Saturday, 5 September 2009

The First Amendment

When I was 17 I turned a corner. After thinking about it for the better part of a year, I decided that I was faithless, that this was a natural and progressive thing, and that in due course the rest of the world would similarly come to its senses and "snap out of it". This was all a long time ago and since then I've come to realise that my evolution was personal, and that its completeness was not (as I then thought it was) a feature of the wider world writ small. The Abstinence Teacher by the American novelist Tom Perrotta is his attempt to explore the persistence and growth of religion in contemporary American life (at least according to this interview in the A.V. Club).

The novel begins with Ruth Ramsey, a popular sex education teacher and divorced mother to two daughters, being chastised by her school board after making some seemingly innocuous remarks in her classroom about oral sex. This reprimand is followed by the advance of a pro-abstinence agenda into her lessons, a development that both challenges Ruth's progressive values and her commitment to teaching her students a truthful account of sexual practise and health.

Meanwhile, Tim Mason, a popular football coach and recovering addict, is coming to terms with the temptations of his old life and his new beginning with Christ. Carried away by a victory on the pitch, Tim gathers his teenage players in prayer only to incur the ire of Ruth, mother to one of Tim's star strikers. This receipt of wrath from one quarter is counterbalanced by his church's warm approval in another. But Tim is not entirely unquestioning of his new-found grace and his new life with a devoted young wife.

Thrown together as combatants in the larger culture war, Ruth and Tim first come to a frosty agreement, but despite their differences both feel a certain frisson from contact with the other side. A feeling that is strangely exacerbated as their personal wars become ever more enflamed.

As intimated above, the themes of this novel are perennially interesting to me, so after originally hearing about the book a while back I've been looking forwards to reading it. As it happens, I've come across Perrotta before in the cinema with Election and Little Children, both of which I enjoyed (though the latter is somewhat more challenging). And so it was with this novel, although with certain qualifications.

One of the things that's enjoyable about the novel is also one of its weaknesses. Although the novel initially sets up the two central characters seemingly in opposition and whets the appetite of the reader for a stand-up fight, Perrotta gradually softens the divide between them by fleshing them out and making them more human. Ruth's uncompromising liberal views are melted somewhat by her insecurities and her desire for a partner in life. Tim is quite swiftly transformed from a seeming paragon of faith into a man dogged by his old addictions and coming round to the idea that Jesus might just be a new one. As such the culture war becomes more of a culture tiff between the characters, with the wider war relegated to the sidelines and to characters that the reader can easily dislike but which there's little investment in. But this warm treatment of its characters tends to make the novel quite comfy and enjoyable even if it does dissipate its heated premise. By the time that the novel's slightly ambiguous ending rolls around, any remaining opposition between the characters has been replaced by compassion, and by an incipient passion. Not quite what I signed up for.

I suspect (and C co-suspects) that Perrotta originally intended for a novel with a more confrontational dynamic at its core, but found that he just didn't have the heart (or ability) to write from the perspective of an uncompromising Christian. Tim is clearly the sort of Christian that woolly liberals are going to be comfortable with. Though his introduction is an inflammatory display of public worship, he is revealed to otherwise be quite liberal in his outlook, with progressive views on homosexuality and a somewhat accommodating resolve when it comes to everyday frailties. And Perrotta probably goes a bit far in making Tim self-aware of his substitution of Jesus for his old vices, that could have been more subtext-y. In fact, it almost gets to the point where Tim's faith loses credibility with the reader, something that's detrimental to the novel's exploration of the core issues. As such, while Perrotta may have intended to write a novel of interest to both "sides", the result is a novel that essentially sides with progressive (Christian or otherwise) values. A hardline faith-warrior is unlikely to draw anything from this book other than confirmation of the weakness of the liberal outlook. Or something. But, as I say, it's still enjoyable.

One area where the novel is more obviously weak is its writing. Perrotta's prose comes over extremely flatly. Description and characterisation, while serviceable, do read rather passively, with the latter largely being done through events and heavy-handed remembrances. Generally, the novel works more on its ideas than its literary merit (even if it does soft pedal on these). That said, Perrotta does include a number of choice comedy moments, including a great session at an abstinence education training event where Ruth and her co-offenders tear strips off the faith-based ideology.

Overall, fun, but not the novel I was expecting. However, it would be a far more challenging and less palatable read were an unwavering religious character to be at the novel's centre. Not a novel I think Perrotta is ready to write, possibly ever.

No comments: