Against Explanation, or How to Write Fiction About Mormons (Or Anybody)


A few months ago, I visited my parents in Northern Virginia. I flew into Dulles at 1:00 in the morning, and by the time I got my bags and got out to the curb, it was closer to 1:30. I was on California time, so I was fine, but I expected my mother to be bleary-eyed and fragile. I expected her voice to assume the world-weariness I used to hear when I came home from a high-school date just before midnight curfew, or sometimes a little after. Mom never admitted she’d fallen asleep on her watch, but her inflection often betrayed her. It was a minor-key singsong, a certain drawn-out downturn at the end of her sentences, as if she already doubted the answer I hadn’t given yet. “How did it go-ooh?”

When Mom pulled up to passenger pickup in her red Forager, I climbed in the front seat and hugged her and said how nice it was to see her.

“Nice to see you too, son,” she said. Her voice was chipper, and I was quietly surprised. An hour later, we were sitting across from each other on living room couches, still exchanging the news of our lives. At one point I got up to get a drink in the kitchen and Mom warned me not to use the ice machine. Dad had an early meeting tomorrow.

“And what about you?” I said. “Are you done with school yet?”

“Tomorrow’s a teacher’s day, if you need it,” Mom said, “but I don’t need it. Your old Momma’s officially on break.”

“Is that why you’re so amped?” I finally asked. “It’s almost three in the morning. I thought you got up at five.”

“I took a nap!” Mom announced. “I had a Young Women’s thing at the church tonight, this program we’d been planning for weeks, and of course it went long, and there was clean up, and one of my Young Women came up to me after to say thanks and we had a little heart-to-heart. Anyway, I was so exhausted when I got home I just collapsed on the couch. I woke up at midnight. Now I know what it’s like to be my late-night bohemian son!”

I gave a sour grin, but it was true. I had retired the night before at 2:00 AM, risen that morning at ten, and I was already wondering how my conversation with my mother might translate to the page.


The metaphor of translation is an important one, one I think of often. Something always gets lost in it, we’re told, and I believe that. Whether we read Homer or Joyce or Woolf, Saul Bellow, Anne Tyler, Brady Udall, we won’t know their worlds as well as their characters do. And that’s okay. In fact, I think that process of almost understanding, or understanding as completely as we can, is what allows a character to acquire her unique weight, her illusion of reality. Her mind is not our mind, after all. In many novels she isn’t even aware that she has a historical obligation to explain herself to us, so she doesn’t. She lives her life (dramatic some days, quiet others), thinks her thoughts (big and small), and we hide behind the pages and try to eavesdrop. This is the fiction I most enjoy reading. This is the fiction I try to write myself.

letterTake my opening passage as an example. Imagine that it’s a first-person fictional narrative—in several aspects, it is—and imagine how it would read if I tried to close every possible gap between the characters and the reader. Where would I need to start? Would I need to explain that by “Dulles” I mean Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, close to Washington D.C.? Would I need to explain that my mother’s Forager is in fact a car, a detail I didn’t bother to make explicit? Would I need to explain that my mother is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon, and that her lay calling, or volunteer assignment, in Young Women’s, a youth organization for girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen within that church, requires her to plan awards ceremonies and other activities that are uniquely taxing, if sometimes fulfilling, for example when the rare teenager goes out of her way to thank her for all her hard work, which she knows she doesn’t have to do but which she appreciates that she does do? That sentence is already a reductio ad absurdum, and really I’ve just scratched the surface. This is the informational challenge that Wallace Stegner despaired of when he said that fiction about Mormons is impossible because it requires too much, just too much exposition.

Well, Mr. Stegner, and with greatest respect, I think you could have saved yourself a lot of handwringing and a few fictional projects—who knows?—by just cutting the Gordian knot and explaining as little as possible. My references to “church” and “Young Women’s” will be assimilated through context, or they won’t be, just as “Dulles” and “Forager” will be or won’t be, depending on the readership. “Forager” is a car I made up, by the way, since I’m horrible with these things and can hardly remember the make and model of my own car, and since I was sure my readers would get it anyway, as I’m sure you did. I think the urge to explain is often a failure of confidence in the abilities of the reader. Or it’s an overestimation of the importance of a setting or subtext to the success of a character-driven story. Either way, it’s a solicitousness that rends the seams of a book, exposing the kind of anti-fictional feeling that animates the writers of factual, “useful” fiction.

“I once read a novel,” a friend, an undergraduate physics major, told me years ago. “And when I finished this novel, I realized I hadn’t learned anything. I promised myself I’d never read another one.” I was only nineteen years old when my friend told me that, but I already knew that I never wanted to bow to that attitude, that altar of the merely real. If I wanted to preach in my writing, or raise consciousness, it would be a very different story, but I have no ambitions in that direction. I have no didactic ambitions of any kind for my fiction, spiritual, political, or otherwise. I believe art and ethics are both essential, but that they do each other a disservice when they try to become one and the same.

The kind of knowledge that good fiction can impart is incomplete knowledge, knowledge that admits its gaps and urges a certain caution because of them, a compassion, a suspension of final judgment. The Mormons may be right, the Christians in general, the believers in general. Maybe the veils will fall from our eyes someday, and we will know even as also we are known. But in the meantime, and in the absence of that certainty, I want to content myself with earthly knowledge. Good fiction embraces this limited omniscience; it embraces what Keats called “negative capability.” It lets us enter another’s head, another’s world, more authentically than in any other medium. It lets us overhear the mind in its silent, elliptical honesty, and lets us glean along the way certain glimpses of understanding, empathy, connection. These glimpses are more frequent in some books and less frequent in others, and that’s okay, too. Whenever the vistas do open up, they are startling and beautiful, and they jolt us awake.


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Ryan McIlvain is a writer living in Los Angeles. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals, including The Paris Review. Elders, his debut novel, was published in March. More from this author →