IN AN INTERVIEW with Yolanda Pourciau for her Creative Inclusive Communities series, Teresa Carmody talked about the autobiographical elements of her new novel The Reconception of Marie. The book was based, she said, on her religious upbringing in “a whole lot of white churches” — specifically, evangelical and Catholic denominations in Western Michigan — where whiteness was associated with purity and absolute good, while “homosexuals” and people of color were presented as contaminated others in need of salvation. Her interview called up my own experiences with white religious culture in the Southern United States. As a South Asian in a Hindu family, I was variously called a heathen and un-American. Friends attempted to convert me to Christ, but I never joined the fold and for the most part avoided religion altogether as my early encounter with Christianity conjured up an existential dread I could not face.
Yet Teresa Carmody’s young protagonist, Marie, rushes into this spiritual abyss head-on. Carmody’s novel reminds us that this particular evangelical rhetoric is incredibly powerful and still active within US society, even as it shows how damaging such an exclusionary worldview can be. By no means dire or dry, the book approaches this forbidding subject from the incredibly playful and revelatory perspective of the young, vibrant, irrepressible Marie.
In Reconception, Carmody offers two narrative tracks that often interrupt and interrogate one another — one immediate, visceral, and throbbing with the pleasures of a coming-of-age story, the other more remote, approaching conceptual writing. The first track follows the first-person spiritual diary of the teenage Marie, who is pulled into the toxic dramas of her family’s church and her middle school in small-town Michigan in the late 1980s. Marie’s exuberant curiosity and ambitions to engage with a larger world run smack against her limited social spaces. Marie’s queer yearnings remind me at times of Frankie in Carson McCullers’s 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding, who comically tries to enmesh herself in her brother’s nuptials as a form of self-transcendence. Marie, too, persists in seeking transfiguration in odd places: rescuing a stray cat, diagramming sentences from the Bible, and exploring the twisted syntax of schoolgirl friendships.
The novel’s second, more conceptual track brings to mind Rachel Levitsky’s 2013 novel, The Story of My Accident Is Ours: an older Marie speaks in the first person plural, using a communal “we” unavailable to the younger, more isolated Marie. Hovering over the archive of Marie’s excitable schoolgirl speculations, this voice offers a more distanced, bird’s-eye view, an almost anthropological understanding of the ideological framework in which the young Marie is embedded (in these sections, Marie is often referred to in the third person). Whereas the young Marie might opine in her diary, “Do you know God gives us the whole story of history like one gigantic painting?” in the hopes that someone might share her absolute conviction, the second narrative voice describes the impossibilities of such a totalistic vision, via pointillist descriptions of various paintings by Fra Anglelico:
We prayed for angels to surround us in a hedge of protection, but never imagined the angels to look like this: rainbow-striped wings in soft light. Gold, blue, red, and white. The wings are peacock-spotted, a dot on each feather. Eye-bright; globe-like. Fra Angelico painted this Annunciation in the North Corridor of the Convent of San Marco, Florence, sometime between the years of 1438 and 1450. We had never heard of Fra Angelico. […] We prayed for angelic protection because that was in the Bible, Psalm 91. We knew the Bible. Or thought we did. It’s our book, we said. We’re US-Americans, God’s chosen ones.
Even as Carmody provides a stunning portrait of the artist as a young girl, she refuses to portray Marie as heroic or even exemplary in her eventual rejection of home and church. For Carmody, white US exceptionalism is formative, casting a shadow over the whole enterprise of self-making. What, she seems to ask, does it mean to embrace difference while internalizing ideological frameworks that validate sameness? For young Marie, “this hedge of protection” instituted by church teaching is simultaneously comforting, isolating, and shaming, and often involves protecting her family, friends, and even herself from her own barely containable feminine too-muchness.
Devastatingly, even her family expresses doubts about Marie’s spiritual motivations. When, at age nine, she tags along to church with her mother, Marie volunteers — to her mother’s surprise and annoyance — to be baptized at the pulpit, which involves a ritual of being dunked in water. As perhaps the less favored daughter, she desperately wants her mother to “see” her as special, but she is met with disappointment.
Mom was quiet on the way home. I could feel my underwear, wrapped in seven layers of paper towels and stuffed in my coat pocket. […] I rubbed my hands against my tights. I didn’t tell Mom about the underwear. She hadn’t smiled when I returned to the pew, maybe she was suspicious, even angry. Did I love Jesus? Or was I trying to avoid Hell?
This incongruous detail of the wet underwear, carefully wrapped and hidden from sight, speaks to Marie’s subversive drive toward salvation, to her raw, female sensory excess. The diary is a place where Marie can break out, create her own rituals, and potentially save herself. “Maybe salvation,” she writes, “is like a fresh new supply of maxi-pads.”
This young Marie is passionate and awkward, at times obnoxious, but ultimately hopeful. Even at her most self-deluded, she is a character we root for. She attends Catholic school even as her family has become born-again, so she is constantly negotiating between alternating spiritual perspectives. Hilariously, she compares the stories of evangelical missionaries and Catholic Saints such as St. Thérèse to her own life history, which involves shopping at chain stores and dressing up for church. Her sharp, snarky observations about her family and classmates are annotated with Bible verses. Marie is able to organize and clarify her spiritual and emotional conundrums with charts, lists, and Biblical timelines, full of comic speculation and absurd wit. We really feel that we are inside the head of a would-be visionary. Marie’s writing allows her to take her ambitions and desires seriously.
The book opens with Marie’s unsuccessful attempt to covert her Catholic school frenemies, Jennifer Hartman and Angie, to evangelical Christianity. Her absolute conviction allows Marie to feel momentarily powerful, armoring her against the abject feelings that her desires are unacceptable, or strange. “I knew they were talking about me behind my back. That’s why I invited them over.” She goes on to lecture her arch-nemesis:
For a moment, I didn’t want to tell her the terrible news. It’s a horrible feeling to realize your whole life has been a lie. I had to speak the truth. I said — and it’s true that whatever you put it in your heart, your mouth will speaketh (Mat 12:34) — I said: “John 3:3: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.’”
Jenny looked down. “Does that mean I’m going to Hell?”
Did she not understand English? Those words are perfectly clear.
Marie’s power over Jennifer Hartman is short-lived, as the mean girls go “back to their old ways, even worse […] reading Teen Magazine, and right in front of me, too,” and more or less shun her. As often as not, Marie’s adherence to her religious worldview leads to greater alienation rather than feelings of community. The perils of damnation are ever-present. Unlike her peers, she is not particularly interested in boys (we find out that she eventually goes on to date women). Perhaps the most captivating character is her “absolute best friend,” Denise, who possesses a wild imagination and is indifferent to cliquish middle-school machinations. In an intimate moment during a sleepover, Denise confesses that she too wants to be “born again,” but her admission cannot stave off feelings of shame and powerlessness for either girl:
Denise was quiet. “Sometimes,” she said, “I think I’m really bad.”
I thought about her stealing the candy bar from the Trading Post. “We all mess up,” I said. She didn’t answer.
As Marie grows older, she develops a greater critical sensibility about her family’s Christian piety. A road trip with her aunt and uncle (“the richest people I know”) leads her to encounter the material artifacts of Americana outside small-town Michigan — Disney World, The Spaghetti Factory, Best Western Motels, the Cyclorama, and a plantation in Atlanta. Her uncle whistles “I Wish I Were in Dixie” while she babysits her younger cousins. The voice of the older Marie interrupts and articulates what the younger Marie in her diary cannot: “They had all the keys to joy and ease, that’s what it seemed like — they were wealthy real-Christians. They were white in a country that she knew, like everyone knew, discriminated against people who were brown or black.”
As she reaches high school, Marie drifts away from her best friend, dates a boy, and hangs out with another crowd, but we feel that her early friendship with Denise is one of the unresolved romances in her life, an erotic center. By the end of the novel, Marie is living a different life, writing, traveling, and studying anthropology, painfully exiled from home, family, and the church. But how to leave the improvisational, often devalued, fantastic flights of girlhood behind? Carmody does not want the reader to simply move on. The novel ends not with an older Marie living her best life but with short diary entries of an even younger Marie, early elementary school efforts, poignant and tender. This remarkable, original book writes girlhood large. In The Reconception of Marie, Teresa Carmody reconceives girlhood as a wild interior space for fantasy, deep thinking, and a longing for change.
Vidhu Aggarwal’s work has appeared in The Boston Review, Black Warrior Review, Aster(ix) Journal, Poemelon, and Leonardo, among other journals. Her next poetry book, Daughter Isotope, will be coming out with the Operating System in 2021. A Djerassi resident and Kundiman fellow, she teaches at Rollins College.