At its deepest, Glenn Arbery’s Bearings and Distances asks and endeavours brilliantly to answer the most difficult of questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are the innocent corrupted?…
Bearings & Distances by Glenn Arbery (346 pages, Wiseblood Books, 2015)
It’s happening. It’s finally happening. At long last, after several decades in the cultural doldrums, we are witnessing a real Catholic literary revival. My shelves are now burgeoning with volumes of contemporary poetry, much of it truly sublime, and with many new works of fiction, some of it of the very highest quality. I’ve recently reviewed Jerusalem, Jerusalem! by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (Chronicles Press 2017) and The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (Atria Books 2014), both of which are literary novels of the highest order. Now, I find myself in awe at the sheer brilliance of a recent novel by Glenn Arbery, a writer who will be no stranger to those who have read his excellent essays for the Imaginative Conservative. The novel in question is Bearings & Distances, a work of such grim unflinching realism that one finds oneself grimacing on every page, much as one does when reading Flannery O’Connor. It is indeed not for the faint of heart, or the squeamish, or those with puritanical sensibilities. It goes beneath the surface of contemporary culture, probing beyond modernity’s smile of hedonistic self-satisfaction, to show the ugly reality of the death-culture, removing the seductive smile, the mere mask that modernity wears, to expose the sneer of cynicism which lies behind its lies. Its characters are obsessed with sex, letting their lust lead them by their nose until they and everything they touch stinks with its ugly consequences. And yet nowhere does Mr. Arbery preach. He lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves. As for the bare bones upon which the decaying flesh hangs, it is summarized succinctly in the short description on the back cover:
In the summer after Barack Obama’s election, Hermia Watson, a scholar of black history, lures the famous (and famously irresponsible) Professor Braxton Forrest back to his hometown in Georgia, using his two daughters as unwitting hostages. Returning alone while his pious wife continues touring Italy, Forrest arrives to the tremblings of his abandoned past and a confrontation with the Furies he thought modernity had left behind. In the course of a few days, Hermia realizes what violent revelations she has begun to unleash about her former lover, her mother, and her own identity—but it is too late to stop what is coming to light.
The scene is thus set and it’s not for the reviewer to reveal too much more, lest he give the game away, spoiling the reader’s experience of the many shocking surprises that lie in wait for him as he turns the pages. And there are many surprises, and many shocking revelations. It’s as though the turning of each new page is the turning of a rock which reveals new scandals, or the turning of a corpse which reveals the putridness of decay. Each new lurid revelation writhes maggot-like on the decadent flesh which gives them birth, worming and squirming their way into the reader’s imagination as they worm and squirm their way into the lives of the fictional characters. And it’s not just the flesh that crawls with each twist and turn in the plot, it’s also the skin which creeps, especially the colour of the skin. With raw-nerved realism, Dr. Arbery exposes the raw nerve of racism in all its guises and disguises, and in all its colours, in every one of its fifty shades of grey. Racism is not about skin colour but about the obsession with skin colour, an obsession which afflicts all races. This obsession runs through the pages of Bearings & Distances as catastrophically as the obsession with sex.
The palpitating presence of tribal pride and racial prejudice will remind many readers of the novels of Flannery O’Connor and there’s no denying that Bearing & Distances owes a great deal to the legacy of southern literature, most notably of course in its setting in O’Connor’s own home state of Georgia. And yet there is much more to it than that. In some ways, it can be seen not so much as a work in the tradition of southern gothic as a work in what might be called southern classicism. This is evident in the suggestive parallels with the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles which the discerning reader will hardly miss. And this is perhaps the secret to understanding the novel at its deepest level of meaningful applicability. It is not primarily about the South, though it penetrates deeply into the southern soul; nor is it primarily about race, though it cuts through the cant to get to racism’s darkened heart; nor is it even ultimately about the destructive consequences of a hedonistic lifestyle, though it illustrates such destructiveness with a candour that is at times almost crass. All of these themes are important but, in the philosophical sense, they are mere accidents; they are not of the essence; they do not encapsulate the essential heart of the novel. At its deepest, Bearing and Distances asks and endeavours brilliantly to answer the most difficult of questions. It grapples with the problem of pain. It asks the most painful of questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are the innocent corrupted? Why do good people become bad people? Why do the good people who are corrupted by bad people become bad people themselves? Why are those who are abused more likely to become abusers? It takes raw nerve to tackle such questions and it takes the exposing of raw nerves to do so successfully. In this most painfully brilliant of novels, Mr. Arbery succeeds sublimely.
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