Blake Yourrick, one of the protagonists of Joshua Hren’s new novel, Infinite Regress, reflects on this hypocrisy at his literal lowest point, trapped in an underground call center after failing to make the minimum payments on his ballooning undergrad loans. Consigned to a future of forced wage slavery, Blake languishes while calling and collecting on other unfortunates who signed away their lives to student loan companies at age 18. As Blake reflects on the rote phone script, he realizes that phrases like “unless you’re waiting for an inheritance” keep callers on the line because they inspire the “novelistic” hope that “he and likely most in his level of debt were on some level awaiting” — a sudden inheritance or lottery win to free them from debt burdens impossible to repay. Blake connects this expectation to his grandmother’s fairy tales, how she “seemed to believe in them, which was directly connected (Dad said back then) to her belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” As Blake’s eyes glaze over reading his call list, he wonders: “[H]ad Grandma’s faith smuggled into the part of his psyche […] so that the deus ex machina of the fairy-tales and the resurrection of Jesus Christ were the narratives giving an upswing to his own anticipation — orchestrating the very strings of his desire for denouement?”
Angele Solomon, the main character of Katy Carl’s As Earth Without Water, has less faith in unanticipated happy endings. Her ex, fellow artist Dylan Fielding, has just resurfaced after years of radio silence, and she learns he has of late become a monk. As Angele walks the monastery grounds, she considers how Dylan, now Brother Thomas Augustine, has changed completely since his libertinous days as the contemporary art scene’s golden child. Dylan’s conversion, however, which he still believes a good, brought tragedy: he was recently sexually assaulted by a priest unconnected with his community. Now just months away from a final profession of his vows, Thomas née Dylan has asked for Angele’s help. But Angele cannot make sense of his decision to enter the monastery and questions whether the evil inflicted on him had its roots in that first choice. She tries to square the Dylan of the past with the Thomas Augustine of the present: “How did the change take place,” she wonders, “how did he become so serious? How and when did his comedy become a tragedy?”
Both Hren and Carl are grappling with the phenomenon of eucatastrophe. This concept, developed by J. R. R. Tolkien in his 1939 essay “On Fairy-Stories” and central to his literary philosophy, is “the joy of the happy ending […] the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’” at the end of fairy tales, which “is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive’” but rather “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” Critically, for Tolkien, this “peculiar quality of […] ‘joy’” is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’” For Tolkien, eucatastrophe reflects some “inner consistency of reality,” deeper than our typical notions of realism. Hren’s and Carl’s novels question how we can square Tolkien’s notion of a eucatastrophic reality with the everyday evils that surround us, from predatory loans and the commodification of art to racial injustice, sexual violence, and misogynistic objectification.
Both novels deal extensively with abuse. Theodore Hape, a Jesuit astronomer defrocked for scandalous sexual encounters, tries to coerce Blake, his former pupil, into sleeping with him, promising to pay off Blake’s student loans. While Hape’s relationships with students are an open secret, Blake’s hesitancy to acquiesce to Hape’s desires make him “a source of attraction for the man who only rarely did not get what he wanted.” Blake’s family exacerbates matters. His father Garrett is a one-time philosophy graduate student who lost an eye defending his adopted son Byron against white supremacists. After his wife died and Child Protective Services took custody of Byron, Garrett — already crushed by alcohol and debt — spiraled into despair and neglected his remaining children.
Angele’s ability to support Thomas Augustine through his trauma is complicated by Dylan’s past exploitation of her. Five years before Angele’s visit to the monastery, but long after their initial breakup, Dylan arrives unannounced at Angele’s Chicago advertising firm to reveal that a nude portrait he made of her while the two studied in Florence, which Angele had asked him to keep private, will be one of the main pieces in his new art exhibition. When Angele, against her better judgment, attends the show’s opening, she finds the painting has already been sold. “So,” she thinks, “I have a new owner. Sold, for valuable consideration. A desecration. […] For there is love or something like it in his brushstrokes. It has allowed him to capture something here that had no place in commerce […] a moment meant to have been private. A gift.” Angele struggles to articulate to mercenary friends, who encourage her to see the display and purchase of the painting as an honor, why the betrayal bothers her and cannot accept their argument that it has provided exposure (literally) for her own artistic career.
While Dylan elides questions of consent, Blake cannot escape them. Hape, in his obsession with Blake, reveals an almost fetishistic fixation with obtaining the young man’s consent, to the point that his proposal to Blake takes contractual form. Hape’s motivations seem at first pedagogical: his contract exchanging a consensual sexual encounter for $50,000 seeks ostensibly to critique liberal individualism and contract theory by taking it to its logical extreme, “advancing the idea that anything can be committed without moral qualms whatsoever so long as the Individuals committing it Consent.” Later, Hape seems to change his mind, stating that the “most important lesson to learn” is “that those reactionaries who look back to the dawn of civilization for their principled and proud defense of the West should stop selectively sanitizing and remember that their favorite dead whites favored little boys too.”
It is only during Blake’s final encounter with Hape that the reasons behind the professor’s obsession become clear. He wants to be loved, a motivation wrapped up in his definitions of consent and, consequently, freedom and liberty. For Hape, absolute freedom is absolute liberty, the ability to do whatever one wants. His theology reflects this, arguing that an absolutely free Creator would be liberated even from internal consistency, logic, or morality: “[L]iberty, on account of its sheer unrestriction, its being beholden to nothing, is the greatest thing. […] [I]f God chooses [to love us] then God chooses choice, and there is no love without liberty, see?” Hape’s scholarly fascination with the early Church father Origen, who believed that “the most stubborn will eventually give in and consent to love [God],” even Satan himself, betrays his own desires. Hape believes that even Blake, stubborn as he is, will eventually consent to love him.
But Hape’s ideas are self-defeating. He fails to realize that if humans are free, in the sense of a liberation even from consistency in character, then consent itself is an illusion. Consent from Blake in one moment could be erased in the next. Hape grasps toward possession of his pupil, only to find that Blake’s sole consistent feeling toward him is pity. Like so many of Hren’s characters, Hape is a man with a hole in the center, but unlike the Yourricks, he has denied himself any chance of eucatastrophic hope: any god from Hape’s machine would be too incoherent to help him.
Dylan too associated freedom with total liberation, even from Angele. Dylan’s relationship with Angele was not exclusive, a fact Angele never found comfortable but begrudgingly accepted, and which Dylan justified as a creative necessity: “[W]e’re creators, we have to follow our desires where they take us.” While Angele refused “to insist on exclusivity,” as it would have put her “in the wrong with him,” Dylan skyrocketed to success while downplaying Angele’s influence in his life, even as he captured and commercialized their relationship via the nude portrait. Angele pushes back on the idea that her consent erases Dylan’s culpability:
As much as my work was never his to give or take, as much as I acknowledge my own agency in relinquishing it, what was lost was still lost on his account, because I did for him what I would not have done for anyone else. I allowed my body to become the source, the means, of his success. I did not allow myself the same.
Years later, reflecting on his recent trauma, Thomas Augustine realizes how much his errant ideas of freedom hurt Angele and himself. In one of the novel’s climactic scenes, the monk admits that
[f]or all the liberty I’ve had, I’ve never been free before. Not really free, not free to do the best things I was capable of. It was never that I was forced to do anything. Never that I couldn’t have chosen otherwise. I didn’t have to do any of this. I found myself left to myself. Capable of making art. Capable of pleasure. But when I started to try to limit myself, try to place others first — I didn’t find myself free to do it. I couldn’t limit myself in that way because I had already limited myself in another. I had made myself into a person who was unable to do it.
His liberty had become his prison, had set him from the start against Angele, the person who loved him most, in favor of himself, the person he loved the most. He confesses to Angele that
what I did know of you I betrayed the moment it was any advantage of me to do so. I knew your work was as good as mine […] but I was afraid […] that you’d outgrow me, surpass me, and I’d be left behind by you. So by making the portrait, I did what I could to stop you from ever getting started.
Thomas Augustine sees in his actions toward Angele the very violence that has now been inflicted on him. But Angele rejects this. She forgives him. Thomas Augustine cannot believe this gratuity. Neither, it seems, can Angele, who asks (in a scene earlier in the novel but chronologically later), “Why did I agree to come here, to be drawn back into this man’s orbit?” But it is through this unearned forgiveness that Angele takes her first steps toward true freedom, a freedom that reaches beyond the self toward a transcendent love, opening her up to eucatastrophe.
This openness toward a love that surpasses nature is a move that Blake and Garrett Yourrick each wish they could make. But both find themselves intellectually trapped, for most of the novel, in a labyrinth of unsatisfying philosophical argumentation that keeps them not just from the transcendent but from any kind of reconciliation. Both look to their education, to their study of the “Western canon,” but this does not fill the hole in their hearts.
It is here that Hren, in a novel full of incisive observations, makes one of his sharpest. The Yourricks find themselves trapped in the history of Western culture. Beyond allusions throughout the novel to (among others) ancient Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, Kantian philosophy, and ’90s grunge music, the Yourricks are caught up in structures and situations evoking contemporary literature — from Blake’s high school, “St. Ignatius J. Reilly Prep,” to his imprisonment in the Dostoyevskyian subterranean call center by a government organization whose acronym — AIPOTU; utopia inverted — evokes David Foster Wallace. These references reveal a larger purpose. In addition to Hape’s uncomfortable reminder of the Greek philosophers’ pedophilic tendencies to justify his own actions, the Yourricks continually run into situations where the Western canon is used to defend despicable actions. At the fateful white supremacy rally, Garrett quotes from Aristotle to undermine their racist ideology, only to be met by other quotations from the philosopher rationalizing “natural slavery.”
Hren’s novel contends that the lacuna at the center of Blake’s and Garrett’s existences lurks in the study of Western culture as well. Separated from a love beyond self that orders all things, a cosmology that makes mercy and human dignity intelligible, and a history that allows for the possibility of a eucatastrophic ending, the Western canon will regress into meaninglessness and violence. As poet Dunstan Thompson writes, in a poem Dylan gives to Angele at a critical juncture in Carl’s novel:
This ordered life is not for everyone
Never, to their surprise, for those who run
Away from love.
It is when Carl’s and Hren’s characters stop running that they open themselves up to eucatastrophe. The two writers don’t end their stories with a complete deus ex machina (though Hren’s novel flirts with it, a rare bird), but both conclude with unexpected happy endings for characters who have consented to true freedom. In contrast to Flannery O’Connor, who saw the supernatural breaking into the workaday world whether we like it or not, both Infinite Regress and As Earth Without Water emphasize how much we can choose to cooperate with transcendent love. Carl and Hren have each written not just a brilliant novel but, in the truest sense, a divine comedy.
John-Paul Heil is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Chicago and an adjunct professor of history and the liberal arts at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. He is a 2021–’22 Fulbright scholar to Modena, Italy and has written for venues including Time Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Week.