Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Acts of Faith

Belief is a virus, and once it gets into you, its first order of business is to preserve itself, and the way it preserves itself is to keep you from having any doubts, and the way it keeps you from doubting is to blind you to the way things really are. Evidence contrary to the belief can be staring you straight in the face, and you won't see it... True believers just don't see things the way they are, because if they did, they wouldn't be true believers anymore.
Philip Caputo's novel Acts of Faith is one of those big novels. It's one of those novels with a large canvas, a large cast of characters (and a helpful dramatis personae at the beginning), a map, and of course, big themes. Many Big Novels, let's capitalize that, tackle their Big Theme with arresting confidence in the importance of tackling said theme. War is bad. Friendship is good. History repeats. Stuff like that. However, Acts of Faith (as its ponderous thundering title suggests) is a Big Novel about real stuff. By this, I mean, the crisis in Africa, specifically Sudan.

I actually know a few boys from Sudan. They're tall, mostly affable, and can tell you scary stories, anecdotes so effective because you can see that they actually happened to the boys telling them. Stuff like fighting a monkey for the only piece of fruit you've seen in a month. Or like hiding in the bushes from a roving gang of children armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes, hoping to lop the heads off people just for looking at them funny.

Caputo takes that sense of unbalance, that sense of chaos, and bottles it up, maps it out over a Big Novel with Big Themes and a large cast. The difference between Acts of Faith and other novels that attempt similar things is that Acts of Faith's crisis continues still. This is the kind of novel that inspires me to donate to things and get fired up about being socially conscious. This is, of course, the point. This is the intention. Nobody writes a 700 page novel set in Sudan starring relief workers and white people because they want to tell a story. They want to make a difference. Caputo's labor is one of love and immediacy in equal measures. He obviously loves his subject matter (enough to research and write this mammoth tome) but it comes at the price of asking the reader, "what are you going to do about it?"

I'm not going to address the immediacy of the Big Theme in this novel other than in the above paragraphs. There's no point in rehashing my political beliefs or that I'm intensely interested in the plight of countries like Sudan (especially after getting to know a number of Sudanese immigrants). So that being said, I want to look at Acts of Faith as a novel. And surely, it's constructed like a novel, more so than other Big Novels with idealistic outlooks. By this, I mean despite Caputo's journalism background, he's constructed something carefully, deliberately, and novelistic. Truly, a labor of love to have done so meticulously.

On Goodreads, a site that I often frequent, a reviewer said this of Acts of Faith:
It pains me to give a ho-hum review to a novel that was clearly so dear to the heart of the author; "Acts of Faith" must've been a labor of love for Philip Caputo...sadly, what mostly is conveyed is the labor and not the love (at least to this reader).
I'm kind of building on this particular reader's two star review of the novel when I say that this subject obviously means a great deal to Caputo. It raises an interesting and hopefully fruitful avenue of thought in my mind.

I wrote 2,000 words on Marvel's The Avengers the other day and 2,000 words on Lanchester's Capital. Over 4,000 words devoted to effectively taking apart a work, no a labor of love, and demonstrating why they don't function. This comment, offhand probably, from this anonymous reviewer actually coincides neatly with something Film Crit Hulk wrote about only this week, which you can read here. Hulk, if you didn't already know, is one of the best film critics working right now, and I have tremendous respect for him. His article, if I can boil it down, is that critics have forgotten that cinema and other media of art have soul and are meant to establish an emotional connection with the consumer of the art. Critics have lost themselves in a fog of too rigorous criticism such as dismantling the technical flaws of the film instead of recognizing the film's emotional connection with the audience. This is one of Film Crit Hulk's pet themes: stories only work if the audience accepts the characters and their motivations/decisions. Of course, this is totally reductive, and if Hulk ever read this, he'd rightfully quibble.

What I'm trying to say is that I take no joy in dismantling a work of art. Sometimes I do lose myself in a fog of overly rigid critical thinking. I think about things in terms of technical expertise (such as my love for efficient genre exercises) and I forget that my engagement with art should at first be on the emotional frequency and not on the over-educated framework I've been employing.

Why do we take glee in attacking something that's clearly a labor of love? Because of Schadenfreude and our adoration of other people's misery. Why do we enjoy insulting a work that took so much energy that it only be considered a product of obsession and love?

Film Crit Hulk argues that film criticism should be about understanding why a text either works or doesn't. It's not about providing a letter grade or demonstrating with mathematics why the film is good or bad. It's about engaging with the work to understand the text on a deeper level and figuring out why it succeeded or where it went wrong.

At this point, I'm going to connect the act of reviewing and engaging with the text to the very theme and meaning of Caputo's Acts of Faith. That is to say, this long preamble serves a specific logical function.

Acts of Faith suffers in the second half because Caputo employs a rather overwrought non-journalistic voice. It's melodramatic and quite distracting. It reminds me of those old paperbacks with the painted cover of a man standing proud, his arm curled around the waist of his buxom love interest, but his eyes squinting over the harsh landscape he intends to dominate. Those kind of historical romance novels that are often called "epic" not just for their sweeping timescale, but for their length as well. Obviously these types of novels were informed by imperialism, colonialism and manifest destiny. But Caputo's novel, while deploying a similar voice, isn't motivated by imperialism. It's an interrogation of what brings white people back to Africa. Do they have faith in their mission, in themselves, in Africa? What is it? Perhaps that's why Caputo adopts such an overwrought and painfully earnest voice for a few hundred pages. The kind of voice that says, "he propels himself into her and fills her with his seed" as opposed to "they fucked in the bush and finished just before the ostriches came by to satisfy their curiosity". So why does he use this voice? To match the earnestness and naivety of the cast?

He's trying to understand why these relief workers compromise themselves so totally for the myth of Africa. They make choices and they do things they think are necessary for their belief in the idea that they're doing what's right. Their labor of love is to provide aid to the unfortunate people, whose only flaw is a circumstance of geography and hundreds of years of history. Caputo has written a long labor of love in order to figure out why he has written a long labor of love.

Authors don't choose their subjects, Paul Scott once said. Instead, their subjects choose them. Caputo's subject, since his memoir about Vietnam, has been war and the lengths people go to in order to continue that war. One of the main characters, a corporal for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, implies that war has been his labor of love. His wife says that war has become his mistress.

Caputo is working through why his subject has chosen him through his cast of characters, his earnest overeager naive relief workers and pilots and doctors and nurses. Why do they return over and over to the harsh world of Africa? What is it about the myth of Africa?

Thus, Acts of Faith isn't about assigning a letter grade to the characters. It's not about mathematically judging them. It's about engaging with the idea of returning to Africa, returning to the subject of war, and trying to understand why it brings them, and by proxy Caputo, back over and over again.

What does this mean for Acts of Faith as a novel? Like I said earlier, the novel's shift in tone to an earnest one doesn't and does work. It doesn't work because it's too earnest to take, especially in light of the moral complexity of the situation in Sudan. But it also works because the form meets the content. Caputo has successfully merged, in definitively novelistic fashion, the meaning of the text with the text itself. This sounds easy to pull off, but it isn't.

The emotions of Acts of Faith seem so overwrought because the author is trying to understand why the characters believe in such things so dogmatically. The novel is called Acts of Faith after all. In the excerpt I posted at the very beginning of this review, a character explains that belief is a virus. Other characters reformulate this assertion later in the novel, all of them trying to work through their faith, their faith in the mission, their faith in themselves and in the future of Africa. Dogmatic belief in things is not a rational discourse, though it can lend itself to complex critical thinking (theology for example). The acts of faith in the novel shouldn't be examined in so rigorous or logical of a manner because they are an emotional connection, bridging the characters to their emotions.

This is why I opened with such a long preamble, echoing both another Goodreads reviewer and Film Crit Hulk. Once somebody applies logic to acts of faith, the acts themselves fall apart under scrutiny. But they're more than just technical flaws or missteps. Their very existence is illogical; that's why they're called acts of faith.

Hence, it's unfair to apply rigorous systems of logic to Acts of Faith the novel. The emotional connection the reader feels is equally important to whether or not the text functions successfully.

I do think the novel works, even if I had problems with some of the technical aspects of the text. While I didn't buy into every character's motivations, which might be due to the sheer size of the canvas (some cast members are bound to be underdeveloped when it's so big), I did buy into the overall emotion of the text, the exploration or rather interrogation of the acts of faith.

Africa is a subject that chose me, just like India chose me and Paul Scott. Thus, I understand the cast and Caputo's compulsion to return to Africa over and over, despite events and people that serve to disabuse or shatter our collective belief in the myth of Africa.

Why do the relief workers hold such faith in Africa, the mission, themselves? This is a question I keep returning to, but not because I don't know the answer, but because that's the question Caputo is asking in the text itself.
That any African kid, even a kid, could have faith in the future baffled him. His own future... was no future at all. The human capacity for hope when no hope was visible, the human will to live, to blindly, dumbly go on, were riddles that he would never solve - and didn't want to solve.
However, the answer that Caputo uncovers isn't so simple as "faith is good".

Sort of like in Scott's Raj Quartet, nobody is innocent. Everything they touch corrupts them, but it is the constant faith in their mission that corrupts them so absolutely. To quote from the novel, one of the characters is "so certain of his inner virtue that he believes anything he does, even something this terrible, is the right thing". Africa is a corrupting influence, or rather, it's an irresistible force.

Quinette, the young Midwestern evangelical girl, arrives in Africa hoping to change her life and change the lives of those to whom she preaches. Her life inexorably changes due to the force of Africa. She becomes romantically involved with the aforementioned corporal of the SPLA, and it changes her. Because she so fervently believes in her mission, to love this man and help his cause, she is corrupted.

In the end of the novel, people live, people die, but mostly, the villains are punished, but not by the authorial hand, but by the inexorable irresistible force of Africa. It's not something informed by logic but by the structure of the interrogation in which Caputo is engaged.

It's emotionally satisfying to read what happens in the denouement, not just because I had already 600 pages and was eager for the tension to overturn, but because I had been emotionally invested in this cast of characters. When the form meets the content, and when the author's sensibilities are in line with the subject matter, the artist produces a work of art. I can't help but again, compare this to Scott's Raj Quartet. While both are interested in the meeting of Westerners with an alien world, only one is interested in asking why the subject matter chooses the author. This isn't a fault of the Raj Quartet. Its interests lie in greater more ambitious pursuits. Acts of Faith deploys a similar moral sensibility: dogmatic faith in one's self in light of a visible lack of evidence is inherently corrupting. Whereas the cast of the Raj Quartet had the utmost faith in their superiority, the cast of Acts of Faith has the ultimate self-confidence in the purity of their mission. That very purity undoes itself in the face of Africa's unbalance, in its chaos.

What does this mean for Caputo, the author, the grand architect of this interrogation into faith, into the attractive properties of the subject? Ultimately, the artist is consumed by faith in the subject. Just like all art, the artist pours himself into his labor of love, ending drained and empty, like Quinette at the end of Acts of Faith. This is purely poetical of course. I have no idea what Caputo felt once completing this Big Novel. I can only imagine a sense of dissatisfaction. A compulsion to return to the attraction of war and unbalance. Surely the proof is in the fact that Caputo's 2005 novel echoes the sensibility of his war memoir from thirty years previous?

This novel isn't perfect. But it is great because of the author's investment into the cast, into their emotions, and eventually, into the technical beauty of the structure of the novel. The title isn't merely a fancy phrase. It informs and shapes the entire thematic architecture of the novel. Its meaning cascades from the author's very belief in his subject down to the acts committed by the cast of characters. Acts of Faith isn't simply some historical romance, depicting the love affairs of important people on the canvas of history. It's a Big Novel that implores you to emotionally engage with aid work in Africa, but remember that Africa, and war, are irresistibly attractive. It's a complex interrogation of a subject, and that is what propels this novel into my heart - and mind.

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