Reviewed by James Cain
What can a reader make of a novel? Is it good, bad, or evil? Is it comic, funny, or ridiculous? Maybe it’s boring, engaging, or engrossing? From a book’s first sentence, adjectives begin to come to mind. Some novels, though, seem like Sam Gamgee’s Elves: “A bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak. It don’t seem to matter what I think about them.” And some arouse feelings not unlike Frodo’s in the house of Tom Bombadil, when the sight of Goldberry moves his heart “with a joy that he did not understand.”
Leif Enger’s novels—including his third and latest, Virgil Wander—number among these last enigmas. His novels suggest there could be more to the world, and to its people, than we can see. Both his narrators and the stories they find themselves in point to another level of reality existing beyond this one, sometimes barely visible at the edges, occasionally bursting into sight in the form of bonafide miracles. These miracles, though, are not of the greeting-card variety. Reuben Land, the young narrator of Peace Like a River, says a miracle is “like the swing of a sword.” Enger’s characters occupy worlds alive with this kind of miracle, if only they will have eyes to see. In fact, they often journey toward a different way of seeing, seeing with what Philip Yancey called grace-healed eyes.
Virgil Wander begins with this journey, or with the need for it. Virgil admits in the first paragraph that he “failed to notice” the unraveling of his life, that “the obvious really isn’t so” to him, that his seeing wanted “reorganizing.” Then again, he isn’t the most reliable narrator. Virgil’s journey begins as he and his car make “a long, lovely, some might say cinematic arc” into Lake Superior. After this harrowing brush with death, Virgil returns to life a new man, having forgotten his former self, a person he calls “the previous tenant,” along with all his adjectives. He becomes, in his own words, a person “damaged,” “reduced,” “abridged.”
Virgil’s task mirrors that of Aeneas: He must rebuild his life in a now-strange place among now-strange people. He seems to have little enough to work with, as he emerges from the water of Lake Superior. A divorced orphan, he runs a dilapidated movie house called The Empress, showing first-run films (and some others) to the dwindling people of Greenstone, a decaying former mining town on Lake Superior. Following his accident, Virgil reenters his life, experiencing everything and everyone as if for the first time. He experiences a literal “change of mind” ( a metanoia, you might say) thanks in part to the appearance of Rune Eliassen, a Norwegian widower trying to learn the fate of the son he never knew he had.
In Peace Like a River, Enger put his most confident words about miracles in the mouths of children. As narrator Reuben observes the potential violence of miracles, his younger sister, Swede, asserts that:
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave—now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.
Enger implicates readers with that epithet, “good citizens.” We delight in the distant and saccharine miracles on the Hallmark Channel, while resisting the immanence and severe mercy of great miracles. Adults, after all, have put to sleep the ready believism of childhood in favor of the heady drug of realism. But what we consider realism is actually a deep and damaging skepticism that leads to two possible outcomes. We over-elevate the miraculous, moving it from the realm of seldom to never. Miracles are an endangered species, we tell ourselves (if they aren’t unicorns), so we stop looking for them. Or else we demean miracles, making one of any surprising event—our battered car starting on a cold morning, or receiving exactly what we wanted (and asked for) at Christmas.
Stories like Enger’s, though, give us an opportunity to indulge that dormant belief in miracles. We do not primarily watch for grand miracles in Enger’s novels. Rather, we’re meant to see as miraculous that which blesses the characters with a dense, rich grace. These events leave us with an inkling that the visible world is populated by more than we may see—and in Virgil Wander, that not all of it is beneficent. Enger’s novels feel familiar—even if you have not been to Greenstone, it looks a lot like your hometown. But that feeling of familiarity is tinged with uncertainty about what lies beyond your ken. Consequently, when something more actually breaks through, the response is assured and poignant, a mingling of sorrow and joy that is difficult to describe.
C.S. Lewis, borrowing a term from the Lutheran theologian Rudolph Otto, called this feeling a reaction to the numinous. He used the term to describe what arouses a certain response from us, an encounter with a Holy Other, the mysterium tremendum. Lewis described the numinous in The Problem of Pain:
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: You would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: But the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.
The feeling that the numinous excites runs deeper and richer than everyday surprise; these days even Lewis’ awe seems insufficient as a descriptor. I join with the Pevensies in that feeling when they first hear of the Great Lion (not safe, but good), and Frodo when he learns of the Ring’s rich history and his own doom. But sometimes a similar response in myself arises when a fiction’s characters or events suggest something more that lies “beyond the walls of the world.” This quality elevates The Lord of the Rings above every subsequent tale, no matter how elaborately the world has been constructed. I experience it when Frodo meets Goldberry in the house of Tom Bombadil and he feels “his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand”; but also in Lothlorien, when Aragorn descends Cerin Amroth “and [he] came there never again as living man”; and again near the end, when the minstrel rises to sing on the Field of Cormallen:
And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. (Return of the King, 232)
This passage vividly represents Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe, that phenomenon of fairy-stories and great tales that ably mingle sorrow and joy, that go “on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it” (The Two Towers, 321). Such an event, Tolkien writes in On Fairy-Stories, is “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” and gives the reader“a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Enger might resist categorizing Virgil Wander as a fairy-story of the kind Tolkien describes. After all, Virgil’s “sudden and miraculous grace” comes at the beginning, with his resurrection. But as with the real evangelium, or good news, that grace unfolds over the course of Virgil’s story—and beyond. But some events push at the edges of our credulity. Some are undoubtedly good, a continued outpouring of grace on the characters and community. Rune’s kites, for example, are of outlandish shape and design. Virgil observes that flying one “was like entering a whirlwind where ambition and disappointment are flung off, yet you remain calm in its eye” (55). In fact, nearly everyone who flies a kite has a similar response. One, a ne’er-do-well fisherman doing worse than usual, after taking the string of a kite, experiences a healing of sorts: he relaxes, stops trembling, talks easily, and even begins to laugh out loud. These flights provide the flyer, in Virgil’s words, a singular effect—an “entrance into something else . . . a dream-like fragility.” The kite-flyers might have one hand on an almost-drawn curtain, a breeze blowing it back every now and then (just a bit) to reveal the wonder on the fringes of the seen world.
But not everyone enjoys this effect. Adam Leer, scion of Greenstone’s founder and the town’s resident elite, lives under a cloud of ill will and uncertainty. His experience of kite-flying is decidedly different, more fight than dance, so much so that we’re left to wonder why this should be so. And while Enger’s first two novels reserve expressions of the supernatural for those on the side of the angels, sinister forces appear to be at work in and around Greenstone. Ultimately, Virgil Wander contemplates whether the grace of Virgil’s renaissance and Rune’s abilities as “restless mender and fixer of trifles” will be enough to counter those forces.
Virgil Wander invites its reader to take another look at the trifling, the bland, the everyday, and open an eye to the miraculous. After all, as Rune tells Virgil, “just because a thing was poetry didn’t mean it never happened in the actual world, or that it couldn’t happen still.”
James Cain is a senior editor for FORMA Journal. He teaches and writes from Georgia.
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