Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Brief Thoughts on a Novel I Read: Mission to America

I'm not exactly sure what first got me interested in the works of Walter Kirn. I'm pretty sure whatever it was had something to do with the forthcoming release of the film adaptation of his novel, "Up in the Air," which is looking disappointingly more and more like a George Clooney vehicle and less like something I'll have any interest in seeing. I'm not saying the book and the movie have to be one and the same in terms of plot and all other points attributable, but I am concerned about how close to the original spirit of the novel they'll be able to stay with the invented protege, Natalie, necessarily adding new dynamic and dimension to the story's main character, Ryan Bingham. And yes, it's true, maybe they don't wish to stay close to the novel's original spirit, or even in the same ballpark. They're doing something different, creative license invoked. Fine, their prerogative. In that case, mine remains to grouse from afar until my suspicions have been confirmed or disconfirmed, then grouse some more, regardless.

But as for Walter Kirn and his oeuvre, I can say in the year to date I've managed to read "Up in the Air," "Thumbsucker" and most recently "Mission to America." And you bet I'm glad I have. Since I said in the title something about this being "brief" thoughts on a novel recently completed, I'm going to write only about "Mission to America" and try to be brief. Kirn appears to have some interest in fringe religious groups, evident in Justin Cobb's conversion to Mormonism in "Thumbsucker" and seen again with the far more obscure (and entirely a product of Kirn's imagination) church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles in "Mission to America." The novel is written in the first-person narrative of Mason LaVerle, a young AFA missionary assigned the task, along with five other young men deemed similarly fit, of going off into America (or Terrestria) and diversifying and repopulating the dwindling AFA membership, wholly extant in the small town of Bluff, Montana.

Like the recent Thomas Pynchon novel "Inherent Vice" there is a pervasive attitude espoused principally by LaVerle that America has made a mockery of its divine (or at least spiritual) opportunity made manifest at its inception, and is descending instead to the slow depths of cultural dyspepsia, a land of the identity-less and devoid of any vision of where to go to reclaim itself -- our vices are too many, our concerns too vapid and trivial, our unrest too past the point of return. That's not to say LaVerle doesn't come off similarly wayward and misguided, or plainly brainwashed by his very insular community. He believes strongly in his faith, although at times more strongly than at others, and calls upon the "All-in-One," the spiritual essence of the universe, more or less, which has the unusual if not useful quality of being everything to everyone without limitations. This becomes rather muddled and contradictory as the story progresses, like in this conversation between LaVerle and his budding love interest, Betsy, who explains how she earns her living by cornering the market for retro clothing by buying it up from every thrift store and yard sale within hundreds of miles:
The problem is when the stuff is gone it's gone, though, so I really can't take the time to sell it off until I've got most of what's out there.

You think that's possible?

I can feel it -- you're about to preach, she said. Yes, I know, it's no substitute for God. It's stuff. It's only stuff.

That's what the All-in-One is made of, actually.

Not spirit?

That, and everything else.

I don't believe the notion of the All-in-One is intended to be entirely specious or farcical. There is something completely idealistic about the inclusionary spirit it evokes. It's a religion that turns tradition on its head by conforming to matriarchal rule and a general veneration and deference to women. It eschews the plasticity of modern life whenever this action is practical but goes no further than that in its day-to-day societal mechanisms. In other words, there are numerous relations with the outside world, and although it's rare that the people of Bluff venture beyond their town's limits it is not prohibited. Still, by the novel's end even Bluff has lost its momentum and has been compromised by the outside. Its faithful aspire to the same amenities that have come to define modern American society: stylish automobiles, expansive mansions, and worst of all, validation from the outside, which seems to precipitate the need for a mission to America in the first place. So that in the end, it's not the faith that fails but the people.

All right, so I said I'd be brief right? Well, I lied. Good night and BAD luck! (I'm a petty, petty man)

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