In Flannery O'Connor's recently published prayer journal, which she wrote in her early twenties, her ambitions as a fiction writer often get entangled with her aspirations to summon God into the work itself. "Start with the soul and perhaps the temporal gifts I want to exercise will have their chance. . . . God must be in all my work." (See our review.) What makes her fiction great is not her intention to write directly about "Christian principles"; such an aim could have easily steered her to produce sermonizing fables or sentimental inspirational tales. Rather, her deeply original, dark, and comic vision seems to have sprung from her immersion in religious faith: Her devotion made her a spectacularly good observer of life. All of this got me thinking about other fiction writers who, in one way or another, take on faith or God as their subject matter. It's tricky territory for sure, and what fascinates me in each of these books is the strategic and sometimes radical ways these writers find to traverse the territory of the divine.
Goyen (1915–1983), a Texas writer who was a contemporary of O'Connor's, writes in a Texan vernacular with a full-throated lyricism. This novel, about a hermaphrodite in a traveling circus, is suffused with Catholic imagery and the language of tent revivals, but Goyen often uses the erotic as an avenue to writing about faith. In one passage, Eddy the dwarf, an angry and bitter atheist, reads the Bible to Arcadio, only in exchange for sexual favors. "As a swap for reading out to me I let him handle me. Eddy was a hot little lonely Dwarf and I loved God and wanted to read his words. That was the bargain."
American religion is a subtext in nearly all of Johnson's work, but in this under-sung, exquisite short novel about grief, Johnson takes on the theme of faith more directly. In an incredible and poignant scene, after the narrator has followed an attractive young performance artist to a country church, and in the midst of an earnest hymn, he is comforted by his sudden realization that God does not exist. "It was like waking from a nightmare in which I'd been paralyzed. Like discovering that gravity itself was only a bad dream." As in much of Johnson's work, the declared absence of God paradoxically seems to amplify a sense of the divine.
The first story in this collection is told from the perspective of an anarchist who, before she found her faith, knew a modern-day Catholic candidate for sainthood, the journalist and activist Dorothy Day. The narrator is not charmed by Day's devotion—in fact, she and her anarchist friends find it somewhat alarming and hurtful. "Dorothy wasn't even born a Catholic, but if it was truly and freely in her own individual nature to love the Church, what then? 'It's the illusion that gives me the creeps,' Joe said. He meant divinity. Christ's or anybody's." This story imprints the rest of the story cycle, which jumps forward in time, spans generations and locations. Each story explores ways in which different modes of belief and justice get played out—in the lineage of family and community, and in the different incarnations of "the fool": "All this laughing, I came to think, ignored the number of things a person could be a fool for in this life—a fool for love, a fool for Christ, a fool for admiration."
Lispector was one of Brazil's great (and popular) modern writers. In this fantastically strange and meditative book, the narrator, terrified by the appearance of a cockroach that crawls out from a wardrobe in an otherwise empty room, confronts the insect's existence and her own. After crushing it, she puts the entrails into her mouth. In the process, she locates an avenue to the soul, though not without a complete upheaval of the self: ". . . if I go along with my fragmentary visions, the whole world will have to be transformed in order for me to fit within it." (Read Rachel Kushner's essay on Lispector, "Lipstick Traces.")
Loosely based on the personas of Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, this epistolary novel gathers power and momentum as the correspondence between the characters, Frances and Bernard, becomes more fraught. With religious ideas at the center of their exchange ("I want to talk to you about God and art"), they flirt and argue, and Bauer does an amazing job of dramatizing the journey of this friendship, each voice a convincingly particular evocation of a literary and religious imagination.
René Steinke is the author of Holy Skirts (William Morrow), a 2005 finalist for the National Book Award. Her next novel will be published by Riverhead in fall 2014.