Jeffrey Eugenides: “Asleep in the Lord”

08/03/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2011.

Asleep is right; there’s nary an ounce of excitement or whimsy in Eugenides’s dry, straightforward telling of an American, Mitchell, and his attempt to become a good Christian by volunteering to help the sick alongside Mother Teresa, in India, 1983. It is, however, fairly graphic in its climactic description of an old man’s tumorous penis, you know, if that’s what you’re into . . . and should you argue that that scene’s necessary to show the contrast between Mitchell’s spiritual needs and the physical needs of the dying, consider the gratuitous bowel movement that follows: “He shut his eyes, grimacing, as he said in desperation, in anger, in relief, ‘I’m shitting!'” Did we need both?

Did we need either? From the writer’s perspective, the question boils down to effect: is the choice to make the story repetitious in the style of the chantlike prayers a good one? The answer is almost always “no,” for it creates a contrived format that is, by nature, limiting — and if you are trying to double-up and be clever, at the very least, you should avoid being explicit about said theme. That is, don’t end the story by repeating “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” especially if you’ve already alluded to it earlier in the story as follows: “You didn’t have to think about what you were saying; you just kept repeating the prayer until your heart took over and started repeating it for you.” And hell, even here, Eugenides repeats himself, for he also throws in a litany of “This is the body of Christ.” We get that it’s a religious story, we get that there’s a clear moral purpose (backed up with quotes from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and a series of outright theological musings), and we get the dry chanting. What we don’t get is lost within the repetition, what we don’t feel is that power, that strength, that transformation. Instead, we watch with confusion as Mitchell has one of those inexplicable “I need an ending to this story” shifts, in which he buys a ticket to Benares, goes for bhang lassi with a friend (who he needlessly mocks), and then rides rickshaw, at which point, looking down at the water hundreds of feet below him,

He didn’t fall. He remained upright in the rickshaw, carried along like a sahib. He felt ecstatic. He was being carried away, a vessel in a vessel. Mitchell understood the Jesus Prayer now. Understood mercy. Understood sinner, for sure. As he passed over the bridge, his lips weren’t moving. He wasn’t thinking a thing. It was as if, just as Franny had promised, the prayer had taken over and was saying itself in his heart.

Benares? Irrelevant. His Indian acquaintances? Shallow, useless. The time he spends in the clinic? Abandoned: all that work building his selfish, struggling character, and it turns out he only needed to get out into the bustling city. It’s insulting to think, especially given the glacial pace, that more than seventy percent of the story ends up being nothing more than idle chatter.

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