“Cecilia Jane and I lived in a studio across the street from a man now known as a serial killer,” says the narrator of “Control,” one of the twelve stories in Joshua Hren’s 2018 collection, This Our Exile.
Among the stories’ punctuating depictions of contemporary American suffering, which range from the mundane to miraculous, a neighborhood serial killer feels almost inevitable. In other stories: A refugee bares a brutal scar for his neighbor. A child dies of hypothermia a room away from his meth-addicted parents. A valet kills himself in his boss’s car. An Army vet returns home traumatized. Families are unhappily bonded or split apart; would-be parents contemplate the ethics of bringing children into this broken and hostile world.
None of the violence Hren shows us is gratuitous. Rather, This Our Exile is a work that wrestles with the everydayness of human evil, and with the existential problem these present, particularly to the Christian believer. Hren’s stories bear witness to suffering. In high-intensity, densely allusive prose, in a language of urgent anguish, Hren’s writing focuses with an equal fixation on the kind of violence that makes newsreels and on the ordinary, domestic suffering that (a contemporary reader must acknowledge) happens in every North American neighborhood.
“Affliction makes God appear absent for a while,” notes the protagonist in “Everything Must Go,” a just barely realist account of the aftermath of a businessman’s escape from ignominy. Later, this same character reads a note written on a Mozambican postcard from his estranged beloved, “There is an affliction so great that it places these souls beyond pity. It pulls from me only horror.”
Walking the line between pity and horror, or perhaps between “suffering” and “affliction,” is one of the qualities of the stories in This Our Exile, though it might be truer to say the collection spends time on either side of that divide.
Always, in the midst of this, remains the mystery of God’s presence (or absence) in such suffering. The question sometimes pulses implicitly behind the text, but frequently the characters, both believers and not, find themselves turning over this problem in explicit terms.
A wife in “In a Better Place,” pondering a young woman who committed a terrorist suicide attack in France, lies awake and wrestling with the problem as her husband sleeps beside her: “[A]fter they both lie there in silence for a long hour, she almost prays. Good God can you hear a damn thing, God. Are you there with that girl or no and if so how so? And if not how can I know, how can I know you will be here?”
There are few more urgent question in all Christian theology.
A careless answer might more easily suggest a God impotent, uncaring or otherwise occupied. No story in This Our Exile offers such an easy solution. “In a Better Place” seems directly to critique that tendency, when a character receives a simplistic response from his friend J.D. to a confession of brokenness: “[H]ow utterly clear it was that J.D., who was a youth counsellor, has said the same thing to seven hundred young men who have come to him by force or desperation. A definitive tone that betrays a calm refusal to see, to know the terrible revelation that sits just across the table, that looks down at one’s own shoes but refuses to look down into the abyss over which the person sits, balanced precariously atop a barstool.”
William Blake’s awed question of his fearsome, burning Tyger (“Did He who made the Lamb make thee?”) seems to spring from a crisis of the same type. This Our Exile’s final, short, philosophically allusive piece, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” carries in its fearsome prose an oblique allusion to Blake’s existential dilemma: “In the eyelids the dermis is thinnest, and with closed eyes I still see the shadow of a priest praying psalms over me, thick bellow tone he holds the little black book in his father forgive me hand, extreme unction over my body, over me, the agnus dei, the little lamb who made thee, dost thou know who made thee, gave thee life & bid thee feed?”
Hren’s stories seem to demand to be filed with ‘The Tyger’ among the darker Songs of Experience.
And yet. There’s an innocence, in the best sense, underlying the darkness of these stories. It doesn’t escape me that the allusion just mentioned in this concluding piece is, in fact, from Innocence – the Lamb, and not the Tyger. Indeed, these stories contend with the challenge of innocence, first in terms of the deadly sort of “innocence” Graham Greene famously explored in The Quiet American, in which the Englishman Fowler muses that his American acquaintance Pyle was “as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others.” Yet, Greene went on to note “he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others.”
In a world wracked by suffering, such an inability to perceive suffering intelligently, or an inability to ‘suffer with’ per compassio, represents a potentially deadly moral failure. Indeed, the serial killer in Hren’s story “Control” is first described as a “kindly man who always nodded when you walked past and never seemed as cynical as he should have been considering the world’s state. He looked out upon everything and everyone owning the same scientific wonder with which in childhood I had looked upon the ants in the red plastic kit given to me by my father.”
This sort of fascination disconnected from compassion, in Hren’s writing, is “innocence” as delusion, as much as is (and as dangerous as) an unwillingness to acknowledge evil.
But still I find a healthy species of innocence in This Our Exile, and none of that cynicism suggested above as the inevitable result of a long look at “the world’s state.” In the world of these stories, a witness – indeed, the writing itself – still cries out. Certainly it’s a baffled or distraught outcry, as often as not, from the characters themselves as much as from the language of the text: the narrator of “The Man Watching,” for instance, after his refugee neighbour shows him the shrapnel scar on his hip, describes himself as “leaning away a little like a child testing gravity, dizzied a little by his wound and what it meant, squinting until he blurred and the light made him luminous around the edges and my God, I asked, what is your name? And still from this our exile I ask tell me your name, and when I do the rancor lifts like smoke from the hot ashes.”
The cry of a baffled, horrified witness is the cry of an innocence not yet crushed. Whereas cynicism is a forfeiture of one’s natural tendency to be shocked by evil, these short pieces in This Our Exile are fundamentally un-cynical stories. They are narratives told in a voice that still experiences a sense of dismay and bothers to express it, not having abandoned hope of being heard by One who is in charge of all this and who might be appealed upon to give an account of things. As Jean Vanier puts it, in a passage of Becoming Human that never fails to devastate, “When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us.” This Our Exile, I’d argue, for all its darkness, understands there is a point to crying out.
The urgency of that outcry is expressed in the stories’ language: dense, dark; sometimes hurtling forward to the point of forgoing punctuation. Within this is the suggestion of both a cry to God – the sighs sometimes too deep for words, or rather too deep for syntax, perhaps, when sentence structure breaks down – but also, and more immediately, the possibility and urgency of communicating with a reader who may not want to hear all this.
This Our Exile is dense, too, with allusion to other works in its texts, titles, and epigraphs. These read in part like support for an argument – witnesses testifying to the same truth – and in part like an amplification and deepening. Apart from Biblical narratives of exile, the most consistent underlying allusion throughout these works is to the work of Dante Alighieri, perhaps the definitive poet of exile in the western canon. Indeed, Dante’s words appear in epigraphs, as well as slantingly in moments like the “Midway on our life’s journey” nod in “Wrecking Ball,” This Our Exile’s opening story, which at its opening states of the protagonist, “His father had worked here until his middle-aged death. If fifty is the middle.” Like The Divine Comedy, This Our Exile leads the reader by the hand past horrors difficult to contemplate. Yet there is still hope in the Dantean sense of commedia: though one might pass through the darkness at the start, wandering far from home and safety, this journey through deep darkness is one that leads towards the light.
But how might one find that light? Hren’s stories don’t offer an easy answer. There are moments of purity and beauty, kindness, and safety. In “Throw Away the Ladder,” for instance, the narrator recalls his unreliable father’s tenderness upon returning home from late-night shifts: “I would pretend to be deep in dreams whenever I heard his heavy factory boots growing closer. So long as I was asleep, he would hold me like that lost life, like I myself may well have been that pure life, balled up there, on the creaky bed. He’d cradle my head in one palm and brush my cheek with his wet nose. I did not wipe the wetness off, not even long after he left and I lay there tingling with something I could not name.”
This same narrator recognizes, in his girlfriend’s lively but un-cynical sense of humor, something “somehow more wholesome and less showy than what I was used to, able as she was to inhabit that landscape between deadening gravity and everything-is-a-game.”
Not everything is broken in this fallen world.
There is also the occasional intrusion of the miraculous into these stories. In the aptly-named “Sacré Coeur,” a non-religious, recently divorced father discovers that his adult daughter has taken on extreme penitential practices, wearing sackcloth beneath her clothes, while a livid, raised image of the Sacred Heart appears painfully in the flesh above her own heart. (Upon the father’s sudden death, thorns from this image “burst from her and scattered to the ground” among Scrabble tiles her father knocked from the table in the throes of a heart attack.) In “I.O.U.,” the protagonist invites a stranger to sleep in his apartment after the man confesses being afraid of his brother, whom he alleges is a murderer, and feeling unable to go home as a result. The protagonist discovers that this man has a tattoo “almost three-dimensional on the skin above his heart, in fact three dimensional on the skin above his heart”: Another Sacred Heart, which in this case the stranger claims his brother carved into him.
It’s easy to read these incursions of the strange and miraculous simply as a compelling literary device, very much along the lines of the breakdown of language. Yet it occurs to me that for the Catholic reader, these moments are still realism. (I am suggesting that magical realism versus strict realism could hinge on the faith of the reader.) The supernatural wounds are no less plausible, if Christ rose from the dead, than the other, more natural suffering in these stories. These stories abide with the mystery of suffering and God: by imagining God’s dwelling with people in their suffering, even going before them into that suffering, redeeming it mysteriously by His presence without necessarily removing it. Here is the Lord answering a mystery with a mystery; neither the question nor its answer can be fully expressed in words.
This Our Exile seems to posit, implicitly, a God who is good and powerful but in ways our understanding fails to contain in ways that even its author’s understanding fails to contain. This is a hallmark of contemplation or vigil. Often while reading this book and considering how it proposed to abide with suffering, I found myself reflecting on how few disciples of Christ could stand to abide with him in his crucifixion. Even those who did had no clear understanding of how the Lord’s will was at work in it. This Our Exile ends (in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” a story of a man on the cusp of death) on a similar mysterious but hopeful note, echoing Christ’s prophecy about Lazarus (John 11:4), with the words, “Wake, man. This sickness is not unto death.”
Natalie Morrill is a poet, a short-story writer, and the fiction editor for Dappled Things magazine, a Catholic journal of art, literature, and faith. Her first novel, The Ghost Keeper, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada in May 2018. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.