- Eucharistically Queer? The Postsecular as Transnational Reading Strategy in The Book of Salt
The critical reception of Monique Truong’s 2003 debut novel, The Book of Salt, constitutes a telling case study of scholarly responses to representations of spirituality in contemporary literature.1 Despite having received considerable critical attention for such a relatively new novel (to date, six other scholarly journal articles and six book chapters focus on it),2 and despite the novel’s explicit and complex engagement with spiritualities, such engagement has been largely overlooked or ignored by critics. In this essay, I contend that The Book of Salt helps illuminate what is at stake in this kind of oversight or dismissal—namely, our ability to counter certain lingering effects of imperialist epistemologies that continue to shape not only contemporary reading practices but political practices, as well. Western imperialism has historically been supported by Christian beliefs, but modern forms of imperialism are tacitly supported by Western conceptions of the secular, as scholars such as Talal Asad and Dipesh Chakrabarty have shown.3 While much recent scholarship on Anglophone literatures aims to push our reading practices into transnational and diasporic borderlands, one of the ongoing impediments to such efforts remains the secularization narrative that has long dominated modern Western academic discourse—the narrative that assumes a secular / sacred dichotomy, strongly associating the former with rationality and the latter with superstition while casting Western modernity as increasingly secular. Critiquing and undermining this narrative and its assumed dichotomy should be considered a vital aspect of anti-imperialist transnational reading strategies. [End Page 103]
Truong is not alone among contemporary writers in the U.S. who challenge the national boundaries of “American” literature in part by invoking traditional spiritual beliefs and practices. Widely known and noteworthy examples include Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992/3), and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God (1993). Some critics, such as John A. McClure, argue that representations of spirituality in such texts are highly significant.4 Indeed, Amy Hungerford examines the writings of Allen Ginsburg, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson, concluding, like McClure, that postmodern representations of spirituality lie at the center of much of the most widely respected imaginative literature produced in the U.S. over the past half century.5
Yet the brief but rich critical reception history of The Book of Salt suggests that there remains a widespread willingness among scholars to ignore representations of spirituality—presumably because such representations are, at best, atavistic and therefore irrelevant or, at worst, reactionary. Most critics would likely be quite comfortable with the ways in which Truong’s novel implicitly critiques the role of Catholicism in the French colonization of Vietnam: the novel specifically highlights the complicity of Catholic institutions and theology in racist, sexist, heterosexist, and economic oppressions. Far more interesting and innovative, however, are the subtle ways in which the novel also simultaneously embraces key elements of Catholicism. Most provocatively, The Book of Salt invokes the Catholic Eucharist liturgy less in an attempt to queer it—to make it strange, subverting it in eroticized ways that transgress social norms6—than to use traditional Eucharistic theology to help represent historical, sexual, racial, and national difference and disjunction as paradoxically enabling rather than thwarting a sense of connection, fostering a sense of anti-assimilationist community across such lines of difference.
My exploration of this aspect of the novel develops in three stages. First, I explain how the novel represents food, sex, and reading as interrelated metaphors for abjected difference, and how it uses these metaphors to help develop a complex meditation on the specific set of differences embodied in the protagonist. Next, I analyze how the novel’s subtle use of Eucharistic symbolism resonates with its food and sex metaphors, complicating them productively. Finally, turning back to the novel’s representations of reading, I contend that the insistently mysterious questioning that is characteristic of The Book of Salt gets inflected by Eucharistic symbolism—as well as by invocations of spirituality more broadly—in ways that suggest postsecular notions of subjectivity and history and that...