Review: _Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction_ is a Cocophony of Mormon Brilliance

7.22.12 | | 17 comments

Short stories are not usually high on my literary diet. In the past, I’ve liked extended story lines where the author has time to delve into characterization and detail. I’m the sort of guy who gladly sits through the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy, a Dickens novel, or a BBC miniseries and is then hungry for more. So a collection of short stories like Zarahemla Books’ Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, though populated with many of the best writers Mormonism has to offer, initially may have not been what I would have naturally gravitated towards. Thankfully, due to its very positive reputation, I jumped in and gave the anthology a chance. And, boy, am I glad I did. Dispensation preached its short, holy sermons and, hosanna, now I’m  a believer.

After finishing the book earlier today and letting its various stories digest a bit in my literay stomach, it’s interesting to note how very different all of the stories were. For example, Orson Scott Card’s insightful, almost Dickensian story “Christmas at Helaman’s House” was very different, say, than Jack Harrel’s fascinatingly surreal and unsettling “Calling and Election.” Just as Brady Udall’s often hilarious, sometimes moving “Buckeye the Elder” was very different than Lisa Torcasso Downing’s gently sad and intensely introverted “Clothing Esther.”

Although not all of them had the same personal, gripping fascination on me as others, I can’t think of any of the stories that I didn’t think vaulted past the high standard the anthology sets from the get go and persists throughout. Each of the stories belonged in this Master Class of Mormon fiction and proved throughout that Mormon culture has plenty of incisive and powerful talent to inject into the literary world. The anthology’s editor, Angela Hallstrom, did herself proud in the works she chose to include. These are truly some of the best and brightest writers the Mormon literature scene has to offer.

There’s quite the breadth of subjects, styles and approaches in the anthology, almost making it a cacophonous eclecticism, which is bound to happen with most anthologies. That is a strength, though. There is no monolithic worldview or overarching viewpoint that the anthology broadcasts. There is no correlated, organized sensibility or singular school of literary thought. Instead it shows the diversity of thought and style that Mormon writers have to offer. To read one Mormon author is not to read them all, as this anthology so readily proves. And that only means good things for the Mormon literary world.

However, I did humorously note that several of the writers touched on the subject of homeless people, including Mathew James Babcock’s “The Walker,” Coke Newell’s “Trusting Lily,” Margaret Blair Young’s “Zoo Sounds,” Eric Samuelsen’s “Miracle,” and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves,” although admittedly with very different outcomes. But does King Benjamin’s speech in the Book of Mormon make us hyper-aware of the homeless and the beggar?

Beyond that, though, the breadth of the anthology covered a whole myriad of topics and a diversity of characters, ranging from broad cultural issues of race relations to intimate character examinations. It’s a beautiful and brilliant chorus of discordant styles and approaches.

Although I had an immensely positive (or positively negative, depending on the author’s purpose in writing each piece) to the vast majority of the stories, I did definitely play at personal favorites. Both the happy relief found after a character’s sad journey through his mostly single life due to his mother’s interference in “Light of the New Day” by Darrin Cozzins, as well as the moving compassion and morality of Card’s “Christmas at Helaman’s House” literally had me in tears.

Arianne Cope’s “White Shell” was painfully beautiful and searing in its exploration of the unintended (at least we hope so) negative effects of the Church’s former “Indian Placement Program,” as seen by the destructive effects on the psyche of a young Native American girl placed in the home of a Mormon family. A truly unforgettable and tragic piece of writing.

The visceral power behind Mary Clyde’s “Jumping,” about a woman’s survival’s guilt after seeing one of her Mutual leaders and girls from her ward die from a fall off of the ski lifts at Sundance during the summer will always be branded on my memory, especially since, like other stories in the anthology, it was set in familiar places in Utah where I grew up. I was intimately familiar with the places being described, from those ski lifts, to Seven Peaks where a school reunion is held. I more than once had that horrific fear of those lifts, which made that scene all the more tense for me, having had that personal familiarity with the setting.

Although I loved both stories that were set in Africa, Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” and Todd Robert Petersen’s “Quietly,” Petersen’s piece was particularly vivid for me. Although, I must say I can’t wait for the day when we have recognized Mormon authors who are actually African or Native American or whatever the culture being examined happens to be. Not that in any way discredits us white Mormon authors, myself included, who like to write about other subcultures within the Church (or are we the subculture?). Writers like Cope and Rawlins and Petersen have obviously put in the cultural homework to help understand a people outside of themselves and it made for powerful reading. But it will be cool when someday these various cultures that have Mormons among them are able to contribute well known artists and writers for Mormonism that lay outside the typical Mormon-American experience. Very cool. We are, after all, becoming an increasingly international Church.

Bruce Jorgenson’s “Measure of Music” resonated with me partially because I’m a a theater guy and the setting of a high school theater production of “Into the Woods” was very familiar, wistful territory for me. However, the character work was obviously a strong factor in my enjoyment as well.

I wouldn’t use the term “favorites” to describe Douglas Thayer’s deeply disturbing “Wolves” or Jack Harrel’s bizarre  “Calling and Election.” That’s not the kind of stories they were. Although they were both expertly crafted and memorable pieces which had me musing dark and depressing thoughts, just as they were supposed to.

Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther” has received a lot of discussion in prior reviews of this anthology, and with good reason. Her intimately crafted characterizations make the story a tremendous achievement.

Lee Allred’s Hymnal was a fascinating, almost science fiction sort of story, that could of just as easily fit in a volume like Peculiar Pages’ genre fiction anthology Monsters and Mormons, although the story’s philosophical weight and literary style fits in just as comfortably here.

And Angela Hallstrom, in addition to her editing duties, also contributed a strong entry with “Thanksgiving,” which gives me all the more reason to eventually pick up her novel Bound on Earth, which is an expansion on that story (and which I have nothing but good about).

Those are just my favorites, but each story was genuinely a well wrought piece of writing in its own right, and the collection of them together makes the anthology as a whole a force to be reckoned with in Mormons Letters. In fact, I think it may be one of the most valuable and important volumes out there in Mormon Literature and Zarahemla only further cements its reputation as one of the best Mormon publishers out there by supporting its publication. As sweeping and gushing as this all sounds, it was one of the most personally satisfying, superbly written and edifying books I have read for a long time, Mormon or not.

17 comments: “Review: _Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction_ is a Cocophony of Mormon Brilliance

  1. Angela H.

    Mahonri, thanks so much for this excellent review. I’m so glad the anthology spoke to you and that these stories continue to be read.

  2. James Goldberg

    There are lots of cool things going on in Dispensation.

    But I do feel a bit worried if we give everything a pass. With all the many ways a story can go wrong aesthetically and ethically, it’s all good and worthy? Seriously?

    I have criticized a few stories in this collection before in AMV comments. I think there’s pretty good evidence, for instance, that Todd Robert Petersen didn’t actually do his cultural homework very well. And if he’s good at creating an appearance of having done cultural homework when he didn’t, to my mind that makes the story worse.

    If we treat as truth things which are actually largely cliche and stereotype, how are we benefiting from a foreign setting in fiction?

    I realize I’m a bit of a hypocrite making the difficult call for higher scrutiny in reviews when I’ve never written a review of Mormon fiction that does that scrutinizing work. I will try to repent of that particular hypocrisy at some point.

  3. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    As never having been in Africa or lived in that culture, James, I can only say that it *seemed* as if he had done his homework. I don’t know…

    However, I wasn’t giving anything a “pass.” I went in ready to criticize, but rather felt swept up in the stories and enjoyed every single one of them. Every single one.

  4. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    I try not to criticize just to look legit. I only criticize if I actually feel like there was something constructive I could add to the conversation in that regard that I actually felt leapt out at me. In the this case, that didn’t happen. These were all expert writers who were amazingly talented.

  5. James Goldberg

    That’s fair. I guess I worry that we tone down critiques to be nice or inclusive, but it sounds like you genuinely call it how you see it.

    If I want the grumpy old man take on Dispensation stories, I’ll have to write it up myself. ;) No sense expecting everyone to be as picky about craft as I am…

  6. Moriah Jovan

    I need to get serious about reading this. Good review, Mahonri.

  7. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    James, can I start calling you the Grumpy Old Man of Mormon Letters? ;]

    I totally respect if people didn’t resonate with certain aspects of the anthology– again, like I said in the review, I definitely liked some more than others. But, overall, it was a matter of taste rather than seeing anything particularly wrong with any of the stories. I thought it was a particularly strong collection.

  8. James Goldberg

    Mahonri, you may indeed start calling me the grumpy old man of Mormon letters…though I hope that I can earn the name with some more articulate grumpiness before too long. :)

  9. Scott Hales

    I’m a huge fan of Dispensation, but my least favorite story in the anthology is “Christmas in Helaman’s House,” which I think needed to end ten or twelve pages before it did. I think the story passes up on an opportunity to really critique Mormon culture’s cult of wealth. Instead, what we get is a bloated justification of it via the usual lip service about wealth being okay as long as you don’t let your overly giant house speak louder than your charitable contributions. (But maybe I’m just trying to beat James out in the grumpy department.)

    Speaking of which: if you’d like to review a book for Irreantum, James, I’ve got one for you.

  10. James Goldberg

    Scott,

    I’m actually working on a review of a few pieces I’ve already criticized as a test run. Maybe we should wait and see what you think of that review first. ;)

    -James

  11. Laura

    I agree with Scott on this one. The stories in Dispensation are excellent, but “Christmas in Helaman’s House” was not as excellent.

    The thing that stuck with me was the Dispensation was one of the few places where women wrote strong, complicated, fictional women. I loved that. Especially the one by Lisa Torcasso Downing. I think it read it twice just because I could.

  12. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    I actually was very moved by “Helaman’s House.” It was pretty typical of Card’s critique against Mormon wealth, so I didn’t interpret it all like Scott did when he said, “Instead, what we get is a bloated justification of it via the usual lip service about wealth being okay as long as you don’t let your overly giant house speak louder than your charitable contributions.” I interpret it quite the opposite. If the Mormon rich really brought the poor into their very living spaces… I think that would be great and very in keeping with the Gospel, consecrating property for the betterment of all. Far from justifying the excesses of Mormon wealth, I find the story to be a pretty damning critique, completely in line with what he said in his essay “Prophets and Assimilationists” (found in A Storyteller in Zion, p. 154): “The businessmen who erect their obscene mansions on the hills of Salt Lake and Utah valleys trust in their money more than they value their solemn commitment to live consecrated lives; they struggle to resist fellowship with the faithful poor, forgetting that wealth, not poverty, is the fatal disease of the world.”

    The fact that Helaman recognizes his fault, but then finds a way to use the house more faithfully now that it was built, I find nothing in that which contradicts that main purpose of the story. With the above quote in mind and other sentiments from Card, I don’t see any other way of interpreting that intent.

  13. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    But, Laura, I agree about the portrayal of women. To have so many strong female characters, and so many strong female writers in the volume was refreshing (even though they still really only make up a third of the volume, that’s a pretty good number considering how male dominated Mormon Letters had been for so long).

  14. RALPH P. VANDER HEIDE

    Comment Redacted.

    Wm says: Sorry, Ralph. I don’t allow drive-by book promotion (or any other kind of promotion).

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