aprons, galoshes, tank tops, bathrobes, leather jackets, vests, belts, suspenders, ruffled blouses, tunics, hooded sweatshirts, earmuffs, all styles of hat, and every snarky saying ever printed on sixty percent polyester, forty percent cotton came together like the earth had quaked from deep in its depths.
Flores for the most part lets such visions stand on their own, with little or no explanation, though on one occasion he does tip his hand a bit, when one character says of another: “I imagined her reading a book, or maybe writing fiction—and maybe some of it leaking here and there, into our real world.” That is most certainly the nature of Flores’s imagination as well.
The porous natures of fiction and reality, their mutual influence, can be seen most clearly when Valleyesque turns explicitly to religious subjects, particularly in what is perhaps the most surprising story about an angel I have ever read. “Pheasants” offers a run-down twist on Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, a film in which well-dressed angels watch stoically over human affairs, staring down from grand heights, sharing grand reflections on time, knowledge, eternity, and longing. Far from black-and-white Berlin, Flores puts his angel in a washed-out borderland alleyway, where they—the angel’s pronoun of choice—spend their days eating garbage.
The next morning, taking the trash out in the middle of the double she was working, Tito Papel saw the feathered angel. The feathered angel sat on a log with their wings tucked, eating a chunk of birthday cake somebody had thrown away and that they’d fished out of the trash, no doubt.
The feathers are an important detail. This divine messenger does not favor the attractive human form most of classical depictions. Neither cherubim nor seraphim convey the gritty realism of this particular heavenly host fallen to earth.
“Artists have notions of angels, thinking that they look like people,” Flores notes, “but what they never get right is their skin, with their tiny feathers, which bring to mind tall, beakless birds.” As the angel eats trashcan cake, the feathers around their mouth “fluttered and acted as a natural napkin, cleaning their face of the old, tepid orange icing.” As the angel overindulges in possibly spoiled dessert, “The wings on their back went taut, then fluttered when the puke came, this time in blue and yellow,” causing a witness to remark, “On earth as it is in heaven—I guess I understand now.”
Like biblical descriptions of angels as “many-eyed ones” with four faces—human, lion, ox, and eagle—Flores’s vision is deeply and viscerally off-putting, suggesting that the valley of the collection’s title is not just the one through which the Rio Grande flows, but the uncanny kind.
Nor is this angel any great comfort. Those making the mistake of assuming God sends emissaries as guardian angels—“making sure you don’t screw up at every step”—are quickly and somewhat rudely corrected.
“This may come as a regrettable surprise, but there’s something you need to know,” the angel says. “The inherent egotism of your kind prevents you from seeing something: that the existence of my kind, or of any living creature here, is not necessarily contingent on your own.” When pressed, the angel expounds upon the differences between angelic and human existence:
You think my kind—and I use the term “my kind” because it’s something you can understand; to use the true name of our kind would split your skull in half—exists for the benefit of your own? Like, we’re out here watching you and knowing everyone’s lunches and fates and such? That’s the egotism of your kind, friend. Thinking there’s living beings existing just for the benefit of your existence. I cannot feel baffled, but I do believe “baffle” is a word that can be used to describe this—
Flores’s stories are themselves occasionally baffling, in the best possible way. Borofka’s are as well. There are no tidy endings, few obvious themes, and little effort made to signpost for readers what any of these tales will have in store. In this, these two collections perhaps approximate better than much recent fiction the perplexing complexity of faith as it is experienced. The boundary between human longing and divine promise can be a dangerous no-man’s-land. Fleeting views of a world imbued with mystery and meaning may be the best anyone can get.
All these years later, I realize that’s what I was looking for when I shouldered my rucksack full of prayerbooks: a sense that words could provide a map as we travel through this borderland. Whether we believe in them or not, we still hope they can show us the way.
Peter Manseau is the author of ten books, including most recently the novel The Maiden of All Our Desires (Arcade).