Boyagoda and the Need for More Imaginatives

October 9, 2019


In a widely read essay from 2013, Canadian Catholic novelist Randy Boyagoda declared, “I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor.” For readers of this blog, these are probably fighting words. Bishop Barron himself is such an admirer of O’Connor that one of the two latest releases in his Pivotal Players series focuses on her. For so many of us, O’Connor’s sometimes gruesome depictions of a Christ-haunted world stick in our brains and souls as signposts to eternal truth. Boyagoda picks on more Pivotal Players and some other generally undisputed Christian literary masters too: “I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.”

After we take a few breaths and let our blood pressure return to normal, we need to consider Boyagoda’s provocative critique seriously. Even C.S. Lewis made room for one new book alongside three old ones. And for Christian readers these days, the problem is on the supply side, not the demand side. Boyagoda notes, “Most great contemporary writers don’t bother to engage the wholeness of experience for the great majority of readers.” The most popular novels for Catholic inspiration are now far removed both in time and tone from twenty-first century life. At least occasionally, a reader ought to be able to reach for something less unusual but no less edifying than the great classics Boyagoda is (unfortunately) sick of. Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness if there were new Catholic novels to grab off the newsstand at the airport? Boyagoda explains how he is trying to put his money where his mouth is in a recent interview with Doug Sikkema: “What I’m trying to do with my work, particularly with my latest novel, Original Prin, is write fiction where there is purchase, where you are reading about someone who’s pursuing a life that could, in fact, be yours, because it is a life lived in the chaotic, messy world of assorted extremities that pile up into life in the twenty-first century.” I decided to see whether Original Prin succeeded, and I was pleased to find the book in my suburban public library. I loved it. It is a hilarious, accessible, and morally profound novel for the postmodern soul, and it has been well reviewed by the secular press. It is long overdue Catholic art for our times, but also an airport newsstand page-turner.

Building on two previous novels and a biography of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Boyagoda published Original Prin in 2018. It is the first of a projected trilogy about a forty-year old Catholic husband and dad named Prin—a guy a lot like Randy Boyagoda. Prin is an academic, the son of divorced parents, and he is dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Lots of normal stuff. He happens to be of Sri Lankan ethnic heritage, which in the multicultural environment of Toronto is only one note in a much larger composition of his identity. As a forty-year-old Catholic husband and dad myself, Prin’s story speaks to my present reality deeply. His descriptions of disassembled Lego creations strewn all over the living room and chaotic family FaceTime calls fit my life perfectly; but so does his anxiety over being a good provider and getting domestic life right. “He’d tried. He’d tried very hard. He’d always tried very hard,” Boyagoda writes.

Facing cancer and its side effects, Prin is resolved to be a better man, and a man of better faith. His struggles are familiar in the secular age: agonizing over eating meat on Good Friday when he finds himself at an impromptu celebration; introducing an old girlfriend from his agnostic past to his pious wife; relating to his emotionally immoderate father and kindly Muslim stepfather; teaching aesthetically and religiously uninterested students; and eventually trying to discern whether the voice of God in his head is the real deal. The Catholic caricatures in his life enhance rather than detract from his faith: an eccentric, young Filipino confessor; a glad-handing college administrator; a self-sure lawyer brother-in-law; a horde of nephews with papal names; and an academic nun named Sister Contra Melanchthon. Boyagoda is an English professor himself, and he constructs a brilliant satire of the last days of academia as we have known it. Hilariously, Prin is an expert in the representation of seahorses in modern Canadian literature, and he is sent on an improbable mission to the Middle East as part of a plan to keep his institution afloat. There are Kafkaesque absurdities and genuine LOL moments reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. There are even echoes of the funnier parts of John Henry Newman’s Loss and Gain, a great Catholic novel for its time.

The spiritual framework of Original Prin is subversive of today’s norms without being ham-fistedly judgmental. While I was reading it, my mind wandered to a comparison with the eighteenth-century classic, Candide. Voltaire’s satire is partly a response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which sent Europe’s intellectual elite searching for the reason why God permits suffering. In Candide, the starving, runaway title character is asked, “Do you believe the Pope to be the Anti-Christ?” To which he replies, “I have not heard it, but whether he be, or whether he be not, I want bread.” Voltaire’s answer to suffering is that there has to be something more reasonable than God, the Church, and faith. While any mouths are going hungry, what’s the point of talking about the life of the spirit? What a common refrain in our own day. Original Prin is just the opposite. Prin represents a postliberal Catholic mentality that has come through the other side of the Enlightenment. When he finds himself physically unable to sin in certain ways, we’re told, “What Prin wanted, really, was to suffer, to struggle with not acting, not looking, not telling, not thinking, not imagining what he knew he shouldn’t.” He has a sharp mind and blessings most men could only dream of, but he really longs to have his willpower tested and receive redeeming grace. Be careful what you pray for. We see in Prin’s very funny but ordinary character a life animated by the reality of Christianity, with the various confusions, hijinks, and even terrors of life supporting rather than questioning God’s providence.

I haven’t given up hoping for a new Flannery O’Connor or J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’ll keep reading the old ones no matter what. An old-fashioned, exotic invitation to Catholicism may still be effective in our present generation. But I am delighted that a first-rate creative mind like Randy Boyagoda has given us more contemporary options. “We live in the here and now,” Boyagoda told Doug Sikkema, and we need an expression of Catholic imagination that is at home amid the Ikea furniture we sit on and the smartphones we stare at. Original Prin shows us how it can be done.