Reviewed Elsewhere [Vol. 2, #42]

October 30, 2009


The BOOKFORUM Review of
Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA

Princeton Architectural Press is about to release a book on Frida Kahlo that features a cache of purportedly rediscovered paintings, journals, and trinket-laced archival materials, which experts are denouncing as fake. The publication looks to do little for the reputation and life story of the complicated Mexican artist except to further cheapen them. But as a venture into the territory where fiction stalks fact, it handily illustrates the romanticized notions of history’s celebrities that get cast back over time.

Barbara Kingsolver provides a foil to this tendency with The Lacuna, all the more remarkable, it’s fair to say, given the position reserved for it on best-seller lists. The novel’s own artifactualness is never in question, since, to highlight the deceptive ways we both perceive and receive history, Kingsolver has dreamed up a series of private journals, fictitious news accounts, invented book reviews, and other faux-archival stuff to make a riddle of her story. And though Kahlo is a character, as are Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Richard Nixon, the shyly sweet heart of the novel is the completely made-up Harrison William Shepherd. He is also its not always dependable narrator, because much of the truth Kingsolver wants to reveal about human nature caught in the sweaty grasp of historical events is uncovered by unpeeling the layers of a personality—Shepherd’s—belonging to someone who writes fiction himself.

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Barbara Kingsolver.

Hardback: Harper, 2009
PRE-ORDER: [ Amazon ]

Chesterton’s Return: How GKC subverts the subversives.
From Books and Culture.

A prophet is never welcome in his own hometown. For a long time after the tumult of the Sixties, G. K. Chesterton’s writings seemed to have lost a welcome anywhere, except, perhaps, among the detective fiction enthusiasts who have kept the Father Brown tales in circulation continuously on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Denis J. Conlon, an English literary scholar who has specialized in Chesterton for many years, much of Chesterton’s work is still out of print and hard-to-get in his own merry England. A friend of mine studying in Rome a few years ago told me that the English and Irish Catholic seminarians he met almost universally regarded Chesterton a pre-modern, pre-Vatican II embarrassment. The situation was about the same in America for a long time. As of 1985 there were probably fewer than ten of Chesterton’s books in print, and those were, aside from his detective fiction, mostly published by small and often obscure Catholic presses.

The situation was bound to change, however, as this particular prophet still had his faithful remnant, about thirty-five of whom (at most) met throughout the Eighties and early Nineties in Milwaukee every year and exchanged news and views in a little rag called the Midwest Chesterton News. On the more scholarly side, Ian Boyd, a priest and literary scholar, had since 1974 been running the Chesterton Review, a literary quarterly that printed forgotten pieces by Chesterton as well as scholarly essays on his life, thought, and interlocutors. Ignatius Press, a small but growing outfit run by Joseph Fessio, SJ (one of Joseph Ratzinger’s doctoral students), decided to publish a collected works with scholarly introductions and footnotes that will eventually number roughly 50 volumes. And newly emerging publications like Crisis, New Oxford Review, and First Things quoted Chesterton incessantly and sometimes ran articles about him. He even began popping up in Christianity Today, where he had fans in Philip Yancey and Charles Colson.

Here one might briefly note the role of Christian rock in the revival of Chesterton in America. One of the younger people traveling to Milwaukee in those lean years was a young Baptist named Dale Ahlquist. While in college in the late Seventies, Ahlquist spent some time at the home of his sister and then brother-in-law working for the summer. His sister’s husband, the so-called godfather of Christian rock, was the late Larry Norman. Norman found Ahlquist reading a book by C. S. Lewis and asked if he was familiar with Chesterton. Upon discovering that he wasn’t, Norman cryptically remarked that after reading Chesterton one doesn’t even “need” Lewis anymore.

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