Title: Ockhamâ€™s Razor
Author: Alan Michael Williams
Publisher: BookSurge Publishing (self-published)
Genre: Fiction (gay fiction)
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 250
Price: $12.99 print; $7.99 Kindle. Available at Amazon.com.
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.
Note: I received a free electronic review copy of this book from the author.
Reviewing Ockhamâ€™s Razor is a bit odd for me. Itâ€™s a book about Micah, a gay kid in his early twenties who was raised a Mormon (though he claims not to be one anymore), and his on-again-off-again relationship with Brendan, a 17-year-old gay Mormon who isnâ€™t sure if he wants to stay in the Church or not. Itâ€™s also about the mutual misunderstandings and awkwardness that are common in relationships of any kind at this age, and about Micahâ€™s efforts to engage with mental models about life from a variety of sources, ranging from French philosopher Michel Foucault to Micahâ€™s Mormon mother, to two nurses who work at the same detox center as Micah. And itâ€™s about Brendan as well, though as readers we never really see him clearly: only the imperfect and poorly understood Brendan-construct, subject of endless hypothesizing on Micahâ€™s part, that dwells in the older boyâ€™s mind.
On a surface level, Ockhamâ€™s Razor seems in some ways like a mirror image to my own novel, No Going Back, also published in 2009 (maybe it was something in the water?) and also about a gay teenage Mormon kid, though the character in No Going Back is somewhat younger and never strays quite as far from the Church as either Brendan or Micah. In both novels, the Mormon Church and its teachings about homosexuality represent almost another major character in the story, influencing the actions and motivations of the other characters and representing at least a perceived alternative to self-acceptance as a homosexual. Despite some optimistic suggestions otherwise early in Ockhamâ€™s Razor and Paulâ€™s initial attempts to balance his gay side and his Mormon side in No Going Back, ultimately in both cases choosing to be Mormon means choosing not to live as a homosexual.
One big difference is the stance of the books toward Mormonism. The central viewpoint depicted in No Going Back is one in which Mormonism is true as a belief system, written primarily for an audience of believing Mormons. Ockhamâ€™s Razor, by contrast, is written from a distinctly non-LDS worldview, in which Mormon beliefs are a source of ongoing frustration and wonder on the part of the main character as to how others can believe and accept this stuff. Itâ€™s perhaps indicative that the term â€œOckhamâ€™s razorâ€ is first introduced as part of a discussion in which Micah is berating his mother about the Churchâ€™s position on blacks, including his claim that Ockhamâ€™s razor (the principle that the simplest explanation consistent with the facts is likely to be true) suggests causes other than revelation for the 1978 change in policy. While part of this rings true in terms of typical late adolescent badgering of parents â€” something Micah is never slow to do whenever his mother shows up in a scene â€” it reflects a viewpoint that will resonate more with those who have left the Mormon faith than with believing Mormons.
Itâ€™s hard to imagine that many believing Mormons would be comfortable reading this book. Aside from the main characterâ€™s constant mental and verbal martialing of arguments against the Churchâ€™s position on various issues, most commonly homosexuality, there are some explicit descriptions of homosexual sex that few practicing Mormons will be comfortable with.
The novel is well-written on a sentence, paragraph, and scene level, though at first I found the style sometimes confusing in its quick alternative of person (first person, second person, third person) in internally reported thoughts. Example:
I scootch next to him on the couch and notice he hasnâ€™t put on deodorant today. His pheromones make the world grow pleasantly fuzzy. I never got the chance to be close to you like this at school. This is surreal. (p. 11)
Either the style grew clearer as I went along, or I got used to it.
In general, the story appeared well-edited and well-produced, which is a challenge for self-published books. However, the storyâ€™s biggest challenge is its lack of a natural audience: as I pointed out above, itâ€™s not a good match for most Mormon readers, but at the same time itâ€™s also sufficiently engaged with the matter of Mormonism that readers without a Mormon background may find it hard to follow and/or sympathize with. Itâ€™s also very much a story about the internal thought processes of the main character and the real-world events that prompt those thoughts, as opposed to a more externally plot-driven narrative. Itâ€™s a cerebral story where sometimes it seems that the main characters are more interested in talking about ideas than having a relationship. And the romance doesnâ€™t turn out happily in the end: Brendan decides he wants to go on a mission and stops seeing Micah. All these are strikes against the book finding a very wide readership.
What the novel does best, in my view, is its depiction of Micah as a young man, confused in the way that many (perhaps most?) young men are often confused in their first serious relationships, whether that relationship is with a female or (as described here) with another male. Micah is constantly questioning what Brendan means, what he should say to the other boy, what just went wrong in their interaction, whether or not he should push for more physical contact or back off… the usual suspects.
In this respect, it strikes me that despite the thematic focus on homosexuality, much of the story could be retold as a boy-girl romance without changing a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. Thatâ€™s not a bad thing, in my opinion. If anything, I think itâ€™s a step forward to acknowledge that gay relationships can be just a clueless and frustrating as straight relationships can be, particularly between two people who are too young to really know what theyâ€™re doing and still largely narcissistically focused on themselves and their own agendas (as all of us tend to be when we start down the relationship path). The randomness in story events â€” the flow of conversation, the moods and attitudes of the main character â€” strikes me as in many ways a faithful depiction of reality, particularly the element of mutual befuddlement and confusion that so often creates problems during the early stages of relationships.
At the same time, the storyâ€™s sudden shifts also made it hard for me as a reader to process things. Much of the time I felt like there was something missing from what I was reading: as if Micahâ€™s own understanding of his and Brendanâ€™s situation was so lacking that he was leaving out vital information that would help me make sense out of things. Most notably, Iâ€™m not sure I ever had a clear sense of just what it was that held Micah and Brendan together as a couple. Their breakup was no surprise to me because their relationship had never made sense to begin with. I canâ€™t decide if thatâ€™s the way Williams wanted me to react, or if Iâ€™m missing something as a reader. Itâ€™s also unclear to me why Micah, who has never had a testimony and who on the face of it doesnâ€™t seem to have much reason to value the Church, spends so much time and mental energy thinking up arguments against the Churchâ€™s position on homosexuality.
The bookâ€™s biggest unknown is Brendan. How does he feel about being gay? How does he feel about being Mormon? Why does he ultimately choose to be Mormon instead of gay? Micah never knows, and we never know. Weâ€™re told that Brendan values the Church, but I saw nothing in his attitude suggesting a real spiritual conviction. Instead, he comes across as confused and unwilling to take a risky step outside his familyâ€™s expectations into a gay world. In general, Iâ€™d say that while Ockhamâ€™s Razor engages with Mormon ideas and experiences, it doesnâ€™t do it in a way that explains why anyone with a healthy sense of intelligence or self-worth would ever want to stay in the Church, particularly if that person is homosexually attracted. While not by any means an anti-Mormon book, itâ€™s definitely a book written from the outside looking in, or perhaps more accurately from a post-Mormon life phase looking back.
Iâ€™ve commented elsewhere on the need for stories about faithful, believing Mormons who also happen to be homosexually attracted. What the example of Ockhamâ€™s Razor makes clear is that if we donâ€™t generate such stories, others certainly wonâ€™t hold back from telling stories about this topic that wonâ€™t please us nearly as much. Most examples are likely to be far less balanced and sympathetic to Mormon characters (and likely less well-written) than Ockhamâ€™s Razor.