In the Here and Now: Sophia by Michael Bible
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If literature is the attempt to weave chaos into a semblance of meaning, then Michael Bible’s debut novel is not literature. At least not at first glance, since the form Sophia quickly assumes is that of a disjunctive series of insular vignettes, of isolated paragraphs that shift through the life of degenerate pastor, Alvis T. Maloney. These paragraphs depicting his wanton existence are always separated by a double space, as if the young Mr. Bible is emphasizing the disconnection between the often-hilarious events they recount, as if defying the reader to tease out the significance that might unite their discontinuity. Yet gradually, it becomes apparent that even if they don’t congeal into an obvious moral or message, they complement the pastor’s inability to locate the sense in his life, his inability “to find a way to die with honor.” As such, the novel’s sense leaks out despite itself, and amid the sharp, laconic prose that its structure facilitates, Bible emerges as one of the most interesting and exciting new novelists in years.
This is no understatement, since the first thing that has to be said about Sophia is that it’s superbly written. Initially, its atomistic style might have the tendency to disorient the reader, demanding that she read a handful of its disembodied paragraphs before she can glimmer that the novel is about a one Pastor Maloney and his various misadventures through intoxication, debauchery and outright criminality. However, once the bearings are gathered, the short, punchy nature of the book imbues each of its micro-episodes with greater weight and resonance than they would have had if they’d been threaded immediately together into one continuous yarn.
On the one hand, this pointillistic punchiness serves to emphasize the abject quality of Maloney’s disaffection and depravity. One early paragraph abruptly ends with the observation, “The best thing for your health is to never have been born.” Another refers to how a love interest by the name of Tuesday hit him with a damning observation: “In the confessional Tuesday says I am emotionally crippled.” At many similar points, an impression of dejection, helplessness and powerless is strongly evoked, outlining the pastor as the passive victim of his life rather than its active master, as someone who has little control over its events and little power to stitch them together according to a particular vision of the good.
Indeed, his numerous references to the absence of such a vision provides Sophia with one of its main themes. In the latter half of the novel, he says to best-friend Eli, “Eli, there is nowhere to preach the gospel, no gospel left to preach. No sun I can see.” Elsewhere, he frankly tells this same friend, “I have no answers,” possibly admitting that he’s a man of religion only because he’s renounced all hope of improving his existence himself, in the here and now.
Yet if this nihilism and desolation threatens to become a tad wearing at times, and if the non-disclosure of why exactly he’s so disenchanted with life arguably prevents a full sympathizing with him, the terse, concentrated format of the novel works to reinforce the dryness and darkness of Bible’s caustic wit. For example, one memorable paragraph consists simply in the declaration, “Things are so bad and then I remember the secular saints: Beethoven, van Gogh, the drummer from Def Leppard.”
Moreover, this example and its zen-like brevity introduces another major virtue of Sophia, which is that it often fudges the boundaries between prose and poetry. Almost every paragraph reads like a sample of free verse, with its cloistered fragmentation suggestively withholding just enough information so that several interpretations are possible of curt lines like, “Women apply lipstick in the reflection of the butcher shop window.”
Sure, there have been many ‘verse novels’ and other works which have blurred poetry and prose (e.g. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Pale Fire by Nabokov), but what qualifies Sophia as a more attractive prospect for the rhyme-averse is that its cast of vibrant characters are eminently relatable in their failings, failures, and foibles. Maloney is a jaded priest who openly acknowledges his humanity, peppering the book with such unabashed confessions as, “I have a dream about Tuesday wearing nothing but a magician’s hat.” His closest friend Eli is an unlikely chess genius, as well as fellow drunkard-romantic who introduces himself to his Chinese sexagenarian sweetheart by telling her that he’s in the mood for some strip chess (to which he receives the reply, “Set up the board, she says. Your move.”). Meanwhile, their Mississippian hometown is populated with a chessboard of oddballs and outliers, people like the bullhorn-playing “Finger,” the cosplaying Malchows, and the book-stealing “Darling.”
As colorful as they all are, it’s undoubtedly Maloney whose predicament proves the most universal. Unable to catch a break with the ladies, and terrorized by the “the fifth graders with their piss balloons,” he’s most of all plagued by a lack of direction in his life and by the failure to square it with great expectations. Aside from the fractured makeup of the novel, this lack is underscored by several resonant motifs and metaphors. For one, he lives on a “small filthy yacht,” a boat on which he floats and drifts in much the same way that he seems to drift haphazardly through life, without any particular endpoint and without the ability to govern where precisely he’s going. Added to this, there are the recurring visits a feminized Holy Ghost often pays to his dreams, where her performance of certain favors stand as a lewd promise of the divine favor he would obtain if only he knew how “to continue life in a noble way.”
He has a faint idea of how he might attain such nobility, insofar as he suspects it involves some saintly act of self-sacrifice: “I want so bad to be a saint but I’m a coward and barely Christian, I say.” Unfortunately for him, Sophia raises the demoralizing possibility that, because “the beer is still delivered and the cars are waxed and people still fall in and out of love,” these same people aren’t interested in pursuing any grand objectives, in making the world a better place, or in having anyone become a saint on their behalf. Hence, Maloney’s quest for a noble, selfless life is fatally undermined from the very beginning. What’s more, because of this, the novel abounds in professions of aimlessness, impotence and frustration, professions like, “Turn your hand off the wheel of time slowly.”
Yet, for all its despondency, and even though it appears to take the stance that a person’s life unfolds predominantly by chance, Sophia ultimately reveals itself as a life-affirming novel. Its schismatic passages gradually evolve into a decentralized narrative of love and new beginnings, and in fact this very same schismatic format paints Maloney as someone who just about has the ability to appreciate each divided moment as an end in itself, without always worrying too much about how to connect these moments together. Yes, its capsule-like segmentation may militate against a complete investment in its eccentric characters and scattered plotting, and yes, its blend of poetry and prose may edge its occasional surrealism to the point where the reader can’t distinguish reality from unreality. Nonetheless, it has a sharp, snappy charm that somehow makes its characters and plotting more engaging than they would have been in a more conventional novel, and its sporadically absurdist tone is perfectly in line with an absurdist world that obstructs almost every attempt of its inhabitants to find meaning within it.
As for that meaning, it does eventually arrive, after 13 chapters of “rotten peaches,” “playing chess” and “drinking gin.” Without giving away the particular form it assumes, it can be teased that the novel’s title has something to do with it, and that it, like pretty much everything else in Maloney’s haphazard life, befalls the pastor more or less as an accident. However, what certainly isn’t an accident is the remarkable literature that Michael Bible has put together for his first novel, a rich yet entirely unpretentious debut that, just as its conclusion marks a promising new start for its cast, marks a very promising start for its author.