This is not my review of Elna Baker’s new book. This is an accident. I read her first chapter then nine minutes later gave birth to a healthy essay. This sort of thing can happen, even with virginal New York Mormons like Elna. I promise I will do whatever it takes — count to 100 by sevens, whatever — to keep from conceiving an essay per chapter. If all goes well, you will not hear from us again until her book’s estimated due date, October 15.
The first “chapter” (it’s not called a chapter, yet that’s what I’m calling it) of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is stage-setting, it’s an introduction — she hasn’t brought out the funny yet (though it’s funny), she hasn’t brought out the memoir yet (though it’s memoiric) — she’s setting the stage, she’s introducing us to her life’s dramatic conventions. She’s world-building.
Yet in these first 22 pages of her new memoir, Elna Baker carves out a rhetorical space for herself by discussing how she has carved space for herself in the real world. She is ”A Mormon in New York.”
Imagine a Venn diagram — but not one of those boring static ones we see all the time. This one’s different. At first, the circles nearly overlap, but slowly slowly they move apart until they meet at one point only, the point on which Elna stands. From the title of the “chapter” you may imagine I’m about to have you label the circles “New Yorker” and “Mormon” (as if they were two separate worlds). But don’t imagine that because that would be wrong. Although don’t feel bad! Because, you see, we have two separate Venn diagrams, one for New Yorkers and one for Mormons (as if those two groups were so absolutely separate) (though some might think so).
The two circles in each moving diagram represent “unlimited possibility” and “reality,” and the shift from being nearly overlapping to nearly separate represents the process we go through of moving from one to the other. That state in-between, which the Germans, (joke ahead), call Weltinnerschnitzelrealititz.
(Although the dynamic Venn diagram is mine, you should know that I’m taking most of this stuff [including the German] straight from page seven, when Elna first arrives in New York. She knows nothing and no one: “For another twenty minutes . . . anything was possible: my dorm room and my roommate could be anyone and anything I imagined. But twenty minutes later they’d be whatever they were.” That moment before reality, before, for instance, we read chapter one of a new book, the spine cracking as we open the pages for the first time, the moment of unlimited possibility.)
You can stop imaging now because I’m going to show you my diagram. It’s labeled using terminology that clearly demonstrates what side of the NY/M divide I’m on. (Hint: I’ve never been to the largest city on the east coast.) Behold! how the Gentile Reader and the Saint Reader move from unlimited possibility (which, let’s be honest, means “just like me”) to a single possible person: Elna.
Because you are wise, you will notice that the Saints are the first to be disabused of the notion of “I am just like Elna.”
She begins with talking about her doubts and uncertainties and her dislikes of Mormonism. And not until those are well established does she return to issues of faith and believing and liking, where she is firm but succinct.
So, question begged, why does she structure her opening this way?
A few of her possible thought processes:
- Crassly commercial. I can sell a lot more copies to America than to Mormon America. Count and you’ll see. They outnumber us 60 to 1.
- Nose thumbery. Screw you crummy Mormons for giving up halfway through the first chapter! I don’t need you anyway!
- Saints will be saintly. I can trust my fellow Saints to stick with me through the wobbling, but if I don’t wobble first, other readers will write me off as a wacko and never listen to what I have to say.
- Redefinition route. C’mon, people. There must needs opposition in all things. Without doubt there cannot be faith! Mortality’s a process for heaven’s sake! Or, more accurately, for my sake, your sake, our sakes. Let’s not fear doubt. It’s part of our whole religious package!
- Religious people aren’t crazy. Well, some are. But not me. Because I see that religion is crazy. Crazy! But it’s like in Catch-22: if you think you’re crazy, you aren’t. Ergo, because I recognize that religion’s crazy, I must not be crazy. QED. Read my book knowing you are in the hands of a sane person.
And it’ll be nice to know she’s sane, because Elna doesn’t skimp on crazy doctrines (becoming a god will have to wait for a later chapter, but here’s an early taste):
. . . having a strong connection with God did not stop me from questioning my faith every ten seconds. Mormonism can sound pretty far-fetched: Joseph Smith digs up golden plates and translates them into a book, The Book of Mormon. This book ends up being a history of the ancestors of the Native Americans, who originated in Jerusalem and believed in Jesus.
When you write it all out like that you can’t help but reconsider. (9)
But when you Elna read closer, you’ll notice that for all her seeming apologies, she never candy coats Mormon doctrine with some tasty intellectualism. She doesn’t follow the above with Welllll, but they were probably only one source of Native American ancestry or Welllll, but you know the Aztecs were looking for a white god so obviously or anything else as apologetic as an apologist. She just says what we think and leaves it alone. She’s inviting the uninitiated to raise their eyebrows and walk away.
My defenses are up because I want her to be like ME I want her to be MY kind of Mormon. And most Mormons will feel the same. But that’s not a reasonable thing for us to feel, and no one will argue that more strenuously than myself. One of the paradoxes of Mormonism is that while we may be rigid and hierarchical, we have exquisite leeway in how we are allowed interpret what it is to be Mormon, what it means to lead a Mormon life. So it’s okay that it’s not possible for Elna to make all of us (or even most of us) happy. (It just feels like she should because she’s doing it on a stage. A literal stage.)
But Elna’s savvy. She recognizes the paradoxes working within her and she’s creating a framework the rest of the book can fit into. If her rhetorical posturing is successful now, she’ll never need to explain the big issues that inform every scene and every line of dialogue through the rest of the book. Because now the reader is Mormon. (Or at least an Elna Mormon.) Now the reader is a New Yorker. (Or at least an Elnayorker.) Because no matter our New Yorker / Mormon / Neither status, we do share something called humanity.
But while, for centuries, nonNew Yorkers have been trained in feeling New Yorkish, nonMormons have very little experience in feeling Mormonish. And so when you meet one, “every question is about whether [Mormons are] polygamist[s].”
Mormons are known for saying no. No sex, no drugs, no alcohol, and no caffeine. NO.
And this whole “saying no” philosophy makes me seem like a very boring person. But I’m not boring because while I say no to certain things (sex, drugs, alcohol), I try to say yes to everything else. I honestly believe there’s a certain power behind the word YES. (18)
Demonstration of YES is where we are now taken and what the themes of this “chapter” is ultimately proven to be. Elna demonstrates through joyous actions the pleasure and happiness to be found in living a life of YES and she makes us want to say YES as well. Her enthusiasm is infectious and whether you are a New Yorker who snorts at Jesus or a Mormon who squeals at dildoes (you’ll have to read the book), by the end of page 22, as you stand in the corner of the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance with Elna and her “too many cookies and a notebook” watching “a thirty-five-year-old man — definitely a virgin — dressed in a duck costume doing the electric slide” you will pray, with her, “God, there has to be another way.”