Can There Be a Great Mormon Novel?

Reading between the lines.
March 1 2013 11:00 AM

On a Mission From God

Two works of fiction tell the stories of Mormon missionaries far away from home.

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Illustration by Danny Gregory

About five years ago, when the Best American Short Stories for 2008 were announced, I was disappointed to see among them one called “Missionaries,” by Bradford Tice. This was maybe a small-minded reaction on my part. I had read the story more than once shortly after it was published in the Atlantic, and its selection for the annual anthology is not hard to understand: “Missionaries,” which depicts two young men preaching the Mormon gospel in Knoxville, Tenn., is engaging and nicely crafted, with dramatic but believable scenes that build toward one character’s ambiguous but striking epiphany. It’s a pretty good short story. But it got Mormonism all wrong.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

I couldn’t see past that. It was clear to me that Tice himself wasn’t Mormon, and never had been; he made mistakes about the terminology, and the missionaries’ routines didn’t match those I’d heard about. More vaguely but also more importantly, the attitudes and personal bearings of the missionaries just didn’t seem Mormon to me. I never served a mission myself—I decided I didn’t believe in the Latter-day Saint gospel right around the age, 19, when young men usually begin preparing for their missions. Perhaps because I never had the experience I wanted badly to read an account of one that had the ring of truth and the shape of a good story. There was no rule in my mind that it had to be written by a Mormon. Fiction writers should feel free to imagine the lives of any sort of people, whatever their own backgrounds may be. But if you’re going to tell the stories of others, you have to get them right—particularly, perhaps, when you’re inventing things about a minority group that holds a certain fascination for the majority. If it looks like you haven’t done all the work it takes to really understand these people different from yourself, the attempt to tell their story can feel almost exploitative—like you’re trading on other people’s curiosity, without earning the trust or faith of those with a greater claim on such stories.

It’s a complicated matter, and that may sound a bit proprietary—especially given that I walked away from the everyday practice of Mormonism a long time ago. But that’s how “Missionaries” made me feel. It got me thinking and, eventually, writing about what it might take to write a great work of Mormon fiction. In the couple of years since I published a piece on that subject, a handful of writers have mentioned reading it as they gave me copies of their own books. One was given to me in person on a visit to Salt Lake City, another was sent as a PDF over email. A third arrived via old-fashioned mail a couple of months ago. It was Elders, by Ryan McIlvain. It had a missionary on the cover and a personal note inside. I knew of McIlvain’s work already—he’s been in the Paris Review and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He’s also been published in a 50-year-old Mormon quarterly called Dialogue that’s currently edited by my cousin, and for which I used to serve as poetry editor. The community of people with an interest in serious Mormon fiction is not enormous.

Elders is set in Brazil in 2003 and written from the close third-person perspective of two missionaries, Elder McLeod and Elder Passos. (“Elder” is a priesthood title conferred on all male missionaries.) The latter is a native Brazilian—there are more than 1 million Mormons in Brazil; it’s long been more receptive to LDS proselytizing than most places. Passos, we learn, was receptive because his mother died when he was young: Mormons believe that families reunite in the afterlife. The church—and the mission—also represents for Passos a path to the United States and a college education at BYU. McIlvain dissects the mix of need and ambition and genuine faith that fuel a disciplined devotion to a demanding way of life, and he’s also sensitive to the sometimes imperial obliviousness of Mormon missionary efforts overseas. At one point, the mission president—the church authority who oversees those efforts in a given region—while speaking to his American and Brazilian charges, asks them, and “not rhetorically,” “How do you say deliverables in Portuguese?” The tensions between Passos and McLeod that are at the heart of the novel are exacerbated when the United States invades Iraq, and Passos, like many of his countrymen, becomes more scornful of the United States.

McIlvain has obviously worked to understand his Brazilian protagonist, but it’s the American one who feels not only thought through, but lived in. His motivations are murkier, and his attitude more ambiguous. McLeod didn’t have a strong testimony in the Mormon gospel before he left for his mission, but was committed to “experimenting on the Word,” living out the faith in the hope that a testimony would come. It doesn’t go that well. This is not a tale of disillusionment, building toward some atheistic epiphany—it’s more earthbound than that. Very earthbound, in fact: McLeod and Passos are both tormented often by the temptation to masturbate. A fellow missionary enduring the same struggle—a struggle which, it should be noted, both Passos and McLeod frequently, and very realistically, lose—shows McLeod a pamphlet titled “The Guide to Self-Control,” which you can find pretty easily online (though its true origins are disputed). Among its tenets: “dress yourself for the night so securely that you cannot easily touch your vital parts,” and “avoid being alone as much as possible.”

The “Guide” is funny, but McIlvain doesn’t play the subject for laughs. Elders is earnest about the mundane challenges of missionary work—a lot of reading scriptures and knocking on doors to find people who mostly aren’t interested—and honest about the tedium of missionary life. That tedium is a challenge for the novel: There’s not a tremendous amount of obvious drama in these men’s lives. Much of Elders concerns the attempt by Passos and McLeod to convert a young woman named Josefina and her husband, Leandro. The dynamics of the situation are complex—McLeod becomes attracted to Josefina, though he has a hard time admitting it, and Leandro is jealous and a drunk—but the principals spend just a few hours together each week (at most), and those hours are so formally constrained that not much can really happen. The book builds to a fairly drastic resolution, but it takes a while to get there. Admirably, McIlvain doesn’t go in for cheap plot devices or easy melodrama. But I sometimes thought this story lent itself more to a novella than a novel.

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As it happens, while I was reading Elders another work of fiction arrived in the mail, with the title Godforsaken Idaho and a familiar portrait of Joseph Smith on the cover. (No personal note this time.) I cracked open the collection by Shawn Vestal and found a short story called “Winter Elders,” which grabbed me from the opening line: “They materialized with the first snow.” “They” are a pair of missionaries, and the man who sees them in the snow is an ex-Mormon named Bradshaw. This is a tale of missionary work from the perspective of the target. And it is a dark tale. It’s also psychologically astute and elegantly written, like much of Vestal’s book. Other stories dig into the Mormon past and imagine life after death. With his interest in violence and carefully wrought sentences, Vestal occasionally recalls Brian Evenson, who is probably the most accomplished ex-Mormon fiction writer at the moment. (Check out Evenson’s riveting and disturbing Open Curtain, for a start.)

That honorific may sound comically specific, but McIlvain, Vestal, and Evenson—not to mention Udall, whose status in the church I’m not sure of—prove that it’s not an easy title to hold. Is there such thing as a “great Mormon novel”? Will there ever be? I’m not sure. But there is now, undeniably, a Mormon presence in American letters. (Looking beyond fiction there are several other notable writers with Mormon pasts: Terry Tempest Williams, Neil Labute, Dustin Lance Black, and so on.) This is a good thing, I think, for American letters—and for Mormonism. In fact, it’s the latter effect that strikes me more today. In 2010, when I wrote about “the great Mormon novel,” I was more concerned with how such a book might affect readers mostly ignorant of the religion. I wrote that “a great Mormon writer might change how the religion is perceived in the wider culture” and “make plain to those who doubt it that one can be Mormon and intellectually serious at the same time.”

Author Ryan McIlvain, left and author Shawn Vestal, right.
Author Ryan McIlvain, left and author Shawn Vestal, right.

Courtesy of Brinn Willis, left, and courtesy of Dan Pelle, right

For obvious reasons, the years since 2010 have taught many Americans quite a bit about Mormonism. But for me, they’ve been a more interesting time within Mormon culture, broadly defined. Though Vestal and McIlvain and Evenson (and Black and Labute and Williams) have all left the church, they’re all still engaged with it to varying degrees, still wrestling with its meaning and its legacy. And there are plenty of Mormons, even if it’s a small minority of churchgoers, who are interested in what they have to say. Increasingly, it feels reasonable to think about “Mormon” as a category that includes people who don’t go to church, or who don’t even believe in God. Much of the LDS faithful would dispute that, I suspect—but some of them also probably think, consciously or no, of such people as part of the fold. Fiction can introduce you to worlds you don’t know, and put you in the shoes of people who aren’t like you. But it can also expand your sense of your own tribe, and what it means to belong to it. I still hope that a novel will come along that makes lots of non-Mormons feel what it’s like to wear Mormon shoes, so to speak (or garments, perhaps). But I’m also gladdened by books that enlarge the idea of Mormon-ness, and help me understand why, several years since my last visit to church, I still feel a part of it.

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Elders by Ryan McIlvain. Hogarth.

Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal. New Harvest.

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