Sunday, January 22, 2006

Ordinary Time

Have you ever been driving along in your car listening to the radio, when a country-western song comes on and you start to listen to it and then, after a few minutes, you find yourself thinking "Hey, back up the truck--this isn't half bad!"? Well, OK, neither have I. But I suspect that most folks have at least one guilty little pleasure in which they like to indulge from time to time, like, say, watching a hockey game, or eating at McDonald's. (I've got two kids, so I "get to" indulge that latter one more often than is good for me.) One of my many guilty, low-brow pleasures, for the past few years, at any rate, has been reading the Mitford Books series by Jan Karon. If you've never read any of these books, I think the best description of them that I have ever seen was from a reviewer at Amazon.com: "It's like being trapped in a Thomas Kinkade painting"; another titled her review "It's Not Mitford, It's Stepford"; and my all time favorite: "Mitford makes Bedford Falls and Mayberry look like Sodom and Gomorrah."

The trouble is, you see, that these negative reviews (and believe me, there are dozens more--the first volume of the series alone has garnered 344 reviews, many of them very negative) all decry the very things that I like most about these books: they are incredibly mundane. It's escapist fiction at its best. Karon herself describes her project as "celebrating the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives", and who wants to read that kind of stuff these days? We want action: sex, violence, intrigue--something dangerous, anyway, with detailed psychologies behind every character and some bizarre twist around every plot corner. We want Cryptonomicon and Baudolino, we don't want homey stories about a devout minister and his June Cleaver wife.

I'm not going to try to claim that these books are better than the negative reviews say they are. They aren't. In fact, as fiction, they're terrible. None of these books would count as a good example of the modern novel, with the possible exception of the last volume in the series, Light From Heaven, which actually employs one or two plot devices and some interesting character development to make an interesting point about human experience. But don't let that fool you--in general these books stink from a literary point of view. What I like about them has nothing to do with their value as works of high art.

What does any of us like about our "guilty pleasures"? Are we going to try to claim that McDonald's is really better food than people say it is, or that hockey games are better places for young men to exhibit virtue than the beer-swilling crowds who go to watch them realize? Are we going to compare a country-western song to one of Schubert's Lieder? Don't go there, girlfriend. We like them because we like them--there's no Platonic Form of Beauty or Goodness to which any of them conform. They provoke pleasurable feelings in us for whatever reason, and pleasure is not in and of itself a bad thing. Some pleasures are not good for us, it's true: you don't want to eat every meal at McDonald's, even if you just can't get enough of those fries. But a small helping of McDonald's fries every now and then is not going to hurt you as long as you take steps to keep things balanced, like running in a half-marathon after every McDonald's meal. I'm not kidding, you really should do that. Come on, it's only about 13 miles--some people run that far every day.

But not many people. We live in a culture where many people tend to prefer eating the McDonald's meals without balancing it out later on with a good healthy cardiovascular cleaning. I would not recommend that people who never read anything worthwhile add the Mitford books to their list--that would be like supersizing that Big Mac Value Meal without doing any crunches afterwards. But I read plenty of good stuff most of the time, and when I want to kick back, this is how I do it; so sue me.

One reviewer wrote:
Don't get me wrong. The virtues exhibited by the characters are admirable. Would that we all acted with the kind of integrity that they display - and not just the overtly "Christian" characters. Even those characters who have undergone decades-long crises of faith are instantly reconizable, in a tradition going back to Dante, as "Virtuous Heathen." True evildoers are nameless and faceless. (The only "personal information" you get about the drug runners who steal the hero's dog is their license plate number.) No, the characters, good and bad, are just not convincing. Admittedly, the good ones do have to cope with adversity - but since somehow, they ALWAYS get what they're seeking, it's difficult for working stiffs like myself - who DON'T always get the promotion or the girl - to relate to them.
This is only partly correct as a characterization of the, ummm, characterizations...whatever. It's easy to laugh at a book where the characters "always get what they're seeking", because we live in a culture where "getting what I'm seeking" is usually translated into "getting what I want", meaning "getting, right here and now, the very thing that I desire." But that isn't what Karon is writing about. Her characters don't always get what they want, even though they do get what they're seeking. What her characters seek is God's will, and when God's will is done we get what we need, whether or not we get what we want. And, as Plato believed, what we really "want", if we're living the right way, is what we need, whether or not getting what we need includes bringing us some pleasure along the way.

For me it's refreshing to read about a place where there are one or two people for whom abandonment of self to God is what life is all about. Obviously, for the outsider, such a "character" is entirely "unbelievable", because nobody is like that in real life--we're too busy trying to "get the promotion or the girl" and we just can't identify with folks who want something else, something that doesn't seem obviously connected to getting what we want when we want it. The same reviewer who so humorously dismissed the characters and motivations of Mitford also glibly described the South this way:
Speaking of places, the real locus of this book isn't western North Carolina - it's Neverland. It is legal for a town down there NOT to have a Hardee's? I don't think so! (Maybe one shows up later in the series.) "The Local" is NOT what I think of when I think of Southern Small Town Shopping. Can you see a couple of Good Ol' Boys picking up a wheel of brie and a bottle of chardonnay before they head out possum huntin'? ("Dang, Bubba! Yew done fergot th' Stoned Wheat Thins!") No, buying Velveeta and a six-pack at the Piggly-Wiggly or Winn Dixie is more like it. The picket-fence-perfection of the place defies belief. And where, pray tell, are the black people in this Southern Eden? There's only one - and she's a former domestic servant! It smacks of tokenism at it's worst - and this in a book written in 1994! Kind of makes you wonder if the Klan didn't get to Mitford before Father Tim did.
This is both glib and a slander against the south, and I suppose it should come as no surprise, though it is still somewhat disappointing, to find that the same person who made what I thought of as rather funny remarks about the books ("Was it H.L Mencken who said, 'No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public?' No matter. Here's the proof") should turn out to be such an ignorant bigot. If this person has ever been to the south, it was a south that exists only as portrayed in the vicious Hollywood stereotypes that are rightly ridiculed in the review when they are about the treacly picure of domestic life from the 1950s. It's too bad the reviewer wasn't a little less credulous when it came to the more recent Hollywood shibboleths.

The real south is no more like this offensive caricature than it is like, well, Mitford, of course. If there are racists in the south there are plenty in the north, too--more than many northerners would care to admit--and there are Timothy Kavanaughs in the south, just as there are in many other places, if you're willing to look for them--and have the eyes to see them when you find them.

They're getting a little harder to find these days, and maybe that's why it can be satisfying to read the Mitford books. You won't get what you want, if what you want is action, sex, or whatever is on offer from the latest Philip Roth bathroom masterpiece--but you might get what you need.

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