Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Slow Reveal

In total, I've read Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz three times. Well, that's not entirely accurate. My first reading happened in high school, and it fell apart when the character I thought was the protagonist unexpectedly took an arrow right between the eyes. That this bumbling yet likeable monastic candidate struggling to eke out his life in a radiation-scorched wilderness could die completely threw me. What in the world was Miller thinking? I had no idea and quit.

My second attempt occurred during college when Canticle showed up on the syllabus for one of my Lit classes. Unfortunately, the professor who assigned it had a gift for making even the best books dull. While I finished Canticle, I still didn't come any closer to grasping it. Miller ends every section by killing a decent character in a terrible way and then leaping forward hundreds of years. To my way of thinking, such abrupt shifts brought the plot to a grinding halt.

The third time I picked up Canticle came last week, at the urging of a friend who also politely lent me a copy. And this time something was different. Perhaps it had to do with my more mature (read "older and grayer") perspective. Perhaps familiarity with its structure helped me digest Miller's themes. Whatever the case, I slowly began to grasp what he was trying to do. He wasn't primarily interested in dealing with characters; he was interested in civilizations, the ideas that lead to their flourishing and those that contributed to their demise.

I'll wager that most of us would like for well-written books to reveal the treasures to us from the get-go. I know I often do. But sometimes authors like to layer subtlety upon subtlety and go for the slow reveal. The end result is much like a slice of striated sandstone: You discover something new no matter how long you keep digging. With its countless biblical allusions, references to Catholic liturgy and nods to obscure mythology, Canticle certainly fits that bill. This time around, I finally made it through the topsoil, and I'm sure there's quite a lot waiting farther down.

(Hat Tip: B. Nagel; Picture: CC 2006 by Ozyman)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I need to read it again. It makes a big difference with some books. Your age, I mean.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s probably a good twenty—maybe as long as thirty—years since I read this book although I still have my copy. I didn’t have any problems finishing it but I’m sure that’s because a lot didn’t go in. I do get a feeling that I was also a bit let down by the jumps in history. I own a lot of books like that where I know I’ve read them but can recall next to nothing about them. Maybe I’ll get round to it again some day when all the world’s electronics get fried and all I’ve got left to do is read my old paperbacks and wait for the end to come.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Such a great book. "He groped for a sharp reply, found it, swallowed his words." I may be mis-quoting slightly, but that is one of those lines that will stay with me forever. Too often debate is about either winning or loosing; Miller was the first author I read to really glamorize the idea that there might be a humane and humble way of arguing, rather than seeking to score every point possible.

I also think you aren't giving his characters enough credit. Yeah, their lives and discoveries don't precisely place them as ubermenchs who are masters of their own destiny. Nor do they get the traditional Hollywood Formula or Heroe's Quest narratives. But the incompletion of their lives makes the book poignant on a human level.

I almost want to compare his characters to those of The Illiad. So many deaths in Homer involve a depiction of the potential future that is being cut off. That sense of incompletion only draws attention to the sheer fact of death, in a way that heroic or narratively-required deaths can't.

Given that Walter Miller's conversion to Catholicism started when he blew up the abbey of Monte Casino, fragility and destructibility are two major themes in his works. As is the fact that the ability to destroy someone does not equate to the ability to erase their impact.

Loren Eaton said...


It certainly has with me regarding quite a few titles.

Loren Eaton said...


I think it's worth another go. There's lots of depth in it.

Loren Eaton said...


I remember reading that exact phrase! It's somewhere in the second section.

I also think you aren't giving his characters enough credit.

No doubt I'm missing quite a lot in the book, I admit it. I guess that means I need another read!