JUNE 18, 2013
YOU MAY BE FAMILIAR with the archetypal post–New Age character in Jamie Quatro’s debut story collection: the Yogi Calming Tea–drinking, middle-aged mother in “running tights,” dropping her kids off at school, picking out organic produce at the market, listening to “Enya’s Winter Album.” On the other hand, Quatro’s characters happen to be serious, salvation-seeking Christians. In an era of declining church attendance and unprecedented secularism, this combination feels decidedly less familiar. While spiritualism is far from unusual in the upper-middle class milieu that is Quatro’s territory, these women aren’t religious dilettantes. They quote scripture and make casual reference to Moses, Hagar, and Joseph. “If you call out a verse,” one says, “I can find it in under ten seconds.” To complicate matters, in many of Quatro’s most compelling stories, these women jeopardize the very salvation they seek by engaging in passionate quasi-adulterous relationships, described by one woman as “addiction.” The affairs are never officially consummated; instead, they’re studies in the long-distance, should-we-or-shouldn’t-we, phone sex variety of liaison. But if Christian faith is manifested in belief first and acts second, these women have already transgressed. And they know it.
By recurring details (religious faith being one), we come to understand Quatro’s shorter, adultery-themed stories as a collection within a collection: renditions of the same affair refracted in first person, second, and third, past tense and present. There are no names, no quotation marks, nothing to disrupt the intimacy of forbidden and chronic yearning. The affairs share the fated trajectory of luminaries extinguished before their time. The result, the story itself, is a hard little rock, compacted and smoothed by hindsight — the revisions wrought by years of fixation. Quatro sets the stirring, salient details of the affair against a tepid stream of familial duties: making breakfast, taking the kids to piano practice, tucking them in at night. Out of that routine emerge conversations such as this:
I can’t work, he says. At night all I want is for my wife to go to bed so I can sit in my office and think about you. If someone asked me what I want right now, I would say, To go on thinking of her.
What I want, she says, is for you to make me cry, then be the one to make me stop.
The infidelities acquire poignancy by the fact that they’re not driven by lust — well, some lust — but rather, and convincingly, love. “In tiny print, on receipts and the insides of book covers, she makes lists of things she wants to ask or tell the other man.” She shares pictures of her family and tells him the funny things her children say because that’s “what friends talk about.” Yes, they exchange naked pictures and salacious texts, but also “passages from C.S. Lewis and the Psalms.” After breaking it off, one character sees a therapist: “You tell her that every sentence you were in the habit of crafting for the other man — every thought and feeling you were accustomed to sharing — is now taking residence inside your body.” These were not licentious dalliances, Quatro assures us; they were companionships. After the end of the affair, the primary feeling is not guilt or shame, rather grief — the pain of irreparable loss.
One of the remarkable feats of these stories is their willingness to embrace ambiguities — Quatro’s insistence on nothing being clear or easy for anyone. The women are not victims or opportunists, neither are their husbands abusive or neglectful. (In “Caught Up,” the narrator confesses to marrying a “good man who cries at baptisms and makes our children carry spiders outside instead of smashing them; who never goes to sleep without kissing some part of my body.”) Instead, the cuckolds are largely absent, not from the lives of the narrators but from the stories they choose to tell — a conspicuous omission, to be sure. What ultimately holds the women back from carrying out their infidelities is not an obligation to their families, but the ringing of that relentless commandment: thou shalt not commit adultery.
Of course, it was God who got them into their mess in the first place. Why can’t He be more present, more available? Where did He go? While the women surely derive something from these relationships lacking in their marriages, the real absence they yearn to fill is not marital but divine.
The narrator of the book’s vivid opener, “Caught Up,” relates a vision of transcendence experienced as a child in which there “came a tugging in my middle, as if I were a kite about to be yanked up by a string attached just below my navel.” Her mother’s advice is to “always be ready for the Lord’s return: lead a clean life and stay busy with our work, keeping an eye skyward.” But when the girl grows up, the vision stops coming. Life happens and she forgets, until years later when a man revives the feeling, the same “caught up” surrender in her belly that once marked the presence of God. But this man is not her husband; the rapture he excites must be suspect at best. “It would be devotional,” he tells her, urging a meeting, and shares a vision of his own: God smiling down on them, “and what he is saying, over and over, is Yes.” As much as she wants to, the woman can’t make the leap of faith. “I wish I knew God your way,” she says. After that, it no longer matters whether she keeps her eyes skyward, as her mother advised, waiting for the Lord’s return. For all intents and purposes, that was the Lord’s return. And she missed it. Years after the truncated affair, she confesses to something inside her “weeping all the time.” Her only hope now is for, “a literal Second Coming and Consummated Kingdom because then the man and I could spend eternity just talking.”
Though these women can imagine and even entertain an alternative spirituality in which love — love at all costs, no matter its illicit nature — is endorsed, they cannot subscribe to it. Certainly, their families are no small consideration, but an even greater deterrent is the brave new world they would face, without divisions of sin and virtue, without a bible to tell them exactly which is which.
Quatro explores the repercussions of one such alternative Christianity in the fascinating “Demolition,” a parable about the gradual dismantlement of a church, and the subsequent dismantlement of its orthodoxy. When the stained glass windows with their pictures of biblical scenes begin mysteriously to shatter, many in the congregation believe it’s a sign of God’s disapproval. But others consider it a benediction and relish the new view it provides:
For the first time we could see each other worshipping in the natural light. Breezes fluttered out skirts and chucked our collars up under our chins. Through the empty lead came drifted scents of honeysuckle and wisteria, mown grass, grilled fish. We could hear weed trimmers, children’s laughter; the whir of a moped, the drone of an airplane.
The clergy and those faithful to the old order abandon the cursed church, leaving the rebel worshippers to remove the beams, then the roof. Eventually, desiring “open-air worship,” they demolish it entirely.
Surely these new reformers are onto something vital and invigorating, an antidote to stale orthodoxy. But details emerge to complicate this picture. We learn that the contractor hired to conduct the demolition declared that, “in twenty-four years of construction work not one building — certainly not one as old as this church — had ever passed inspection with such absence of inadequacy.” Might that not, too, be a sign from God? The contractor points to the stone blocks fitted perfectly together, shaking his head at their exquisite artistry: “No one builds like this anymore.” Here Quatro presents a conflicting impulse: esteem for tradition on one side, our place along the chain of centuries; and revolution on the other — the overthrow of values that, despite the contractor’s estimation, have to modern believers become ‘inadequate’.
In allegories of this kind, the keenest tension is the punch line: which side will emerge victorious? Which will be the butt of the joke? The stuffy church or the new “open-air worship”? Again, Quatro carefully evades obvious pedagogy. The red flags raised throughout the course of the story, leading the reader nimbly down a blind and astonishing path, vacillate between the lines. Even at the end, nothing is explicit. But what we may divine is that a complete rebellion of orthodoxy leads only to orthodoxy of a new kind. Perhaps the ideal moment came somewhere in between, while the church was still standing but a breeze could be felt blowing gently from outside. Who could have known nothing better could be achieved?
Quatro’s language is admirably light on its feet. Hers is the consummate prose that doesn’t call attention to itself with verbosity or sparsity. Her descriptions are simple, selective and always hit their mark: “She says my name like she wants to keep it inside her mouth,” says a teenage boy about a girl he has a crush on. A single, well-placed detail is enough to evoke a world. One character recalls a Baptist summer camp where a “boy with braces on his legs was brought forward by his mother, his wheelchair leaving tracks in the sawdust.”
Yet, despite Quatro’s craftsmanship, the collection is uneven. It includes a number of stories such “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives,” in which the aftermath of an aborted affair is rendered symbolically in the decay of the lover’s corpse on the marital bed: “You’re not surprised to see the other man in this particular spot — in your mind he’s been interjecting himself along this length of bed for the past ten months.” The story is a marvel, an accomplishment by any standard, conveying emotional depths with the playful subversion of a Luis Buñuel film. However, a good chunk of the collection is devoted to far more conventional tales that reap merely conventional rewards. In “Holy Ground,” a well-off white woman suffering a spiritual crisis seeks proper perspective by volunteering at an almshouse. “I need to get some distance from it,” she says, “See pain and suffering, poverty and loss. Serve the poor in some way.” She meets caricatures of black women: big and spirited who, despite their troubles, effuse a great enthusiasm for life. She goes there to be saved, to get the outlook that will fortify her decision to recommit to her family. This is exactly what happens.
Quatro is best when she’s a little bit strange. In “Sinkhole,” a teenage boy attends a Christian summer camp that hosts nightly performances of an actor playing God in various guises. “Campers in grades 1–6 will vote on which god is the real one,” the director announces. “The older campers will talk about the faulty theologies behind the fake gods.” These demonstrations are absurdly comical; we see God as sheriff, God as credit card, God as waiter (“My restaurant used to be so busy […] Then again, there were far fewer restaurants to choose from. And people used to listen when I made recommendations.”) Eventually, the boy discovers the object lesson: “None of them are God. That’s the point.”
I Want to Show You More bows toward a similar object lesson. Like the adulteresses who flirt with other men, staking their hearts on forbidden altars, Quatro’s stories flirt with modified theologies, a search for God in wayward forms. The most insistent, of course, is the form of “the other man” who promises enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment. Imagined sexual acts mimic holy ritual (“I would lay myself on your tongue like a Communion wafer”), while the lovers themselves are ascribed divine grace (“What do I look like to you now,” asks “the other man” in the last line of a story titled, “You Look Like Jesus”). But in the end, Quatro insists these aberrant interpretations are fallacious, just as the “open-air worship” in “Demolition” is a failure, another false idol. In the final story, “Relatives of God,” our adulteress has returned to her husband and renounced her sins. Yet her salvation is mixed: with her husband she watches her children playing on the beach and predicts the eventual resignation she will feel after they’ve grown up, “leaving us more alone than we were before.” She still yearns for the other man. At least now she can console herself by being back on God’s good list.
The overarching sensibility is a strikingly conservative one. These theological experiments will be tolerated only so far as they deliver one back to the true and rightful religion, in which sin is confessed and forgiven and the sheep returns to the fold. There are no alternatives, not really. The idea is pure Old Testament: God exists through his laws, his holy unions. Follow the commandments; faith will come.