George Orwell called the novel a protestant art form: and in so far as protestant means simply breaking away and declaring oneself, this is obviously so. The novel is a supremely handy kind of declaration to nail on a nursery door, a parent’s tombstone, a crucifix, on anything that has let one down.
But the protestant novel is by definition a tale told by a refugee. Protestants, once they have settled in, are not really more interesting to write about than other people, although their lives may shape themselves into neater stories (that being the point of individualism—to be a self-contained story like Pilgrim’s Progress, with a single Judgment). They have only the one unarguable advantage, which is the freedom to tell the story in the first place.
Conversely, such communal orthodoxies as communism, Judaism, and Rome may actually provide much richer subjects than Bunyan’s nuclear pilgrim, but they cannot be used, except on the way out. A parish or apparat will simply not be itself in front of spies and informers, so talented believers must bite their tongues as the material glides by. It’s enough to make one defect, just to write a book. Because the wealth of oddity in any group can only be secured by what Graham Greene calls “the novelist’s duty to disloyalty”: i.e., a duty to betray friends and family and all the confidences ever placed in one, in return, if all goes well, for fame and money.
Hence the ex-believer’s natural advantage: and hence his usefulness. Just as the world needs spies to keep the balance of leaks at par, so even a Church needs its James Joyces to tell it its own secrets and complete the story. Of course there are certain things you always have to watch out for with defectors: all their secrets will be shameful, to justify their telling them at all, and all will be sensational, to catch your attention. A history of the world told entirely by defectors would be an Inferno; and so is a literature. The liberalized Church (if one can give a concrete name to an impulse) at least seems to realize this, and the message a young Catholic writer gets nowadays is that perhaps you don’t have to be an exbeliever to talk, and if you are an exbeliever you don’t have to go away mad.
Mary Gordon’s Final Payments is much more than the latest thing in Catholic novels, and I hope preambles such as this do not accompany it everywhere it goes, but it does show brilliantly the effects of the new dispensation on American Catholic fiction. It gives a picture of certain Catholic lives (its aim is convent-school modest) more ambiguous than anything either a loyalist or a heretic would have had a mind to produce a few years ago. In the European manner, the Church is seen not as a good place or a bad place, with batteries of the best lawyers to prove both at once, but as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.