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Tiny Adventures to Please Our Dirty Minds: A review of Sophia by Michael Bible

By Cal Revely-Calder.

Sophia by Michael Bible

Michael Bible, Sophia: a novel (Melville House, 2015)

Bound to a flock in the American South, the Right Reverend Alvis T. Maloney is not among the more stainless of God’s preachers:

I’m the lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behavior with female parishioners. I want to die for the King of Kings but can’t quite get it right. I long to lounge with Him in that upper room but I’m losing the desire. I counsel Tuesday, who I’m in love with, when her mind goes wrong. She wears a single dreadlock in her hair. In the confessional I undo my clerical collar and fire up a spliff.

He sins like his soul depends on it, and ministers to a town of holy fools. The damned and the saved, queuing up for another hit, another drink, lapsing into oblivion between short paragraphs of rapid-fire prose.

Sophia is the newest of what American author Michael Bible calls his “loose triptych of short novels” featuring some version of Maloney; it drifts along in bursts of staccato life, as unpredictable and odd as its protagonists. Maloney’s best friend Eli hangs around on the Reverend’s boat, or by his barstool, rarely with much to say for himself, but receiving a steady flow of second-person address: “It’s OK that you’re going mad, you say, Eli. But can you stop doing it so close to me?” The lunacy is endemic: as the chapters wander by, other characters stumble across the scene like solar vagrants, either shooting up veins or, in one case, an entire neighbourhood; but even episodes of carnage have a slyness and charm, and the sporadic fistfights feel like the stuff of a graphic novel, all comic Technicolor:

There are mortars flying from the windows and Snowball is dropping bombs from the balloon. Fire at will. Finger is pinned down behind an old sharecropper’s cabin. I ride Forever through the gate and Nono and the Malchows flank right. There, in the top-floor window is Dick Dickerson with his robe open and his privates flapping in the night. I fire off three rounds but he vanishes behind the velvet curtains. Here come the bullies out the door, Eli, and I put some rubber bullets along their chests. One gets a throwing star off and it whizzes by my face so close I feel the breeze.

In between the action, there are interludes mainly stitched together by smokes and drinks and drugs and sex, and other irreverent pleasures. As Eli suggests, “You need to go to church, Maloney.” (“I am church, I say.”) But despite his unorthodox ministry, he gets something out of all this devotion: the Holy Ghost comes down to him again and again, in the form of a woman, like a longed-for succubus. Often her appearances begin with sudden hushed present-tenses, as if the prose itself were losing its breath in the moment of inspiration: “The Holy Ghost is a white-hot angel as she rides me”; “The Holy Ghost sits on my face”; exorbitantly, “The Holy Ghost blows me on the sun.” Whether these are dreams or visions, Maloney tells all, with something like piousness; but she never speaks to us, never lets on whether she was called, or descended like grace. The third person of the Trinity: a big pussycat, or a real sex kitten?

Everything in Sophia plays it coy like this, amongst the pieties and the blasphemies, the different sorts of loving and lustful truth; its style is never exclamatory, but keeps a straight face no matter what the expression. Some of the novel’s best lines have an absolute poise; they slink forward, longing to be touched and turned, to be scanned as if they were poetry which accidentally turned up without the line-endings. There’s beauty in these moments, which often flourish within a carefully-paced rhythmic texture, scruffy and unpolished when needed, to let the most smoothly elegant parts radiate more clearly:

I dream of this city where there are no firemen because the fires put themselves out. Where there are no ambulances because all the people heal themselves. Where there is no illness of the mind. There are only longings in this city. Longings to be back where the old world was broken. Where sin surrounds everything.

The first sentence is baggy, splaying itself over the hinge of “because”; the second line, feeling its way into a pattern, is the same. The third cuts itself down, stress ambivalently stretched across the mouthful of “where there is”, but it finds its gear with “illness of the mind”, which sweeps adeptly across the next sentence and blossoms out again through the measured, sensual, sad length of the one that follows. And, to end the sequence, a truncated coda: the emphasis fired into “sin”, then the stressless tail of “everything” running weakly away, as if stained, and fading. The rhythmic arc traces a poetics of depravity.

In moments like these, Bible’s writing has verve, a real swing and control. Here, as elsewhere – “there is sand in my toes from the beaches of Babylon”; “we howl at the moon and say wild toasts and confess sins” – that rhythmic agility plays with the materials of theology, of the Scholastics and their systems, finding something feral under the stuff of old devotion. It’s hard to say which authors can be heard in the air at any one time, but there are a number of echoes ebbing in and out: bursts of punchy eloquence (and narcotic saturation) ring of Hunter S. Thompson, especially Screwjack or his pithiest letters; alternatively, the poise of the comedy, and the sincerity which is never far away, feel like Douglas Woolf’s tender, wry short-stories. Bible has talked of loving David Markson, and the shorter Beckett novels; their feel for diminution, for phrasing something perfectly in a limited space, is here in Sophia as well. But this novel likes to show a vicious love for its Great American Predecessors; refracted through Maloney’s hazy attention, and surrounded by hazier others, the narrative doesn’t care much for being impersonal, but you can trace the lineaments of a carelessly-disguised glee at starting a knife-fight in the hall of fame:

Darling is on the deck nude, trying to rid her bikini line. She is a kind, petite brunette. Her eyes are the color of Starry Night, her long brown legs won’t quit. She’s had no college education but won’t stop reading everything she can. This summer she took down the big Russian novels and the French poets. Finnegans Wake in two weeks. I think I’ve almost figured all this out, she says. Joyce is overwrought. Faulkner is sappy. Nabokov, a confusing bore. Hemingway, a closet homo. Fitzgerald, don’t get me started.

So says Darling, waitress at the Starlight, here “on the deck nude, trying to rid her bikini line”; uneducated, but “won’t stop reading everything she can”. The point being: how else do the supposed literati confect their grand opinions? (Divine revelation?) The seed of all good satire is a truth you want to wrestle: the naked waitress isn’t far from the mark. That Hemingway line is old for a reason, and even Nabokov fans would concede a little occasional nod. In these moments, Sophia is more cunning than it looks: several of its cleverest moments might be miniature exegeses upon a theological crux – label this one “on reverence”, and go on compiling a heretic catechism.

Michael Bible

But details are scattered about to keep our eyes on the here and now, as if we sober up with Maloney, are jerked from a haze. There is a plot, roughly, though it hardly constitutes the novel’s lifeblood, which consists more of a stylistic trip than a narrative arc; as often with Beckett and Markson, plot feels less like something lacked than something beside the point. Here, there are a number of unrelated events – Eli’s chess career, the kidnapping of him and Tuesday, her disappearance to India – until, eventually, nature reaps what God’s minister sowed, and Maloney and Darling are forced out of town. Some of the sights they see heading north bring Sophia full circle, like Manhattan’s Freedom Tower, which appeared earlier in dreams and at last in reality; in Maloney’s mind, it was the “new phallic Freedom Tower, a sweet erection up to heaven”, making “old Liberty blush”. It’s a recurrent motif: the body longing to be raised to heaven, whether that’s the great orthodox Paradise or something a little more skewed. Throughout the narrative, tales of martyrdom are interspersed, though it’s difficult to keep track of why these visions flicker into life when they do; Sophia’s little kicks owe everything to the terse and woozy cuts between paragraphs, but sometimes it’s unclear how Maloney’s attention can be followed at all. (Drunks aren’t always interesting to those who’ve sobered up.) The saints file past in a litany of gore, detailing how they were variously tortured, mutilated, and duly returned to God. Some of the scenes are familiar enough, and in Maloney’s dispassionate drawl they gain the ring of flat horror that was always those stories’ intent:

St. Sebastian is tied to a tree and archers shoot him full of arrows. He is buried, rises from the dead, heals a woman. Then is beaten to death by an emperor and left in a ditch.

Many require a little more attention: you mightn’t spot, for instance, that “St Oscar” is Oscar Romero, San Romero in the Americas but uncanonised as yet. And sometimes they seem to revel in blood, a focus which sinks towards the barely half-virtuous. (Whether it’s the novella’s sin, or Maloney’s… hard to say. At times like this, readers have to behave like confessionals, and reserve judgement in their discomfort.) “St. Maria is eleven and fights a farmhand from raping her, saying it is a mortal sin. He stabs her and she is operated upon without anesthesia.” A pretty thought for a minister’s head. These tales might be true, and tinder for devotion, but then they’re also like the wicked dreams that Maloney calls “tiny adventures to please our dirty minds”; as if drunk on blood, or wine, the Reverend lets his words and thoughts drift troublingly free.

This happens frequently, as Sophia charts the divagations – often medicated – of his mind, and Bible is skilled at slowly unsteadying the gaze of this small novel, intoxicating its style; the writing’s breath might smell of honey, or of vodka:

The days are shorter and the Confederate daughters weep under men on stone horses. A hurricane named Honey is swirling off the gulf. When you were gone, Eli, I smashed all my ships in a bottle. Out there above the cotton are dead stars whose light we still see.

At the root of all sin is the inattention of a human heart; distracted from God by everything more attractive, the look that once ran straight up to Heaven now crumples and folds around the forms of the human world. Aspects of this sinfulness are everywhere in Sophia, suffusing the prose; sentences are laced with a love of self which they sometimes bare and sometimes conceal. In the gaps between each one above, there are brief worlds of re-orientation, as the Reverend tries to remember how to speak with the right kind of care. The most dangerous pride is to love your own speech; Bible is brilliant at capturing the comic frailty of a religious persona, trying to find directions and targets for an excess of feeling. Maloney’s failure is an inability to give up caritas, like other people might give up coke, and he’s never short of a preacher’s well-turned line. Ham, a janitor, picks him up when too drunk to stand, and reminds him gently that he once said, “There is a fine line between suffering and sorrow”; by contrast, Darling’s father asks him, “Why can’t you be normal?”, receives “Isn’t that the question we’re all asking ourselves”, so promptly punches him in the throat. These self-puncturing lines are comedy in the fullest sense, both laughable and true, and they smudge the distinction between piety and pieties – which is, viewed one way, the original smudging of human attention that kindled self-love and sin. But the Reverend Maloney is incorrigible; and even with Tuesday on one side, Darling on the other, and the Holy Ghost somewhere on top, he goes on spreading wisdom – his deviant sophia – forever passing guidance onto his largely hopeless flock:

Asking me for forgiveness? And what are these people’s great sins? Men forget to put the toilet seat down. Women use up all the hot water. All domestic hell breaks loose and they’re pounding my door. Keep a clean heart, I tell them. Whatever that means.


Cal Revely-Calder

Cal Revely-Calder works and writes in Cambridge. He co-edits the experimental poetry/prose magazine Charlatan Works, and is a contributing editor at the Cambridge Humanities Review.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016.