In a recent essay, Marilynne Robinson described the work of a writer as the continual attempt to “make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said.” If we can take our cue from Ms. Robinson, John Donatich’s first novel, The Variations, attempts inroads into this terrain, but does not always succeed. And for this simple reason: with The Variations Donatich has attempted to stitch two books into one.
The first is the less compelling of the two. It deals centrally with Father Dominic, a member of that endangered species, the American-born, middle-aged Catholic priest, as he struggles to live the life of faith. At the outset of the novel, Dominic is the associate pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, a rundown parish in a rundown section of New Haven, Conn. Although a talented writer who earns a book deal on the strength of his written sermons, Dominic is an unsettled, anxious man, a frequent drinker and visitor of prostitutes. By turns pastorally sensitive to a young waif who seeks his help and yet tired of his aging parishioners, learned enough to quote Wittgenstein and yet given to fits of road rage that lead to his arrest, Dominic remains a difficult character to grasp.
All of these paradoxical traits certainly can coexist in a person, but in a fictional character they need to fit around some stable core, and the core of Dominic is inconsistently drawn. As a result he provides a rather weak gravitational pull for the minor characters who orbit around him, and I found myself relieved whenever Donatich allowed him to exit the stage.
Perhaps the difficulty in understanding Dominic comes from the fact that Donatich wants him to represent a question that many, myself included, feel quite poignantly: Is there any need for faith in our secular age? I could not agree more with Donatich that this topic is worthy of serious exploration, but much of the success of the exploration hinges on the extent to which the central character can evoke the same struggle in us.
The descriptions of Dominic’s struggle are not compelling. Donatich’s prose here is choppy, repetitive and stylistically overwrought. In the effort to describe spiritual drought, for example, Donatich piles descriptive sentences one atop another. This creates the impression that he lacks a firm grasp of the experience of faith slipping through one’s hands. With the challenge of conveying the struggle with faith unmet, the reader is left understanding neither Dominic nor why losing contact with the divine might move the heart. Without this tension to drive the novel, the story of Father Dominic’s departure from the priesthood lacks the cathartic mixure of feelings over something lost and something gained.
It is certainly possible that any priest may lose both his faith and his vocation, and to my mind Donatich’s questions press upon many today; but the first of the two books in The Variations maps little of that vast terrain we call the struggle to believe.
The same cannot be said, however, of Donatich’s second book. It tells of James, a young African-American pianist at an Ivy League conservatory, and his teacher, the aged and increasingly forgetful Signora Rosa. Together they rehearse Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” whose name is one source of the novel’s title. It is here that Donatich’s real voice and narrative skill emerge.
An example: Describing James practicing passages from Bach over and over, Donatich writes that he “corrects his posture in the way that Father Dominic advised their parish choir—‘Imagine that a string from the top of the sky was attached to your spine and was lifting you up higher and higher’—as if the discipline of good posture didn’t deliberately push itself up from the abdomen but was an involuntary response to a pulling from above. To live life less as a burden and more like a submission to the force that would lift you.” If Donatich’s writings about the spiritual life of Father Dominic showed precision like this, the novel would have been stronger by far.
In the essay mentioned earlier, Ms. Robinson describes her personal library, saying, “I love the writers of my thousand books.” She even loves “the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle.” It seems that this is what has happened in The Variations. Donatich has lost the struggle not because he is not a good writer; rather he has lost it because, as he said of himself in a recent interview, he is “somewhat like Dominic, a person for whom the spiritual impulse has outlived its day-to-day utility.”
A novel that attempts to depict the variations of the life of faith cannot succeed if it forgets that, as in classical music, variations are developments of the original aria. In the same way, it will remain difficult to write about variations on the life of faith if the conclusion has already been drawn that the original is outdated. It is difficult for any of us would-be writers—Donatich included—to tell an engaging story about a struggle in which we are no longer engaged.