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For the adamant remnant in the Secular City willing to yoke theology and literary criticism, there is really only one way to do it—boldly and unapologetically. Ralph Wood, who eloquently argues that his work with contemporary fiction begins with the Gospels, discovers that the sorry state of post-Enlightenment culture comes from its collective amnesia—we have forgotten the singing affirmation of Genesis, the reassurance that Creation was intended to be a joyful act. Using with marvelous dexterity the theological argument of Karl Barth, Wood rediscovers the profound wisdom that the gladness of the soul (pounded mercilessly into the banal by the white noise of televangelism) is just that—a celebration of the unmixed blessing that God enjoys Creation, overwhelms our fears and Creation's shadows to fix life forever in favor of reconciliation and joy. Rejecting out of hand the Manichean stalemate that reduces our century to enervation and fear, Wood reminds us that the comic surprise of Creation is nothing less than our expectation of damnation and wrath confounded by God's mercy and love.
This makes for the joyful noise of Christianity but makes for largely conservative estimations of the literature to which Wood applies his Christian optimism. The lengthy assessments of O'Connor (largely her short stories), Percy (The Moviegoer), and Updike (the Rabbit books) plow well-turned ground, redescribing O'Connor's satires of those who play at self-sufficiency until shattered by exposure to grace; rediscovering Percy's dismissal of contemporary humanism that siphons meaningful identity and his demand that his characters move toward gestures beyond self-absorption; reasserting Updike's ironic fascination with the spiritual possibilities of sexual congress by tracking Rabbit from discontent to affirmation of significant relationship. Only in the valuable chapter on Peter De Vries does [End Page 776] Wood strike out into the radically new, largely because De Vries' work has seldom been approached with such commendable energy.
There are the obvious drawbacks to such theological criticism. Wood tends to wring joy with shrill insistence; with Christian certainty, he often chastises his authors like misbehaving children for missing opportunities to stay closer within the affirmative Christianity that he is defining; he labors at incautious length to demonstrate arguments so fundamental to the critical judgments already made on these writers that by now they can be asserted more quickly and then built upon or perhaps challenged. But what is impressive here is not the re-assertion of Christianity's good news or certainly the critical exegesis but rather the expression of the familiar cast within a prose that startles, glides, and moves with felicitous confidence. It is finally like being taken aback by a set of well-done photographs of Mt. Rushmore—you do not expect the unconventional or the startling but rather relish that the familiar can be rendered so well.
There is, sadly, little of such commendable prose in Lois Parkinson Zamora's work; it is, rather, the grimmer exercise of assaulting pages of unspectacular prose, pocked with the jargon of the moment, threaded by an unfortunate impulse to bring too many voices into the discussion, and hamstrung by a fiercely protean definition of the apocalyptic myth that frustrates convergence and dialogue among the chapters. Yet commending the work is the larger purpose: to evaluate a single literary effect that might bring together the literatures of America and Latin America—the historic sensibility of both national identities heightened by eschatological significance. The study here investigates the self-conscious use of the myth of the apocalypse in the works of six contemporary writers, in chapters devoted to García Márquez, Cortázar, and Percy (who each accept the viability of the myth) and Pynchon, Barth, and Fuentes (who, for different reasons, reject or modify the apocalyptic model). Zamora rightly asserts in her Introduction the, fierce contradictions that emerge in...