The Father’s Tale
An appreciation of Michael D. O’Brien’s new book
By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor
With this book, Michael D. O’Brien has staked a claim in the future of literature. Even apart from the plot and characters of this lengthy and intricate novel, there is a message that goes to the heart of our current communications culture. At 1,072 pages, it is implausibly, imprudently long. In a landscape of digital blinks, and voracious viral fame, O’Brien bids us to put down our devices, find a spot by the fireplace and listen to a tale well told. A father’s tale, no less, in a culture which prefers the terms parent or primary caregiver and may make a father an accessory to the family.
Ignatius Press has followed O’Brien into this thicket of significance by printing his book – those thousand-plus pages – with a hard cover threading together high-quality paper. To pick up “The Father’s Tale” is an exercise in cultural and literary remembrance and maybe even rebellion. A book! A story from an author! Something Gutenberg would have recognized – a volume that takes up about 5 inches on the shelf, and may take a week or month to read. No bits, no bytes, no tweets, no posts or hits or social networking. This is writing – long and laborious, with a full complement of characters who grow on you like a Facebook “friend” never can.
The title “The Father’s Tale” may bring to mind Chaucer’s 14th century classic “The Canterbury Tales,” in which different characters walking on pilgrimage to the tomb of the “hooly blisful martir” St. Thomas Becket tell lively stories, parables of a sort to teach lessons about love, marriage, anger, envy and human nature in general. This lengthy collection of tales – full of fun, spiritual insight, innocence and lighthearted humor – is a window into the medieval mind and served as a model for Western literature for centuries after. The Prologue celebrates the new life that shoots forth from plants, flowers and songbirds in April, when the pilgrimage begins, and hails the advent of a new culture of quest and optimism in the English soul.
Yet the end of the symbolic pilgrimage of the “Tales” was announced in brooding fashion by the 20th century English poet T.S. Eliot, who begins “The Wasteland” with the words “April is the cruellest month,” in direct negation to Chaucer as he marks the close of the English era. Urbanism, industrialism and world war were the backdrop to Eliot’s bleak verse, and he seeks to shore up Western culture with the fragments of literature and culture before settling on the Eastern mystical tradition as the final word: “shantih, shantih, shantih” (the peace that passes understanding).
Perhaps I read too much into “The Father’s Tale,” but it seems to be an attempt at rebirth, not so much of the West, but of the Christian animation of the West. In this endeavor, O’Brien pulls the threads of Chaucer through Eliot to arrive at something quite original – a brooding, biting look at Western civilization in which one hope stands out on the bleak horizon of decline. That hope is Christ and his Church. Like Eliot, O’Brien looks East for his answer, yet not to unearthly Eastern mysticism, but to the solid, historical landscape of post-communist Russia, where his main character goes on a pilgrimage of sorts, bringing only his Catholic faith and his search for his wayward son. Eastern Christianity - driven underground in 20th century Soviet Union and Communist China - has something to teach the West, O'Brien believes, and his story shows how the two traditions can live under one roof in the characters of two priests, one Roman Catholic and the other Russian Orthodox.
The story is long, complex, and takes a takes more than a “digital” commitment of time and effort to get through – and even then I am not sure I can retell it well or in full – but in the end there is a strong message embodied in one character, the father, Alexander Graham. He brings together in himself much of what is good and worth preserving in our culture and our literature – and he does so humbly and almost unknowingly, for he is possessed by his own weakness, worries, complexes and failures that haunt him at odd and unfortunate times along his “pilgrimage” to the East.
It would be trite to say that the message of this book is “the power of one man” to overcome the world, for that would cast the theme too much in the schema of our over-individualistic society. More accurate would be this: the strength of a father’s love, and the persistence of his faith, overcome the obstacles of the world and the demons of the self, because God is Father and God is Love. In the end, O’Brien’s character makes the return trip that the Canterbury pilgrims did not make in Chaucer’s unfinished work. After traveling across cultures and halfway around the globe and back, he returns to his small Canadian town to find the image of God in himself and in others, and a share of the strength, wisdom and wholeness that are unique to Christianity. He has received insights into the age-old philosophical question of “the one and the many,” the religious conundrum of spiritual surrender and psychological self-consciousness, and the societal balance of the communal and the individual that makes up the common good. His answer is not the “shantih” of Eliot but the “fiat” of Mary – “let it be done” – the perfect word of the Blessed Mother to the eternal Father.
Next week: An interview with the author, Michael D. O’Brien.