The Sparrow won a ton of awards, got rave reviews, and is loved or admired by many people whose opinions I respect. And yet, for years, whenever one of them recommended it to me, it came with the caveat, “It’s a pretty religious book. I’m not sure how you’ll like it.”
My friends know I am not a religious person. Works of fiction where the point is to explore the grandeur of religious feeling are very likely to leave me cold. I am not, though, insensitive to books about the human experience of religion. These I can find as moving as any other exploration of profound human experience. So when I read The Sparrow, it was with the hope it would be that kind of book. And, for about the first nine-tenths, it was. That last tenth, though…. Stop reading here if you are spoiler averse.
Up until the end I thought that the book was engrossing, the characters rendered with deft nuance, the dialog compelling, and the building sense of menace genuinely chilling. Up through, oh, around the time that Anne dies, the book was completely working for me. After that, though, it breaks down. The climax of the book is the moment when Emilio Sandoz is “raped by God,” and everything in the last few sections happens in service of constructing this moment. Characters who have been built with tenderness are dispensed with casually, often off the page1, in a perfunctory deepening of Sandoz’s abjectness leading up to his ultimate violation. All the issues of faith that characters struggle with up to that point are communicated with clarity and naturalness, and I was sympathetic to them even if I didn’t share them. But the perfect, efficient thoroughness of Sandoz’s downfall seemed authorially artificial, and thus an unfair structural thumb on the scale for a teleological worldview. This deviation from the book’s prior subtlety is relevant, because Sandoz’s final conflict is whether to view his experiences as farcically meaningless, or the design of a God (read: author) he must despise.
I said on Twitter that I was trying to decide if Russell failed me as an author, or if I failed her as a reader. And I think it might be a little of both. She failed me with the manipulative heavy-handedness of the climax. I failed her because Sandoz’s ultimate struggle, to answer does it mean something or does it mean nothing, speaks to something I lack. Whatever it is in some people that makes the answer it means something so tragically tempting is not in me. To my mind, Sandoz wasn’t raped by God, he was raped by a bunch of aliens. I understand Sandoz struggling to reach that conclusion, but I am fully resistant to the narrative suggesting that I should struggle as well. When the Father General says, “He is still held fast in the formless stone, but he’s closer to God right now than I have ever been in my life. And I don’t even have the courage to envy him,” it reminds me of nothing so much as Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, announcing, “She would have been a good woman if there had been someone to shoot her every day of her life.” That is to say, the philosophy of a psychopath, or at least someone prone to the fetishistic glamorization of suffering.
I have been brought down by circumstance. I have had my heart wounded by the cruel and belated recognition of my own hand in the authorship of my trials. But at my lowest my mind has always alighted on ontology. These things just happened, as things do, and it is terrible, as things often are. Irony can be punishing, and and challenges to sense-of-self wrenching. But whatever human wiring it is that demands they be signifiers of purpose, that grasps for and resonates with teleology–that is simply absent in me. Or if it is present, it has been roused by neither my own past experience, nor the climax of The Sparrow. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or a worthy keystone around which to arch a story, but it does mean that I as a reader can’t go along for the ride.
Wikipedia informs me that some of this is to hide the fact that the characters don’t actually die, and are around for the next novel. I don’t consider this to greatly ameliorate my critiques. ↩