THE MONK UPSTAIRS
By Tim Farrington
HarperSanFrancisco. 264 pp. $23.95
Modern fiction hasn't got a prayer. Literally.
In America, a majority of people pray every day, according to U.S. News & World Report, but lo and behold, in novels you're as likely to find someone praying as you are to find a snowball in hell. And if you think about it, that's a weird omission. After all, Americans pray more frequently than they eat out, but imagine reading a hundred novels and never seeing anyone at a restaurant except in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Why does an art form designed to bring us into the intimate interior of ordinary people's lives close its eyes to common prayer?
Even that question sounds vaguely embarrassing, like the beginning of a fundamentalist rant about the godless elites who control the publishing world.
"The evangelical section is over there, sir."
But I don't want to be left behind with anti-Semitic sci-fi novels about the end of days or romances about a woman finding the man of His dreams -- dogmatic novels that have been healed of despair, ambiguity and wit.
All of which makes Tim Farrington's mainstream success a little miraculous. Five years ago the Virginia writer published a comic romance called The Monk Downstairs about a harried single mom who falls in love with the despairing ex-monk living in her basement apartment. The novel contained all kinds of literary sins: references to Jesus, discussions of moral responsibility, and even -- get this -- descriptions of prayer. What's worse, although Farrington's monk has left Our Lady of Bethany, he doesn't denounce the church, he never loses his faith, he harbors no long-repressed episodes of sexual abuse by a priest. In short, he never does any of the things a Christian character is required to do in a modern novel. And yet The Monk Downstairs earned praise from a variety of venues; the New York Times chose it as a "Notable Book of the Year."
Now, Farrington has returned with a sequel called The Monk Upstairs, and, if anything, he concentrates on the function of prayer even more, but he still maintains the same ironic humor that welcomes readers of any religion -- or no religion. Farrington spent a couple of years in his 20s at an ashram in Oakland, Calif., and the Christian theology of his "Monk" novels is deeply moderated by Eastern ideals. Chief among these is the sense that God is an "unfathomable darkness," a harrowing "kind of nowhere" that can be reached only as the world is silenced by stillness. That gloss of mysticism -- devout and yet distinctly unchurchy -- gives these stories a New Age ecumenicalism that's crucial to their broad appeal.
Upstairs begins with the wedding between Rebecca and her former tenant, the former monk Mike Christopher -- except he's late. This is not entirely surprising. "Mike was often enough several hundred years, if not millennia, out of sync with the rest of the world," Farrington writes, "and he was perfectly capable of losing the stray hour here or there, like a pair of socks kicked under the bed of eternity." Realizing "it was way too late to get married somewhere sunny, secular, and sane," Rebecca grabs a bottle of wine, gathers up her wedding dress and stomps into the woods behind the chapel to find her "ambivalently resocialized ex-monk." Of course, he's there, praying. And though she's thoroughly exasperated, Rebecca knows she can't imagine life without him.
That's pretty much the most dramatic moment of the novel. Whereas the first book had the nervous antics of a budding relationship to propel it along, The Monk Upstairs concentrates on the subtler tensions of a happy marriage. After living in seclusion for 20 years with a bunch of grouchy monks, Mike feels "utterly blessed and completely terrified." Rebecca keeps wondering how she could have ended up so in love with "a guy who might be a saint in the making and who certainly had saintlike qualities . . . but who also, in the world's usual terms and values, was more or less useless." She maintains a hostile stance toward the church, while her new husband has a "disconcerting habit of praying at crucial junctures." Mike finally makes himself a little space in the attic to retire to every morning, but it's awkward. "He was skittish and self-conscious about the mechanics of his attic access, as if his prayer life were something akin to alcoholism and this morning ritual amounted to trying to get the empty bottles into the trash can quietly."