August 31, 2007

Pelagius and the fools

We [Stephen Carter and Eugene Woodbury] propose that narrative fiction constructed in a Mormon context and for Mormon audiences often strays from conventional storytelling in several ways. Principal among these is the negation or diminution of the "second act." These stories skip from the first act (the set up) to the third act (the reassuring resolution), leaving out the struggle in between.

One explanation is that the hero's journey (as defined by the Campbellian monomyth) and the struggles he encounters present an unacceptable challenge to authority. Even the need for a journey suggests a rejection of the answers the gospel has provided. In other words, when the prophet speaks, the quest is over.

This missing "second act" also hints at a Calvinist mindset taking over Mormon letters: there is no need to wrestle with angels (as does Jacob in Genesis) or to protest bitterly to God (as does Job), because the proper resolution of our struggles has already been determined. Our fate is in the cards, and God always holds the winning hand.

The obvious exceptions are those Manichean contests in which a theologically-untroubled protagonist, in Hamlet's words, "takes up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing ends them." Hence the travails of the Willie and Martin handcart companies are depicted not as the product of human failure (which might problematically identify God as an unindicted co-conspirator), but as a heroic battle against cruel and insentient nature.

Coupled with the impulse to mollify an established set of authoritative truths is the growing rejection of what I call the "neo-Pelagian" theology that Joseph Smith restored, summed up in the proposition: "By grace we are saved, after all we can do." This challenge to "work out our own salvation" should be embraced, not as a challenge to divine providence, but as an invitation to play God's fools.

A 19th century transcendentalist who belongs alongside Emerson and Thoreau,(1) Joseph Smith resurrected the Puritan ideal of the "city on the hill,"(2) paralleling utopian movements such as Brook Farm. At the same time, he daringly attempted to mend the 16th century Catholic-Protestant rupture and bridge the long-buried 4th century Augustinian/Pelagian divide.

In doing so, Joseph Smith--quite inadvertently--created rich, new fields of possibility in Christian narrative fiction--fields that have shown particular promise in the science fiction and fantasy genres. But fields undermined by the loss of theological topsoil tilled from the revolutionary ideas of its founding prophet.(3)

Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine and resided in Rome during the late 4th century. There he developed a theology of salvation that would be declared heresy two decades later at the Council of Carthage in 418.(4)

Instead Augustine's views of the Fall, original sin, and grace became official Christian orthodoxy. The opposing stances taken by Pelagius and Augustine do remain alive in Buddhism, in the debate over whether the Buddha himself is possessed of salvific power that can be accessed through faith, or whether he serves primarily as an exemplar to the penitent.(5)

Pelagius, in contrast, has all but disappeared from history.

But in the spring of 1820, he found an unlikely champion in the person of Joseph Smith, whose answer to both questions was: Yes. Smith went on to define a brazenly syncretic theology that would be received by the Christian community about as graciously as Pelagius's teachings were fourteen centuries before.

Joseph Smith's boldest step was to give every member of the human race a personal stake in his own creation and salvation. The most definite pronouncement of this doctrine was made in the King Follett sermon: "Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it."

Or as Shakespeare has King Henry lecture his soldiers: "Every subject's duty is the king's, but every subject's soul's his own."

Ask an informed Christian what disqualifies Mormonism from Christian fellowship and he will likely refer to the doctrine of eternal progression.(6) The leadership of the Mormon Church seems to have taken these criticisms to heart as well, resulting in contradictory public pronouncements on the subject.(7) Call it the revenge of the Augustinians.(8)

To be sure, Pelagius was an ascetic, out of the Stoic tradition, and Joseph Smith was not. "The great principle of happiness," he wrote, "consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."

Thus any doctrine he promulgated had to lock spirit and matter and grace and works together in an eternal whole, much in the same way that Grand Unified Theories in physics reach back to the first moments of creation, searching for the all-encompassing formula that reunites all observable physical phenomenon.

Expanding on John 3:16, Joseph Smith first posited 2 Nephi 25:23: "It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." This is the general theory. Eternal progression implies eternal struggle. The specific theory is found in Alma 12:24:

[N]evertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead.

There is actually a third critical formula in Joseph Smith's Theory of Everything, that of salvation for the dead. This doctrine I consign to the field of eschatology. Still, I'll skip briefly to the eschatological beginnings. Joseph Smith, this time echoing John Milton,(9) observes: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:22-25).

Unfortunately, the problem with archetypes is that it's easy to remember the mythology and forget the original point. In the Biblical story God's greatest act is to permit Eve to be tempted, and then to act on that temptation, and then to live through the consequences. Joseph Smith portrays an upwards "Fall" in the evolution of the human race.

"This is good doctrine. It tastes good," he boasted, in the much the same way that mathematicians describe their theories as "elegant." In other words, here is the way the story should be told.

The story begins with a big bang, a fall from grace. An inciting incident, through which we enter a probationary state that tests our mettle. During this time, all forward progress is achieved through conflict. In the final resolution we reap the rewards of that behavior. The chickens come home to roost in proportion to the force with which they were sent flying.

Except that what I just summarized is not scripture or theology, but screenplay structure as explained by Robert McKee in his book Story.(10) According to McKee, the most important element of story structure is (and I paraphrase): the probationary state, and the necessity of opposition in all things. The narrative can only move forward through conflict, meaning hard choices. And hard choices ipso facto cause suffering (if they didn't, they wouldn't be hard). Grace--in the denouement--only comes after all we can do.

As children's literature critic Jenny Sawyer notes, "It's the hero's struggle--and costly redemption--that matters."(11) Or as my sister Katherine sums up in her review of Spider-Man 3: "The audience is willing to let the hero suffer." She cites Edmund from C.S. Lewis's Narnia books as an example, explaining why he is not a victim or a poor little boy, but the favorite character of many readers:

Lewis understood what silly adults and the Spider-Man 3 screenwriters failed to grasp: that . . . in order to take someone seriously, you have to take their actions seriously, as well as the consequences of those actions. Lewis takes his children protagonists seriously, which must be very refreshing to the average child.(12)

Which is why the attitude, "Well, he learned his lesson. He's sorry. Hey, you know, bad things happened to him too, so let's just let the whole thing drop," just doesn't work in terms of good storytelling.

As I noted earlier, Mormon authors have proved quite successful in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Not only because Mormon theology supplies the material and primes the creative pumps, but because the genre provides that degree of aesthetic distance that keeps those worrisome struggles from cutting too close to the bone.

Story evolves out of a "what-ifs" leading to conflict that must be resolved by the protagonist. And while man vs. nature and man vs. "the other" are standard sources of dramatic conflict, they don't well serve stories that evolve out of contemporary, suburban lives without degrading into utopianism (i.e., "we were a perfect little family until you came along").

This is the Mormon version of what Moira Redmond calls "Dreadlit," or young adult literature full of "utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons--actual and moral--in the most punishing ways possible."(13)

This is not a problem confined to Mormon letters. "What is wrong with the modern literary novel?" asks Julian Gough in May 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine.(14) "Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?" The reason, he argues, is that "western culture since the Middle Ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic."

Which wouldn't by itself be such a bad thing, except that most "serious" fiction "contains not so much tragedy as mere anxiety. Pushed to look for tragedy in lives that contain none," Gough observers, "to generate suffering in order to be proper writers, they force themselves to frown rather than smile."

Lost in this perpetual winter of discontent is a sense of humor about human fallibility. And here Gough unwittingly draws a line straight to Joseph Smith. Hearkening back to the ancient Greeks, he notes that while tragedy was the "merely human" view of life,

comedy was the gods' view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it . . . . And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies. [emphasis added]

I find this perspective highly amenable to a Mormon theology that posits a God possessed of human empathy, a God with a rich sense of been-there, done-that sensibility and humor. But we've been seduced by the same temptation. Concludes Gough, "If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode."

To be sure, as Robert McKee observes in Story, laughter is not an emotion. Rather, laughter is a reaction to incongruity. A tragic fact is a settled fact; humor is up in the air. The human comedy is a Hail Mary pass thrown into the end zone. A religious philosophy that acknowledges only settled facts on the ground can never be funny. Or compellingly dramatic.

The Bible is full of wry and bawdy humor. But we've been programmed to ignore and misinterpret it. In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood notes that

we habitually think of [Jesus] as mild in manner, endlessly patient, [and] grave in speech . . . [but] a prosy literalism misses the wry humor . . . and the point of the teaching.(15)

Though his actions, in fact, Christ lived the life that Gough wishes to reclaim for the novel. The novel, insists Gough,

cannot submit to authority. It is written against official language, against officialdom, and against whatever fixed form the novel has begun to take--it is always dying, and always being born.

But this is tricky business, he admits. Humor with teeth--humor that engenders struggle--got Rabelais, Voltaire, and Cervantes (and Salman Rushdie) in trouble with the church and the law. And yet popular literature also suggests a way around this paradox. In a recent analysis on what she calls "bad-tempered doctors with hearts of gold"--Cox (from Scrubs), Becker (from Becker) and House (from House)--my sister concludes:

What makes all three of the doctors interesting to watch is that all three of them act the role of "fool"--not a fool in the Ben Stiller sense--but a fool in the Shakespearean/King Lear sense. They say things other people don't admit or want to hear.(16)

As it says in Moses 6:38, "There is a strange thing in the land; a wild man hath come among us." A deep and abiding longing for such "wild men"--mouthing off, telling tales out of school, tweaking God's nose--can be detected in the wistful longing with which Mormons share J. Golden Kimball stories, knowing that his kind will never come again.

Or to paraphrase Gough, the Mormon novel "needs the barbarians. It secretly yearns for them." Because without them, the audience is unlikely to stay through the second act, and so will not grasp that illustrative moral that the author so desperately wishes to elucidate in the stunning climax and the reassuring conclusion to the story.

This essay was the second of two papers presented with Stephen Carter at the 2007 Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium and later at the 2007 AML Writing Conference. It is based in part on "To the contrary."

1. What Richard Bushman terms "19th century radical Mormonism . . . willing to challenge virtually everything in American culture." Transcript of the Pew Forum Biannual Faith Angle Conference on Religion, Politics and Public Life, May 2007. [return]

2. Ibid. "What is not recognized about Joseph Smith is that there is a very deep strain of what I am calling 'civic idealism' in him, by which I mean the construction of a new kind of urban society that would embody Christian principles more thoroughly." [return]

3. Ibid. "Mormons resisted high Calvinist theology in the 19th century. They were, like so many other groups, trying to differentiate themselves from the evangelical culture of the revivals, which basically came out of a Calvinist view of depravity. Mormons don't like the idea of depravity. So that led to an emphasis on works. You are capable of choosing the good, and God will recognize and reward choosing the good. In the late 20th century, that is reversed . . . . Right now, grace is getting more and more powerful among the Mormon teachers." [return]

4. "Pelagius and Pelagianism," The Catholic Encyclopedia. [return]

5. Eugene Woodbury, "Japan's Buddhist Protestant Reformation." [return]

6. Bushman, op cit. "Things [other than polygamy] are more likely to be scandalous to the theological order of the larger Christian community. For example: the ideas of God having a body of flesh and bone, existing in time and space rather than outside, and having once been a man like ourselves. That sort of business just drives other Christians up the wall." [return]

7. As Eugene England puts it [no reference], "There seems to be at present a bad case of loss of nerve, of preferring negative, safe religion to the positive, adventuresome kind championed by the founders of Mormonism."

In his 6/11/07 appearance on Radio West, Robert Millet put so much distance between the church and the principle of eternal progression that I was reminded of the famous scene from Tootsie. Asked how far he can pull back from a close-up of Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman in drag), the cameraman responds, "How about Cleveland?" Millet's explanation that the subject "never comes up" in his BYU classes suggests a theology beholding more to populism than to orthodoxy.

Millet's reticence is understandable (though he is on record teaching this very same subject), as he is simply echoing Gordon B. Hinckley. In the transcript from his 4 August 1997 Time Magazine interview, Hinckley said of Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet:

I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it. [emphasis added].

But in a 20 July 2007 interview with Helen Whitney published on the church's official website, Dallin Oaks prevaricates several orders of magnitude less:

One of the succeeding prophets said: "As man is, God once was. And as God is, man may become." That is an extremely challenging idea. We don't understand, we're not able to understand, all [about] how it comes to pass or what is at its origin, but it explains the purpose of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [emphasis added] [return]

8. Which is not to say that the average Mormon would accept this particular interpretation. For a discussion of the transition in Mormon theology away from Joseph Smith and towards a more mainstream (though rather half-hearted) Augustinian/Lutheran belief system, see Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy by O. Kendall White, Jr. (Signature Books, 1987). [return]

9. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 12: 473-476:

          Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring

Compare Moses 5:11:

Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. [return]

10. Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Regan Books, 1997. [return]

11. Jenny Sawyer, "Missing from Harry Potter--a real moral struggle," The Christian Science Monitor, 25 July 2007. [return]

12. Katherine Woodbury, "Spider-Man, Angst, Redemption, and All That Good Stuff." [return]

13. Moira Redmond, "Tales of a Seventh-Grade Scare Tactic: The new Gothicism of children's books," Slate, 29 May 2002. [return]

14. Julian Gough, "Divine comedy," Prospect Magazine, May 2007. [return]

15. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, Harper & Row, 1975. [return]

16. Katherine Woodbury, "Cox, Becker & House." [return]

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August 29, 2007

"Shadow of the Moon" revisions

TP is the TokyoPop translation. EW is my translation.

Chapter 44

1. TP: Leaving Goryou behind, she turned at first intersection she reached, choosing a new road to avoid going back to where she had spent the previous night.

      EW: That morning, the road they had started their journey on and the road to Goryou had parted ways.

My version is rather clumsy and not entirely accurate: "Some ways from Goryou she turned at an intersection, leaving behind both the road they had started their journey on that morning, and the road to Goryou."

2. TP: She felt empty inside and shivered with a chill that had nothing to do with the cooling night air.

      EW: She felt a hole open up in her soul.

      LIT: "She felt a deep hole open inside her chest/breast."

3. TP: He saved your life. And you would abandon him?
      Who says he saved my life? I would have lived. I could've made it.

      EW: You're stabbing your Good Samaritan in the back.
      He didn't necessarily help me because he's good.

      LIT: You are casting aside the person to whom your owe your life.
      He isn't necessarily your benefactor.

In this case, a "person to whom one owes one's life" and "benefactor" share the same root kanji. I liked the parallelism of "Good Samaritan" and "good."

4. TP: A beautiful sentiment, but that doesn't cut it Over Here. Here, if you draw the short straw, you lose. You die. I'm not going to lose.
      It's not just a sentiment. It's called humanity.
      Humanity. Had she even forgotten what it meant to be human?
      You would criticize the way I choose to live my life, even now? After all I've been through?
      Yes. Because of all you've been through.

      "Go back. Kill the rat!"

      EW: Don't start glossing over reality with empty gestures, not in this country. When your number's up, that's it. Lights out.
      It's not an empty gesture. No, it's what people naturally do of their own accord. How could she forget that?
      "Even now, at this late hour, you're going on about your principles, little girl?"
      Even now, little girl. Even now!
      "Yes, yes. Do go back and finish him off."

The expression "even now" is repeated three times. The monkey definitely addresses Youko directly (LIT): "Even now you are talking about moral principles?"

5. TP: "You were going to kill him, weren't you, dearie? And here you're still thinking about morality, after all you've been through?" The monkey cackled, a joyous gleam in its eyes. "Oh, you've grown, you've grown. Don't worry. You'll be able to do it next time."
      The cackling monkey ignored her outburst, his high voice echoing mercilessly in Yoko's ears.
      "I'm going back," she declared.

      EW: "Indeed, that's what you plan to do, no? And look at you, little girl, preaching yourself up a regular old sermon and all. You! Now!"
      The monkey broke into gales of mad laughter.
      "No . . . it isn't."
      "Oh, yes, it is. That is exactly what you were thinking."
      "I would never do something like that!"
      "Yes, you would."
      "I wouldn't have. I couldn't!"
      The monkey cackled gaily. "Is that because the thought of murder frightens you, or because you wanted to murder him, but just couldn't screw up the courage?" The monkey screeched, looking at her cheerfully. "Don't you trust me? That's okay. You'll do it next time."
      The blue monkey laughed on, ignoring her, the shrill sound remorselessly stabbing at her ears.
      "I'm going back."

In this case, TokyoPop has cut much of this exchange, odd considering the amount of padding they usually add.

6. TP: No, I'm glad I didn't kill him.
      She was glad she hadn't acted in haste or rage. She was glad beyond anything else that she hadn't done it.

      EW: Better not to kill. Better not to act rashly, better to resist temptation, better not to go off half-cocked.

This paragraph begins with a line of dialogue, and should be in the past tense: "I'm glad I didn't kill him." She was glad she hadn't acted rashly, hadn't succumbed to temptation, hadn't put her thoughts into action.

7. TP: Why am I unable to trust?
      She wasn't being asked to go on blind faith. There could be levels of trust. She should have been able to give the rat some credit, if no one else. She owed him her life.

      EW: Why couldn't she trust people anymore? It wasn't because she was afraid of being taken in. Even if she was, she should have been able to trust him.

The additions are not in the original.

The online and offline browser versions have been updated.

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August 26, 2007

Yaoi 102

Ah, actual reportorial evidence of why yaoi is popular. From a feature article in New York Magazine, "The Cuddle Puddle of Stuyvesant High School" (though I do have to wonder about the extent to which these kids were yanking this guy's chain):

Elle is watching, enthralled, as two boys lock lips across the hall. "Oh, my," she murmurs. "Homoerotica. There’s nothing more exciting than watching two men make out."

But then there's this:

When asked how many of her female friends have had same-sex experiences, Alair answers, "All of them." Then she stops to think about it. "All right, maybe 80 percent. At least 80 percent of them have experimented. And they still are."

Which suggests an emerging market for yuri (assuming that the aforementioned chain-yanking is not as severe as I suspect it is). There are plenty of examples to be found in anime, manga, and slash fan-fiction, but has it materialized yet in retail narrative fiction?

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August 22, 2007

Sunstone Symposium paper

Stephen, my editor at Zarahemla Books, asked me to present a paper with him at the 2007 Sunstone Symposium. It's a subject I've ruminated about on the AML-list and elsewhere, so I was game.

Stephen approaches the subject in terms of the Campbellian "monomyth": this archetypal story structure, as popularized by Joseph Campbell, always starts with a hero who must find an "elixir" to heal either an ailing community or himself--an elixir that can be found only outside the community, both spatially and ideologically. Claiming to be the only true church and unable to apostatize, the Mormon church often sees such journeys as a threat.

The journey's negation, what I term the missing "second act," suggests that there is no need to wrestle with angels or argue with God because the proper resolution of our struggles has been determined. This is a rejection of the "neo-Pelagian" theology that Joseph Smith restored, summed up in the proposition: "by grace we are saved, after all we can do." We should embrace the challenge to "work out our own salvation" as an invitation to play God's fools.

To be sure, this is a phenomenon that pops up wherever unrealistic expectations about human behavior are vested in a particular ideology. As Kate has observed, Christian romances have the same problem with human imperfection that I've noticed in genre Mormon literature:

The particular Christian romances I am reading are evangelical, meaning that divorce of the unhappy couple (so that the happy couple can get married) is frowned upon. This type of solution is rather distasteful, and most romances avoid it. However, the alternative is so outrageously convenient that it becomes hilarious after awhile. The alternative? All the inconvenient people die. Slews of them! They drop dead like insects in one of those zapper things. Horrible husband--zap! Horrible wife--zap! Watch out, there goes another one.

But I'm writing about what I know, and in terms of the theology I understand the best, and about the narratives that seem to emerge as a consequence. If you want to wade through the whole thing, I've posted my portion of the presentation here.

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August 19, 2007

Chapter 13 (The Shore in Twilight)

The most common way immortal life is bestowed is by having one's name listed in the Registry of Wizards. In chapter 2 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind, Shoukei is punished by having her name removed from the Registry of Wizards.

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August 16, 2007

Teahouse of the August Moon

I first saw many of my recent Japan-themed movie recommendations on television or VHS, and watching them again on DVD is a surprising reminder of just how bad those old analog-video transfers were. The brilliant, colorful DVD version of The Teahouse of the August Moon is at times the equivalent of a National Geographic expedition.

Unlike so many recent Japan-themed Hollywood movies, Teahouse was filmed in Japan, on the outskirts of Nara. The story aside, the camera takes us in a time machine back to the rural Japan of the mid-1950s. It'd be fascinating to return to the places where the location sets were built and see what has become of them since.

Needless to say, everybody in the movie who speaks Japanese actually speaks Japanese! Weird that that should be so unusual. Even Marlon Brando, cast as the translator and busybody Sakini. My respect for the actor has definitely grown.

Whenever a Caucasian is cast in an Asian role (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's comes to mind), you prepare yourself to cringe. And cringe some more when they try to speak the language or fake an accent.

Brando's English accent isn't a slop of embarrassing pidgin fakery (Rooney again), but a close approximation of the real thing. He sounds a lot like Cool Japan host Shoji Kokami (who's got a pretty strong accent) when he does the show intro in English. And for an American who had never studied the language before, Brando's Japanese is amazing.

In the short "making-of" segment accompanying the movie, we're told that Brando "studied for two months with a translator and a tape recorder." That is, rather than badly reading romaji off a page, he memorized the lines aurally. And does it show.

To be sure, the script is written to minimize the amount of Japanese he has to speak, and he does flub a line here and there. But I otherwise found his Japanese as fluid and comprehensible as the rest of the native-speaking cast. Brando speaks more Japanese--and speaks it better--than any other Hollywood actor in any other Hollwood production I can think of.

(The one exception is Steven Seagal. But Seagal has lived in Japan for several years, so he doesn't count.)

Other delights in Teahouse include Harry Morgan, Colonel Potter in MASH, who fills the Radar O'Reilly role so thoroughly you might think that's where Gary Burghoff got his inspiration. Eddie Albert going on about organic farming, circa 1956, sounds like a spokesman for Whole Foods, circa 2006.

And if you suffered through that awful, overproduced dance number in Memoirs of a Geisha, Teahouse provides the perfect antidote. Machiko Kyou, who starred opposite Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon, plays the geisha Lotus Blossom. And though her role is broadly comedic, the dance she performs at the end manages to be both playful and dignified.

In other words: a heckuva lot closer to the real thing.

The other joy of the film is how well it delivers its message. The telling moment for me comes when Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford) tries to figure out what to do with Lotus Blossom. The presence of this well-educated, well-mannered and (relatively) wealthy geisha in a dirt-poor farming village is disruptive, to say the least.

Learning that he can't unload her on anybody else, Fisby finally tells the local Lady's Auxiliary (who complained about her in the first place) that, in so many words, they can rest assured that he'll knock her down a few notches so she looks and acts no differently than the rest of them.

"No, no!" they protest. They don't want him to lower her to their level. They want him to raise themselves up to her level. Cut to the next scene of Lotus Blossom teaching a class in dancing and deportment to the women of the village. That's the difference between the "equality" of the lowest common denominator and the true equality of opportunity available to all.

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August 13, 2007

"Shadow of the Moon" revisions

TP is the TokyoPop translation. EW is my translation.

Chapter 43

This chapter builds to the moral climax and turning point of the novel, showing Youko at her most cynical and callous. Thus, I think it is an editorial mistake to inject too much doubt into her mind early on. She is initially trying to shed all doubts. It's not until she contemplates torturing the kirin (though she doesn't know that's what it is) and murdering Rakushun that she begins to come to grips with herself.

1. Yoko, who had heard such a drum on her journey before, knew that when it finished beating, the gates would close.

      EW: When the drum stopped sounding, the gates would close.

The addition is not in the original.

2. Alarmed, Yoko glanced up to see the silhouettes of a flock of giant birds swiftly approaching.
      Wings on high . . . giant birds like hawks with horns . . . eight in all.
      "Kouchou!" someone shouted, and the mob of travelers became a stampede toward the gates of Goryou.

      EW: Noting this with great suspicion, Youko glanced back over her shoulder. Already she could clearly see the silhouette of a great bird. A great bird like an eagle with a horn. And there were eight more of them.
      The screams reverberated, a wave of humanity rushed toward Goryou.

Hmm, the "more" is wrong (and it's not in my rough draft).

3. All at once the big gates began to swing shut. Anyone still upon the road was being abandoned.
      It made sense. The townspeople wanted to protect themselves from kochou. They owed the travelers nothing. Still, Yoko wondered, what good will closed gates do against creatures that can fly?

      EW: With total disregard to the flood of people, the huge gates began to close.
      They certainly had the right to defend themselves against the kochou, but even if there were nobody else but those inside the gates, what good would closing the gates do against these flying monsters?

I might change it to: Those idiots, and remove the paragraph break. But otherwise the TokyoPop additions are not in the original.

4. Yoko quickly pushed her way out from among them, yelling for Rakushun to follow. They would have a better chance in the open field, where she could use her sword without worrying about the people around her. [1]
      Closer to the town there was utter chaos as people dashed themselves against the walls; every man, woman, and child fought for safety as newcomers pushed up against those who had arrived just as the gate closed, trampling the weaker underfoot. [2] All were screaming.
      Separated from the rushing crowd at last, Yoko ran at a slow jog toward the town, keeping just ff the road; a thin smile crossed her face.
      No gods to save you here.
      Floods came and demons attacked, yet no one in this world cried out to their gods for salvation. That was why they each ran alone, leaving their fellow men behind. That was why the gates closed, leaving the travelers outside to die. Without divine aid, without luck, whether one was attacked by demons or not depended entirely on how much caution one took. Whether one was killed or spared depended entirely on one's strength.
      If that's the case, many will die here tonight.[3]

      EW: Youko suddenly pushed Rakushun away from the crowds. They were fortunately still a good distance from the gates. Had they been alone at the gates, they would have been trampled and crushed by the onslaught of people pushing and clawing their way through. It looked like some inner circle of hell.
      Putting distance between her and the human tidal wave, Youko ran toward the city. She permitted herself a hollow laugh.
      This is a country that asks nothing of God.
      Even being attacked by youma, they expected nothing from their Gods. So they thought nothing of tearing down the people in front of them to get there faster. Yet the gates closed on the travelers, as if they weren't there. Whether or not you were being attacked by youma, wasn't it up to you to keep on your toes? And whether you were rescued or not, weren't you supposed to rely on your own devices?
      "The fools," she said aloud. This bunch couldn't be more powerless.

4.1. The addition is not in the original.
4.2. A perhaps acceptable embellishment of the original. The word for "hell" here is the same as that used for one of the Buddhist hells, hence my borrowing from Dante.
4.3. The addition is not in the original, though as an embellishment it does fit into the context.

I should rewrite the second-to-last paragraph in the third person.

5. They made easy targets, and because they had to fly straight, it was easy to gauge the timing of their attacks.
      It had been so long since she'd had to fight anything, and here she was, smiling. Yoko was amazed at herself.

      EW: All a bigger foe meant was a bigger target. At the intervals they were gliding in, it would be easy enough to pick them off.
      It'd been a while since she'd gone toe-to-toe with her enemies. Her gleeful self was looking forward to it.

I'll split the difference on this one. LIT: "Meeting her enemies for the first time in many days, she found her laughing/smiling self interesting."

6. The fifth great bird came plummeting at her. Yoko dodged to the side and swung her sword with deadly precision, lopping off the monster's head as it hurtled by. The headless corpse slammed into the ground and rolled several times before coming to a stop. Yoko whirled back around just in time to see the sixth kochou bearing down on her. She leapt to avoid it, throwing her self prone, and watched as the demon, outraged at having missed its mark, soared on toward the travelers huddled by the town gate to wreak its vengeance on them.

      EW: The fifth dropped on her like a crashing plane. She cut off its head, dodged the sixth. The sixth grazed her with its talons, tore through a bunch of travelers behind her and rose back into the sky.

All the additions are not in the original. The author actually only uses two sentences.

7. And if the woman wouldn't talk, Yoko would cut off an arm and see what she had to say about that.
      Abruptly, Yoko stopped, stunned by the wildness of her own thoughts.
      Is this my true nature--a beast?
      What was this animosity inside her? Or was it merely bloodlust, the frenzy of the battle . . . ?

      EW: And if the woman didn't have anything to say, Youko was pretty sure lopping off an arm would get her into a talking mood.
      As she turned over the possibilities in her mind, a surprising thought occurred to her. Perhaps she was catching a glimpse into the character of these beasts, some method behind the madness. Or perhaps the kochou was simply intoxicated from so much blood.

TokyoPop is correct. The second paragraph should read: "As she turned the possibilities over in her mind, she found herself aghast. Where did such ferocity come from? It was as if the nature of the beast was manifesting itself to her. Or perhaps she was simply intoxicated from so much blood."

Here Youko first begins to question herself. But she quickly turns to goading the kochou by mutilating its partner.

8. Demons shouldn't fear death. Perhaps it's merely startled to find such difficult prey.
      Yoko raised her sword and stabbed it . . . .

      EW: Did a youma hold its own life as precious? They'd had no problem attacking people up till today! Youko flipped the sword around and sank it and sank it into the corpse of the kochou at her feet.

The addition is not in the original.

9. The bird shrieked and flapped its wings. Buffeted by the wind, Yoko feared the creature would lift her into the sky.[1] Wrenching her sword free with both hands, she threw herself at the ground, rolled once, then sprang up again [2] and thrust her blade at the hovering bird's broad chest. [3] She felt the blow sink home and jumped to the side, pulling the weapon with her, narrowly dodging a spray of fresh blood.
      The rest was easy. The creature no longer had the strength to fly. Teetering on its hind legs, it lunged at her a second time, then a third, [4] before she decapitated it.

      EW: The bird raised a strange cry, beat its wings. A great wind buffeted her as it tried to take itself back into the air. Youko stepped on its feet, freed the sword and sank the blade into its abdomen. She did not sense an immediate response to her thrust, but when she jumped back a moment later, pulling out the sword, blood gushed onto the ground.
      It was easy work after that. Unable to hold itself aloft, the bird crashed to the earth. After a second strike and a third, she delivered the coup de grace and cut off its head.

9.1. Split the difference. Youko doesn't "fear" anything, but the sentence should read: "A great wind buffeted her as it tried to take itself back into the air, and her along with it."
9.2. The addition is not in the original.
9.3. Should be "torso."
9.4. The grammar is the same as "throw a (punch) at (an object)," and "delivered the coup de grace" is part of the same compound sentence, sharing the same subject. So I'm pretty sure Youko is the one doing the attacking.

10. Yoko stood out like a sore thumb, the only person standing among the bodies by the road. Worse, if the guardsmen had been watching from the safety of the gates they would have seen that the kochou were after her . . . and they would have watched with amazement--horror, perhaps--as Yoko defeated them. Every person in the town would be suspicious of her, if not outright terrified.
      From there, she could guess what would happen . . .

      EW: Standing there amongst the fallen bodies, Youko stood out like a sore thumb. Anybody observing from afar would have seen the kochou going at her and would know it had been her taking them down. That would strike anybody as more than a tad unusual.

The sentence begins (LIT): "Amidst the fallen people, only one person left standing, Youko was conspicuous." The additions are not in the original. The last sentence should be: "That would strike anybody as more than a little suspicious."

11. What would Rakushun have to say if Yoko abandoned him here to die?
      She travels alone, carrying a sword wrapped in cloth, hair dyed black, wearing men's clothes. She's heading for Agan, to cross into the kingdom of En . . .

      EW: She didn't think Rakushun would inform on her if she ran away and abandoned him here.
      The sword that was the slender bundle she was carrying--the color of her dyed hair--dressed like a man--traveling to En by way of Agan--

Her hair color is not mentioned. Hair and eye color are not listed on Japanese driver's licenses, for example.

12. But for Yoko's sake . . .
      Pulse throbbed loudly in her ears.
      Then, she heard a voice through the surging tide that filled her mind. Run to the rat, and kill him.
      Who's there? Who said that? Joyu? Me?
      There was no time to think it through.

      EW: For Rakushun's own good, she ought to go back. And for her own good . . . .
      The blood throbbed in her veins.
      Go over there and put him out of his misery.
      The voice spoke inside herself, rebuking herself. She didn't have time to second-guess herself.

The last paragraph is incomplete. LIT: "'Such a thing! [Are you crazy?]' a voice inside her said. Who was exhorting her to do such things?"

13. Yoko ran back toward the road, where a crowd of late-arriving travelers was just coming to the scene of the carnage. Slipping through a caravan train, Yoko wove her way to the far side of the newly gathered crowd, and with them between her and the townspeople from the gates, she fled back down the road.

      EW: The remaining travelers rushing in from the highway were on top of her. She slipped through the crowds and left the scene at a sprint.

The additions are not in the original.

The online and offline browser versions have been updated.

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August 12, 2007

Chapter 12 (The Shore in Twilight)

漣 [れん] Ren (ripples), the southwest island kingdom
阿選 [あせん] Asen (flatter + choose)
蒿里 [こうり] Kouri (mugwort + village)
寵臣 [ちょうしん] choushin, a favored retainer; I originally translated it as "favorite son," according to this definition: "A member of a political party who is favored by the party leadership to assume a prominent role." However, considering the prohibition against hereditary monarchy, this could be sufficiently confusing that I went back to "favored retainer."

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August 09, 2007

Samurai and the Industrial Revolution

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, ascribes the causes of the Industrial Revolution that occurred first in England around 1800, permitting the population to permanently escape the "Malthusian trap," to not just demographic changes in the human population, but evolutionary changes as well, brought about via the equivalent of "trickle-down" genetics:

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor . . . That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations . . . As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society . . . the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them.

This is not the most politically correct of theories, but neither are the forces of evolution ("red in tooth and claw"). What caught my attention were Clark's ruminations about why "Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan." His explanation in the cast of the latter is that the samurai "were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England."

I think Clark errs here by comparing the Japanese aristocracy directly to the European aristocracy. At least in the case of Japan, the real reasons are very straightforward. Once the population has achieved the necessary levels to sustain an Industrial Revolution, three other factors come into play:

1. Trade (in things and ideas)
2. Stable government
3. But not too stable

Japan and China didn't follow the same growth curve as England because, paradoxically, through long stretches of history, their governments were too stable, their bureaucrats too efficient and close-minded. By the end of the very unstable 16th century, Japan made not only the best steel and the best swords, but the best firearms in the world. It also had a significant Christian population.

In the name of #2, the Tokugawa Shogunate eliminated firearms (the last thing an authoritarian regime needs is a bunch of "great equalizers" floating around) and Christianity, and locked down the country, shutting off trade. But it governed competently enough that the 250 years that followed is remembered as a kind of "golden era." In other words, most people were happy with their lot, and those who weren't (such as the Shimabara Christians) were ruthlessly repressed.

But by the mid-19th century, the regime had become creaky and corrupt. Not surprisingly, the guns and money for the Meiji Restoration came from Satsuma Domain on the southern island of Kyushu, also home to Nagasaki, the only port left open to foreign (western) trade. Satsuma's distance from the capital, its access to foreign trade and ideas, and a healthy amount of smuggling made it one of the wealthiest--and rebellious--domains by the mid-19th century.

The Meiji Restoration itself proves the critical importance of stable--but not too stable--government. One reason for England's success was that its revolutions were never of the scorched-earth variety. Thanks to the military superiority of the Satsuma-backed forces--and the willingness of the Tokugawa Shogun to face reality and yield--the Boshin War was a quick and relatively bloodless contest that left the existing infrastructure intact. When the Meiji government opened up to the west, there was a foundation on which to build and grow.

Actually, Clark's analysis vis-à-vis the samurai holds up when factors other than fecundity are considered. The samurai comprised an unusually large (large for an aristocracy) 8-10 percent of the population, and strict sumptuary laws left lower-class samurai with no good economic options except to push down into the merchant, artisan, and farming classes. Wealthy merchants and artisans in turn reached up through adoption and marriage. With no wars to fight during the Tokugawa Era, many samurai turned to academics, resulting in a large, literate population.

When the feudal class system was abolished in 1873, the well-connected merchants and the educated and politically powerful middle-to-upper class samurai were ideally positioned to take advantage of the new order.

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August 06, 2007

"Shadow of the Moon" revisions

TP is the TokyoPop translation. EW is my translation.

Chapter 42

1. TP: In the evening of their first day of travel, Yoko and Rakushun arrived in a town called Kakrak.[1] It was at least as big as Kasai, and at first Yoko was intimidated by the sight of it; but their overnight stay proved uneventful, and as the journey continued, she soon learned to take such places in stride.[2]
      Yoko also adapted quickly to the fact that her travels were now much more frugal than they had been when she was with Takkee. She and Rakushun ate only simple peasant fare at roadside stalls and slept in the cheapest lodgings they could find. They usually took a single fifty-sen room at a run-down inn, putting up a divider for a modicum of privacy.[3] Yoko didn't complain, since Rakushun was paying for everything.

      EW: That evening they arrived at a city called Kakuraku, a city as big as Kasai.
      Youko had traveled with a person from this world before, but compared to then they were on a much tighter budget. They ate dinner at a roadside stand and spent the night in the cheapest inn. A single night costs fifty sen, and for that you got a bed in a big room sectioned off with folding screens. Because Rakushun was picking up the tab, Youko was in no position to complain.

1.1. I honestly do not understand the logic of the TokyoPop approach to romaji conversion. (Unless they want to refer to a city in Afghanistan.)
1.2. The addition in not in the original.
1.3. LIT: For a single night, for fifty yen, [they could] use a big room partitioned with dividers." In other words, at a cheap inn, you get barracks-style accommodations. Like a youth hostel. Especially for group excursions, the shared, single-room approach is still common in Japan (and does not necessarily imply low budget).

2. TP: The king of Kou's called the Naze-King [1] and his palace is the Jadegrove Palace in Gosou in the province of Ki."
      "Gosou? Is that a town?"
      Rakushun nodded and pointed to the mountains visible to their left. "The name means Place Where the Frost is Proud." [2]

      EW: The Royal Kou is known as the Mountain King. His palace is in Gousou, in Ki Province. It is called Suikou, the Palace of Green Bamboo."
      "Gousou is a city?"
      Nodding, Rakushun pointed off to the left at the mountains coming into view.

2.1. A "naze" is a promontory or headland, which is the literal meaning of "kou" in the Royal Kou. No, I didn't know that (does any non-denizen of Essex?), but it's in Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. EDICT suggests "projecting tableland or mountain," so I stuck with something a bit simpler. Anyway, in Japanese naze means "why," so I kept thinking, "Why why?"
2.2. "Gosou" does mean "proud frost." This is a matter of where you draw the line at providing parenthetical literal translations.

3. TP: . . . and the town of Gosou encircles its base."
      Yoko nodded. She had given up trying to think of meaningful questions, as she was rather sure that the lecture would continue regardless.
      EW: Around the foot of the mountain is the city of Gousou."
      "No kidding."

The addition is not in the original.

4. TP: Yoko wasn't sure she entirely understood, but it was beginning to sound like a sort of indirect government like the one they had in America – not necessarily the dictatorship she expected.

      EW: She didn't really understand it, but perhaps it was like the federal system in the United States.

The addition is not in the original.

5. TP: "It's said that a long, long time ago, the Emperor of Heaven conquered the Nine Provinces and the Four Tribes, thirteen lands in all.

      EW: "The story is that a long, long time ago, Tentei--the Lord God of the Heavens, the Divine Creator--destroyed the Nine Dominions and the Four Barbarian Domains that comprised the Thirteen Realms.

"Vanquished" might be a better translation than "destroyed." EIJIROU offers "God of Hosts / Lord of Hosts" as translations for Tentei.

6. TP: A snake was coiled around each branch, and each bore three golden fruits. The men bowed to the snakes and sent them down into the world, and then they cast the fruits into the air.

      EW: Around each branch was wrapped a snake, and each branch bore three fruits. The snakes unwound themselves from each branch and lifted the sky to the heavens. The fruits fell down . . . .

The TokyoPop version of the first clause is better; I would improve it by getting rid of the passive voice altogether. I don't see any mention of color. I don't know where the second sentence came from.

7. TP: Now, the snakes, they symbolize the Great Ropes. The land stands for the households we are given by the state, the kingdom means the laws, and the throne symbolizes the sages--in other words, the ministers. Last but not least, the brushes stand for history."

      EW: "The snakes are the pillars of the Great Colonnade, the earth represents the census, the kingdoms stand for the law, the thrones symbolize justice and virtue, or the Saiho, and the brush records the history of the people."

I'll go fifty-fifty on this one. A better translation is: "or the Saiho and the ministers of the realm."

8. "Ah, that's be the High Emperor for that. There's some people that worship the High Emperor for that reason alone. Others worship the Eastern Emperor, to avoid flooding and the like, and others the Yellow Emperor, to ward off demons."

      EW: "If you were asking for wealth and prosperity, you'd petition Gyoutei, the August God. Speaking of which, there are sects that worship Gyoutei. And in that same vein, to escape floods, there are those who look to Utei. To escape youma, there's Koutei."

These names are derived from ancient Chinese folklore, but I think they can be understood in the same context as local Shinto gods. Calling them all "emperors" confuses things.

9. Rakushun was well learned and quite clever, if he did say so himself. Yoko appreciated how difficult it had to be for him, [1] to be so smart and able yet doomed to be a burden on his mother because of the accident of his birth. As the journey continued, she listened willingly as he told long tales of his upbringing and stories of the lands around them; knowing the value of information, she avidly drank in all he had to say. [2] When he wanted to know more about her, however, or more about Japan, Yoko avoided the topic. And so they passed the first five days of their journey. [3]
      The attack came on the sixth [4] day after they had left Rakushun's home in Kahok.

      EW: It was something he usually boasted of only to himself, but Rakushun was well-studied and had an unusually sharp mind. He found it painful to think that despite this he should become a burden on his mother, and only because he was a half-human hanjuu.
      Rakushun wanted to ask more about Youko and about Japan, but she had nothing more to say.
      And so it was, on the sixteenth day of their journey, that the attack came.

9.1. The additiona isn't necessary as this short paragraph is from Rakushun's POV.
9.2. The addition is not in the original.
9.3. The addition is not in the original.
9.4. It is definitely the 16th day (十六日目).

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August 05, 2007

Chapter 11 (The Shore in Twilight)

Kantai is a hanjuu, a bear in animal form. See chapter 74 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

As Napoleon Bonaparte said (re: Kantai's converation with Youko), "An army travels on its stomach."

The expression "blow off a little steam" is a deliberate anachronism. The word Kantai actually uses is sutoresu, a English loan word that Youko has obviously introduced into the language of the Imperial Court, a fact the author cleverly emphasizes by "spelling" the word in hiragana rather than the customary katakana.

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August 02, 2007

A promise not worth keeping

My sister has been posting some thoughts and critiques about the romance genre and references this review I wrote for Irreantum a few years ago. So here it is.

The Last Promise by Richard Paul Evans
(Dutton, 2002)

When Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew announced the store's revised buying guidelines late last year [2002]—and specifically that Richard Paul Evan's latest novel, The Last Promise, hadn't made the cut—my immediate reaction was to snort in derision. A bunch of sanctimonious, neo-Victorian fussbudgets trying to micromanage our moral and aesthetic lives, under the guise of what Dew had the audacity to claim was a "business decision."

Then I read the book.

Deseret Book may indeed be run by a bunch of sanctimonious, neo-Victorian fussbudgets, whose recently-discovered principles in this case only gave a bad book much free publicity (I read the book, to start with). But they are right to insist that The Last Promise does not deserve the imprimatur of any institution even peripherally related to any church anywhere.

This isn't the primary reason, but the overwrought title is itself ultimately germane to nothing. The "last promise" (indeed, not made until the last 40 pages of the book) is quickly broken, which I suppose should be read to mean: this is the last promise people like this should make to anybody. It is, in fact, a category romance of sub-par quality. I hasten to add that I have nothing against category romances—an unjustly slighted genre, I believe—just bad writing in general, and especially pretentious, bad writing.

If nothing else, The Last Promise will quickly exhaust any fondness you might have for the epigram-as-chapter-heading style.

Delving into a subject Evans knew something about might have also clarified in his mind what was worth promising in the first place. Eliana, our heroine, is ostensibly "a devout Catholic," though by all indications what the author knows about Catholicism he picked up on the Vatican tour. He keeps his protagonist away from any actual worship, keeps her from breathing a word to any actual priest, because "the priest at the small church near the villa used copious amounts of incense in his worship," and the incense gives her son asthma. Alas, "She had tried other churches in the area and found them all to be the same" (p. 10).

Convenient, that.

The only discernable point to this bit of biographical background is to enable her to marry the scion of an Italian winery without turning the whole thing into a comedy. Straining credulity further, he has her growing up in Vernal, Utah. You would think that a Catholic growing up in Utah would have something to say about the plentitude of Mormons there, and the inevitable clash of small-town religious cultures. Nope. You would not know from reading the book that any Mormons live in Utah. Thus do the incongruities gush forth.

It would not have been an insurmountable problem had Evans played around more with the obvious subtext, analogizing the non-Mormon in Utah to the fish-out-of-water American in Italy. Instead, he shies from the intriguing dramatic possibilities and resorts to hackneyed story devices that are old by category romance standards.

To sum up: impossibly beautiful wife (Eliana) is trapped in a loveless marriage to philandering rogue of husband (Maurizio). One day a handsome American expatriate with a mysterious past (Ross) rents a flat in the family villa. But when you get right down to it, it's no different than those silly French farces about the wife who discovers her husband is cheating on her, and gets even by cheating on him back with the houseguests. Except that Evans' version is not even indecently humorous.

Okay, Evans can't actually have them sleeping together. No, wait, they do sleep together, the loophole being that they only "sleep." Evans has claimed that the snogging going on when they are awake is "not adultery." Yes, and Bill Clinton did not have "sex" with "that woman," and "didn't inhale," either. If it is facile to assert (as I do) that the explicit description of sexual behavior is, ipso facto, immoral, then it is equally facile to argue that a narrative somehow garners a patina of respectability solely because of its lack of explicit content.

At any rate, I wasn't aware that copulation alone defined adultery. Stranger still, given Evans' protestations, are his several references to the Vestal Virgins, remembered for the gristly fate that awaited them if they fell from "virginal grace." In a climactic scene (p. 221), Eliana interrupts Ross's museum tour group before an exhibit of The Vestals and asks in a loud voice if it was "worth it" to these women to break their vows, considering the penalties that awaited them.

To which Ross answers, "I guess only the Vestals could say. But apparently eighteen of them though so."

Now, exactly how are we supposed to read that?

Evans rationalizes this morally muddy relationship with he-hit-me-first logic. Short version: if your husband is a jerk, it's okay to get emotionally involved with another man. Fifteen billion times we are reminded of what a louse Maurizio is. The narrative from his point-of-view exists only to damn his character with cheap shots and borderline ethnic slurs.

Our first introduction to the Italian male (not Maurizio) consists of the following: "Just then a man, shirtless, maybe in his later fifties with a belly hanging over his swimsuit and a cigar clamped between his front teeth, stopped in front of her chair."

Feel swept off your feet yet? Eliana later helpfully explains that "the Italian men regard a lone woman the same way they would a bill on the sidewalk." And Evans (in authorial voice) confirms that "It was true" (p. 4). True or not, it's not the point. I'm reminded of the Dilbert strip in which one of Dilbert's colleagues confides to Dogbert, "I criticize my coworkers to make myself look smart." To which Dogbert replies, "Apparently it isn't working . . . . Oh, remind me to add nuts to my grocery list."

Evans thinks this is a workable strategy. So we are further reminded that none of the wives of Maurizio's friends "expected their husbands' help in domestic matters," either (p. 15). The marriage counselor Eliana drags her husband to sides with him and tells her that it's all her problem (p. 16). And the husband of Eliana's sister-in-law, Anna, "left her for a young Swiss woman she discovered he had been having an affair with for more than seven years" (p. 53).

Ross, in contrast, is described by every Italian woman he encounters as bello, and a hotel receptionist he's known for about five minutes offers to sleep with him (p. 200). "We'd have fun," she tells him (p. 202).

Oh, and Maurizio is the World's Worst Father Ever. It is simply not enough that he be immature, irresponsible, or a workaholic. We are supposed to believe that the man is utterly indifferent to his son's existence, that he "never inquires about his son's health" (p. 13), has "no idea how to take care of his own son's basic needs" (p. 15), and uses him as a pawn to keep his wife a kept woman.

We are supposed to believe as well that the son, in turn, should deny all the incalculables of human nature and transfer all his affection, at the drop of the proverbial hat, to a complete stranger. By page 116 we find Eliana telling Ross, "[Alessio] was so upset that he missed you the last time. I had to promise him that he could stay up until you came." And by the end of the novel, Maurizio is confessing to Eliana, "He's not really my son . . . . He doesn't call me father . . . . He hates me" (p. 261).

Of the six impossible things I'm willing to believe before breakfast, this isn't one of them. But, gee, doesn't it make divorce the easy next step to take.

Still, Evans must reduce the Maurizio to wife-beating status to make the case compelling enough. The literary ends do not justify the means. While Maurizio is undoubtedly a jerk, the thesis, "My husband is a jerk," is a thin and unrewarding source of conflict. This is not to say that infidelity or bad parenting should be lightly excused, but it's not like he's smuggling drugs or harboring terrorists. The man has tact, if nothing else. He doesn't bring it home, like, ahem, his stupid wife. And why, your grandmother would ask, should he change his behavior when he can have his cake and get the milk for free?

All Eliana has to say in her defense is that she married "too young." Too young—she was in college. So she went to the store one day to pick up a rich, handsome, Italian husband, and, darn, if she'd waited a day or two she could have gotten a better model, and on sale, to boot.

Were she a conservative John Paul II American Catholic, that would have made things interesting. But the obvious contention, "I can't divorce you because I'm Catholic," is never raised. Instead, she stays in the marriage, we are told, because she's afraid she would lose custody of her child, a child whose existence is exploited by Evans for all shoddy manner of story conveniences. (When in doubt, send the sick kid to the E.R.) It is a valid concern—the reasons sound fairly convincing once you accept the Maurizio-as-monster caricature—but such a concern should lead to the weighing of freedom and happiness, and the making of deals with your own personal devils.

Even as compromised a woman as Hillary Clinton reportedly whacked Bill with an ashtray on occasion, and then went out and made a life for herself. Sure, her not-yet-erstwhile husband being President of the United States sure helped. Call it metaphysical alimony. And Eliana is hardly a single mother struggling to survive on scant child support payments. In exchange for her husband's money, she lives a comfortable, almost royal (no kidding, Evans makes her by marriage a de jure countess), if dilatory existence.

She does nothing to change the state of her life, a curious contrast with Birdman-of-Alcatraz Ross. That's the sinkhole the book crumbles into and never crawls out of: she's BORING. No wonder her husband never comes home, to a beautiful but dull woman who mopes and sighs and makes dinners he won't eat, and dabbles at paintings no one will see, and spends an awful lot of time doing laundry for three people (a glaring lapse: a man of Maurizio's stature and resources, if for no other reason than sheer vanity, would hire help for these menial tasks).

Early on in one of Evans' many head-hopping digressions, we are treated to Maurizio's thoughts on the subject. In a passage that feels like the author was responding to an editor's suggestion that he try to show the husband's side of things, the reader is rewarded with a several hundred words of the man's stream-of-consciousness, detailing his coping strategy in this dysfunctional relationship:

American women are crazy, [Maurizio] thought. She works all day to make me a meal, then sulks through it . . . .

Eliana would sulk for a while then she'd blow, inevitably launching into a tirade about how little time he spend at home or why he hadn't bothered to call her . . . . Either way, [she] didn't have the stomach for conflict that he had. She would go off for a while then come back and be civil—be a good wife.

Always the same foolishness, he thought. If she wants me home so much, why does she make it so damn miserable to come home? (pp. 31-32)

Why, indeed? But having raised them, Evans never effectively counters these charges. He only tells us that Eliana "blamed herself for not seeing it coming," and then reverses himself a page later, asserting that she "felt the victim of a marital bait and switch" (p. 16). Victim turns out to be her primary occupation.

Based on the themes of her General Conference addresses, I can believe that this is what raised Sheri Dew's hackles most of all. Evans is climbing on his best-seller soapbox to preach a medieval theme I've encountered in other Mormon romances, that of the Great Wheel of Fate. Climb aboard at the wrong instance and your life is doomed until it rolls around and rights itself. We are supposed to admire the protagonist merely for hanging on and letting go when the sunny side of life shows up like a stop on a Disneyland amusement ride.

Had Evans eliminated the implied infidelity business from the start, he would then have had to address this problem with human agency. Were Eliana already divorced, for example, but in the interest of her sickly child living in her ex's villa and growing dependent on his largess, and he on the free child care and the warm hearth to come home to—and were it not strongly implied that, despite his travails, Ross still had bucks in the bank—this would have forced her to make a decision of her own volition, not wait for heaven to smile upon her, the ball to drop into the right slot at the roulette table.

To write the story right, though, you would have to have some insights into why the Hillarys end up with the Bills in the first place. I'm not convinced that Evans has a clue. And we're not necessarily talking about deep psychology. As Slate's "Dear Prudence" advice columnist advised a reader in a similar quandary, the quandary that Eliana apparently blew through without a second thought: "My dear, when it comes to making a judgment about a man's character, what else is there besides his past? It is through one's history that you learn about judgments, morals, and choices."

Judgements, morals, and hard choices are the last things on anybody's mind in The Last Promise. Which is why Evans can't begin the book without first rationalizing his choice of subject matter. Though here he does demonstrate some talent in composition. Evans introduces himself in a self-deprecating account of the Famous Author Nobody's Heard Of, bumbling around Italy with his family. One day he's relaxing poolside at a country club outside Florence and is told this story by a gorgeous, sunbathing woman he strikes up a conversation with.

Unfortunately, this promising narrative voice is soon drowned out by the drone of a loquacious, self-important guy who's got you cornered on a five-hour bus trip and is convinced that you are dying to hear his profoundly superficial life story. But who only convinces you that this is the last time you're riding this particular bus anywhere, thank you very much.

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