Monthly Archives: August 2013

Dear Naomi Alderman,

The Liars' Gospel

The Liars’ Gospel

Thanks for reminding me that fiction is a pack of lies and that we fiction writers rank among the most accomplished liars out there. I loved your reimagining of the life of Jesus in The Liars’ Gospel told from the point of view of three of its central figures, Mary, Judas, and the Temple High Priest.  Your very first sentence─ This was how it happened.─ contradicts what we think we know. In other words, the life and death of Yehoshua, Hebrew for Jesus, and the rise of Christianity didn’t happen that way, the way we’ve been taught. No. It all really went down this way, the way I will lay out for you. That same understated first sentence also refers to the ongoing occupation of Judea by Roman soldiers which is the complex and bloody backdrop for Jews and early Christians alike. One of the major accomplishments of your novel is that you move this political and military reality to the front and center of the lives of all your characters.

Roman Coins

Roman Coins

What immediately follows is the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Your description is so visceral that it could serve as an instruction manual. Such realism

The Lamb for an Offering

The Lamb for an Offering

tells me that you really know how things were done during biblical times. Then there’s an equally vivid description of a battle between Jews and Romans for the Temple treasure. Citizens of an occupied people live in a state of preoccupation with their occupiers who regulate their subjects’ activities, spy on their meetings, and punish severely those who disobey or who even appear to disobey. The fact that this occupation resonates with the state of affairs in today’s war torn Middle East adds a layer to an already resonant story.

Mary Mother of Jesus

Mary Mother of Jesus

  Once you’ve hooked your reader in this short untitled opening section, you introduce the first “liar,” Miryam, Hebrew for Mary. Unlike her familiar New Testament counterpart, this Miryam knows Yosef to be the biological father of her beloved firstborn Yehoshua as well as of his six siblings. She had hoped this oldest son would marry, beget her grandchildren, and till land nearby. But the adult Yehoshua is a big disappointment to Miryam. He leaves home to wander the hills preaching. She thinks he’s deranged even while she mourns his departure and the fact that he spurns his family of origin in favor of his new family of followers. When he claims to be the Messiah and King of the Jews, she fears for his safety

Jesus King of the Jews

Jesus King of the Jews

and, later, mourns his death at the same time that she complains about his disloyalty. Finally she lies about him to Gidon, an admirer of Yehoshua’s who has come to her to learn about his dead hero’s birth and childhood. She “filled him (Gidon) full of stories. . . .Some have a measure of truth to them. And some are things she hoped had happened, she wished had happened.” Miryam’s maternal wishful thinking becomes part of “what happened next,” part of the legacy of stories, written down in books like the Torah and the Gospels. Your Miryam, a Jewish mother abandoned by her son in favor of his disciples and divorced by her husband in favor of a trophy wife, is a woman of her time and place, living a life that has not turned out as she wished.

            I’m a humanistic secular Jew, so I have little difficulty seeing Mary as Miryam. In fact, Miryam seems entirely credible to me as do your other characters. That’s because they are all─ Jews, Romans, Christians─ recognizably human and react to things the way I’d expect real people living in Judea under Roman rule to behave. And I don’t think Yehoshua/Jesus’s teachings, particularly about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, become less valuable and original because he does not manage to heal the lame or the blind. Likewise Iehuda/Judas’s role in his leader’s crucifixion is not less critical because it is motivated by a complexity of conflicting impressions. The Jewish High Priest’s significance is not diminished because he is preoccupied by his wife’s possible infidelity at the same time that he struggles to serve god, guard the Jews hard earned treasure, and pacify the Romans who demand it in tribute.

Your reimagining of this familiar and, to some, sacred story is arresting not only because it encourages us to question the credibility of scraps of ancient texts frequently translated and interpreted and reinterpreted but also because your prose itself is downright biblical. I don’t mean “biblical” in that you imitate the wording of any of the familiar translations of the Gospels or the Torah but rather that your words and phrases flow harmoniously with a clarity, repetitiveness, and decisiveness that make questioning them seem unnecessary even though you warn us, “Every story has an author, some teller of lies. Do not imagine that a story teller is unaware of the effect of every word she chooses. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.” Your title juxtaposes liars, generally thought to be a bad lot, with the word gospel which has come to be synonymous with truth, often a kind of holy truth. It’s a daring juxtaposition highlighting the questioning of conventional beliefs within.

Good news!

Good news!

On the next to last page of The Liars’ Gospel you recap your version of Jesus’s life, beginning with the familiar words, “Once upon a time there was a man . . . .” and after you tell how, not long after his death, the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and forced the exile of the surviving Jews, you add , “And a book walked those same ways, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others.” The interesting image of this walking book is powerful as is the phrase “good news,” often used to describe the Gospels. When you end with a slightly different version of how you began, your words and your story come full circle and leave no doubt in this reader’s mind that your version of this moving and important story rings true. “This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.”

You’re a terrific liar and I hope to read more of your lies soon. They inspire me to make up my own lies, in other words, to begin writing a new book.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Blog Readers,

The Bones and the Book

The Bones and the Book

Exciting news! The Bones and the Book has won Women Writing the West’s Willa Award in the category of soft covered original fiction! Phil and I will travel

Women Writing the West Logo

Women Writing the West Logo

to Kansas City, Missouri in October to Women Writing the West’s 19th Annual Conference where I will actually receive my trophy, read from The Bones and the Book, and celebrate. If any of you live in the Kansas City area, the reading and signing portions of the conference on Saturday, October 12 are open to the public, and I’d love to meet you.

I’ll post a note to another muse later this week after I’ve calmed down a little.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Annie Proulx,

Close Range Wyoming Stories

Close Range Wyoming Stories

The New Yorker seemed an odd place for me to discover a “country” writer like you, so back in the late Nineties when I came upon “Brokeback Mountain” rubbing right up against reviews of East Village eateries and ads for high end urban condos, I felt disoriented, but in a good way. Finding grungy gay

Marlborough Man

Marlborough Man

cowboys in a New Yorker short story enlarged my perception of westerns. East coast born and bred, until then, I didn’t see cowboys as appropriate subjects of “literature” unless they were feeble minded enough to be mercifully put down by their best friend or sang and danced on Broadway. Stories about cowboys were the stuff of pulpy paperbacks and oaters, the movies I watched as a kid. Like the Marlborough Man, cowboys were handsome, brave, and heterosexual and they lived out their heroic Technicolor lives against scenic backgrounds erected in Hollywood studios.

Shipping News

Shipping News

So to meet an aging gay Ennis Del Mar, scratching his “grey wedge of belly and pubic hair” and urinating in the sink of his trailer, on the first page of your story was a jolt. Even when young, neither Ennis nor Jack Twist is exceptionally handsome nor especially heroic let alone prepared for the dangerous love they discover and share. Intrigued, I became a fan of yours and read The Shipping News and several of your earlier works. It’s easy to see why you have been honored with a Pulitzer and other prestigious awards. I returned to your Wyoming stories recently because like me, you’re an Easterner born and raised, writing the west.

            Ennis and Jack meet and fall in love when they herd sheep together for a summer on Brokeback Mountain. This wild and beautiful place, an Eden

Eden's Snake

Eden’s Snake

in Wyoming, turns out to be a real Eden complete with a spying snake. For the rest of their lives, these two lovers are powerless to protect themselves from the brutal homophobia that haunts them both and eventually kills one of them. Ennis and Jack are not only powerless against homophobia, but are also powerless against the changes taking place in late twentieth century Wyoming, changes that make their skill set─ riding, roping, and working a rodeo or a ranch─ obsolete. Both are “high school dropout country boys with no prospects, rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.” Until he marries a relatively wealthy girl, Ennis lives from job to job, with no savings. Once he marries, he must work in the family business, endure sex with his wife, and, later on, find male lovers where he can, usually in Mexico. He is free from most financial worries, but he is not free to leave his wife and kids and make a life with Jack. He knows two men living together would be brutally killed, has seen such a victim. Jack continues to live hand to mouth, taking whatever rodeo or ranch work he can find, and, although his wife leaves him, he is not free either. He cannot meet up with Ennis often because he must work.

            In a desperate attempt to figure out how and where they might safely make a life together, Ennis asks Jack, “This happen a other people. What the hell do they do?” Jack’s reply is telling. “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does, I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver.” Escaping to Denver seems impossible to these lovers, so mired are they in their unhappy marriages, their compromising jobs, and their familiar brand of “Wyomin” misery. As if to emphasize this special meld of defeatism and perseverance that characterizes many of your Wyoming cowboys, Ennis says, “If you can’t fix it, you got a stand it.” That line is repeated twice in this tale and appears in several others in Close Range, Wyoming Stories the collection in which “Brokeback Mountain” is published.

Herding Sheep out West

Herding Sheep out West

            I don’t think I’ve ever met a real cowboy, but if I did, I wonder if he’d talk the way yours do in Wyoming Stories. I hope so because your cowboys come out with the best images I’ve come across in a long time. “Brokeback Mountain” is a cowboy story narrated by a cowboy who gets inside the heads of the characters. That’s why the foreman on the sheep herding job Ennis and Jack take on Brokeback Mountain, tosses Ennis a watch “as if he weren’t worth the reach” and then privately sizes up his two new hires as “Pair of deuces going nowhere.” It is this narrator who tells us that the entourage of Jack, Ennis, their dogs, horses, pack animals, and herd of a thousand ewes and lambs, “flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless, wind.” When at summer’s end, the lovers ride off in opposite directions, Ennis feels “like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time.” Your cowboy story eventually became a film and a good one, but I missed your images, many of which did not make it to the screen.

            You remind me that with talent and research, an easterner can write novels set wherever her story takes her. As I struggle to begin writing a new novel, this message is very inspiring. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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