Biblioasis, 2019, $14.95, 240 pp.
In a widely circulated 2012 essay in the New York Times entitled “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” author Paul Elie lamented that contemporary novels fail to take religion seriously. This wasn’t always the case, he claimed. For midcentury writers like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene, religious belief, or lack thereof, drove every decision their characters made. No matter how frequently they failed to live up to their calling—think of Greene’s “whiskey priest” from The Power and the Glory—the men and women of these novels knew that if Christianity were in fact true, it demanded nothing short of everything. Our culture has grown more secular in the intervening years, and in our time, Elie argued, fiction writers treat Christian belief “as something between a dead language and a hangover.” Even still, Elie hoped for an author who tackled the realities of the present day, for a religious fiction that “dramatize[d] belief the way it feels in your experience.”
Which, in 2019, leaves us with the question: What would such a novel look like in the age of Silicon Valley and Donald Trump? Original Prin, the third novel by Canadian author and academic Randy Boyagoda, offers an answer.
Original Prin is a riotously funny satire, written more in the style of John Kennedy Toole and David Foster Wallace than O’Connor or Greene. The Sri Lankan Prin, a happily married, devoutly Catholic father of four who lives in Toronto, is a professor of English who specializes in representations of seahorses in Canadian literature (phallic or otherwise). In the novel’s first line we learn that he becomes a suicide bomber by the end. Boyagoda’s clear, tight prose propels the plot, and the book feels even shorter than its 223 pages. The whirling dervish of a story is dizzying at times, but is ultimately grounded by the protagonist, whose sincerity and self-doubt allow him to function as a kind of spiritual everyman for an internet-addled, post-truth age. Prin wants to be a good Catholic, but amid the cacophony of voices in his life—his family, his colleagues, his ex-girlfriend, his smartphone—he struggles to discern how God is speaking to him.
The story begins on New Year’s Day in the Toronto Zoo, where Prin, after scouring internet forums for advice, has decided to take his daughters to reveal that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A storm derails their plans, however, trapping them in the lemur house for several hours. Chaos ensues: A branch crashes through the ceiling, a lemur is electrocuted, and a well-meaning father whose family has been trapped with Prin’s blurts out the secret which Prin had so gingerly been preparing to convey to his daughters. From the onset, Boyagoda readies his readers—and his protagonist—to expect the absurd.
While Prin recovers from surgery, he learns that his university is on the verge of closing. School administrators have a plan, however—start an exchange program in Dragomans, a fledgling (and fictional) Middle Eastern country. They need a faculty member to travel there to give an inaugural lecture, along with the consultant hired by the school, which, to Prin’s shock, turns out to be Wende, his beautiful ex-girlfriend from grad school. She invites Prin to give the lecture. Does he want to go?
Of course he does. But what does God want him to do? As a married man, is his attraction to her still sinful even though he is pretty sure that removing his prostate has rendered him impotent? Is Wende’s cryptic message that her seat for the flight is 34C “meant to remind him of something?” Prin wants answers, but he doesn’t get any. That is, until a Skype meeting with the Dragomans officials, where Prin hears a clear message: “a rushing in his ears. . . . a sudden pulling at his chest, a reaching in, a telling he knew not how to tell.” God has spoken to him, over the internet, no less. Prin must go.
Throughout the story, Boyagoda deftly pokes fun at the banality of modern culture, no more so than in his depiction of Prin’s college, which is struggling through twin crises of enrollment and religious identity. Formerly called the University of the Holy Family, the school changed its name to the more relevant-sounding University of the Family Universal, or UFU (say it out loud). Now the letters literally stand for nothing—as its banners proclaim, “UFU stands for UFU.” They even have an app: “iTouchUFU.” The school’s original medieval manuscript room has been converted to a bookable function space; what once was a chapel is now a lecture hall, flanked by “a scent-free study space and prayer room for Muslim students,” though its century-old stained glass windows featuring Christ as an Irish immigrant in Toronto remain.
To call this dark satire in the vein of Evelyn Waugh, however, would be a mistake. A different author, intent on lamenting the decline of Christendom, would have used the religious emptiness of UFU to ridicule our secular, desacralized age. But Boyagoda’s mocking, which is closer to parody than straight satire, pokes fun without casting too much judgment, and the school comes across as an endearingly inept institution which nonetheless serves as the only functioning community in the novel. In the end, Boyagoda is more concerned with highlighting Prin’s efforts at listening to God than in critiquing the environment in which he listens.
The difficulty of discernment is an ancient religious problem—perhaps the ancient religious problem—no doubt complicated by the different cultural milieu in which God has spoken. Stories of fiery chariots and ecstatic visions of saints seem quite distant to inhabitants of our disenchanted world. Prin is one of them, raised in a recognizably bourgeois Toronto suburb, “a paradise of flavoured coffee and televisions in every bedroom and streets named for fruit and kings and there were no other brown people.” To thwart this banal uniformity, Prin resorts to a quasi-superstitious method to hear God’s voice: Whenever he is in a church he dares God to make the candles flicker, if he is in fact listening. Prin knows it’s silly, and is afraid he might be acting blasphemously in testing God, but he can’t help himself. His faith tells him God is always there, but his flattened surroundings seem to suggest otherwise.
Against the desires of his wife, Prin travels to Dragomans, whose transitional government bears a striking resemblance to an internet start-up. “DRAGOMANS 2.0” is plastered on the wall of the hall in the government building where Prin delivers his lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “Hashtag Insha’Allah,” exclaims a civil service worker as she wishes him luck. Before Prin begins, the smiling Minister announces that “Kafka absolutely crushed a story about metamorphosis,” and after Prin’s lecture on the grotesque modern fable, delivered to a sleeping audience, the Minister returns to pump up the crowd: “We need to ask ourselves one question . . . Who wants to be a butterfly?” In a situation sure to put a knowing smile (or look of horror) on English professors’ faces, it’s clear no one in the room besides the teacher has read the book.
Dragomans is rife with profit-seeking hucksters, and Prin doesn’t know whom to trust. This includes Wende. Though Prin initially rejects her advances, she persists, and Prin, in a moment of weakness, kisses her passionately at an afterparty. Though he does not commit adultery, he knows he has betrayed his wife. “Surely this wasn’t why God had told him to come to Dragomans,” he muses. “What kind of God would do that? No God.” Later, we are led to suspect that Wende seduced Prin for blackmail. But does that mean that her feelings were disingenuous? In keeping with our post-truth milieu, Boyagoda leaves us to decipher this for ourselves.
Boyagoda’s light satire gives way to a gripping, violent denouement in the Dragomans airport. Without giving too much away, as the opening lines predict, Prin does become a suicide bomber, but without losing his identity as a Christian. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, Prin speaks with a recently radicalized terrorist, Dawud, who grew up as a full-fledged American named Dave in an “anti-Muslim Muslim” household in Nashua, New Hampshire, “kuffar capital of the world.” After a few years of researching Islam and interacting with radical sheiks online, Dawud came to Dragomans to wage jihad.
Dawud’s story highlights the ease with which radicalization occurs in the age of the cloud. It matters little whether one grows up in Nashua or Riyadh—religion is no longer primarily tied to place and culture. In fact, Nashua might be more dangerous, as the spiritual vacuum of the late-modern West encourages purpose-seeking individuals to find solace in fanaticism—as many real-life examples have tragically demonstrated. Dawud’s background also reveals an underlying connection to Prin. Both men find it difficult to listen to God in the midst of the spiritual deserts of Nashua and suburban Toronto. The difference is that while Dawud cannot fathom that God speaks in such a desert, Prin strains to hear his voice in the midst of it.
Why does Prin’s Christianity lead him to search for meaning in the detritus of secularism, rather than flee from it? Because, as his mother reminds him, recalling a convent-school lesson, status naturae lapsae simul ac redemptae—we are fallen and redeemed at the same time. Put another way, by John Paul II, “the mystery of the redemption of the body takes root in the historical soil of human sinfulness.” What this means, in Boyagoda’s novel, is that while taking a stand against the evils of secularism may result from one’s Christian beliefs, it does not lie at the root of the faith. Contrary to appearances, Christianity and the culture war are circumstantial, not definitional, bedfellows.
In one of the novel’s most memorable, and hilarious, episodes, Prin and his father earn a hard-fought victory over an Australian duo in a father-son Pickleball tournament (Pickleball is a kind of full-court ping-pong popular in senior communities). To mock the Aussies, who have been hurling convenience-store insults at the Sri Lankans all game, the family decides to celebrate with a meal at Outback Steakhouse. The only problem is that it’s Good Friday, and Prin’s been fasting all day, per Catholic rules. But his parents, who are divorced, haven’t shared a meal together in years, and he feels that he would do an injustice to them, and the occasion, by declining to partake. Judging that “it was 3 o’clock on Good Friday, but it was already Easter Sunday, always,” he decides to “take up a cross made of charbroiled strip loins and accept a crispy crown of Bloomin Onion.” Immediately following he heads to the confessional. In this scene and many others, Prin emerges as a fumbling but well-meaning Catholic who knows that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter, which is better than believing the opposite. Sin does not have the final word; in one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith, it is necessary for salvation. It’s not a coincidence that a scandalous selfie sent by Wende ends up saving Prin’s life.
In the novel’s world, as in our own, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the high and low. On this count, one is tempted to call Original Prin a postmodern Catholic novel. Such a category seems impossible, until one recognizes that Christianity, too, conflates the sacred and profane. Christ declared the unclean clean, anointed the foot as well as the head, and his death rent the veil of the temple in two. This dynamic is most obvious in the Church of The Holy Seat, a pilgrimage site which Prin visits in Dragomans. According to legend, it is where the naked man in Mark’s gospel who fled the Garden of Gethsemane sat until his death, overcome with grief at his betrayal of Christ. Rival monastic orders both claim the site as their own, hawking pamphlets and cheap trinkets to pilgrims who enter. The “holy seat” itself, which the pilgrims revere, is a boulder with the imprint of the man’s buttocks. Ribald humor aside, Boyagoda is up to something. Even here, in this tourist trap where people must navigate the belligerent monks to kiss the ass of a betrayer, God is still present. As it does in every church, a red candle flickers next to the tabernacle, where the body of Christ rests, and here Prin feels God’s fullness, the “trilling chord” from “his heart to his mind.” The high exists in the midst of the low—nothing is insignificant.
Boyagoda’s polyphony of sacred and profane doesn’t always resonate. A gag with Prin’s teenage nephews and a gorgeous public-pool lifeguard feels ripped off from The Sandlot. A mock shooting at an American mall—the assailants use paintball guns instead of real ones—strikes an off-key chord. As a whole, though, Prin’s adventures are knee-slapping, and the humor works. The world is absurd, and laughter at times seems the only antidote to general despair.
Paul Elie wrote in 2012 that it was now possible “to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether.” Rather than lament this state of affairs, however, Elie saw it as a challenge that “place[d] the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure.” In his novel Boyagoda has most certainly situated Prin as such a believer. His frontier is our own—the internet-addled, flattened world to which we half-give our attention, which keeps our minds and hearts in a state of perpetual unrest. But, as St. Augustine made clear, it is only in our unrest that we come to know the giver of rest, and Boyoagoda’s novel is distinctly Catholic in its warm embrace of the absurdity of our modern restlessness. Christians have always considered themselves, while on earth, to be denizens of an absurd world, and therefore are called to live with foolish joy in the midst of the secular, the godless, the kuffar. Because, as Prin’s mother reminds him, we are fallen and redeemed at the same time.
Must modern Catholic fiction necessarily be a hilarious venture into the absurd? Perhaps not, but no other contemporary writer has so deftly situated a novel of belief in the here and now as Boyagoda has. He has planned a trilogy for Prin, with the second installment to take place in a Dante theme park in Indiana. Stay tuned.