Wrestling with Angels: The (Im)possibility of Joy in the Fiction of Frederick Buechner
Dewey, Joseph, Hollins Critic
Because I have seen God, face to face, and yet my life has been spared. --Jacob, Book of Genesis I am light as a feather, I am happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
Happening upon Frederick Buechner's fictions in these latter days of the twentieth century is rather like coming upon a herd of unicorns in a busy city park, there in plain sight, something marvelous yet oddly ignored. Free-ranging about the canon of Buechner's fictions is to wonder inevitably why, given such significant fiction, such a prodigious output, Buechner has managed for so long to stay a minority enthusiasm in an inflationary age when the slenderest textual event--the curious placement of a comma, for instance--can generate casebooks and sustain dissertations. Clearly, we are uneasy over Buechner's work--he violates so many of the presumptions of contemporary fiction. His is agenda fiction, temple rhetoric from an ordained minister. More egregious, in an age that relishes the publishing "event," Buechner is massively productive, a writer who takes seriously the notion that a writer is supposed to write. And, perhaps most distressing for the cannibal gamesters of literary exegesis, Buechner's fictions do not encourage cool analytical de/reconstructions. They are not textes at all--rather, they are wholly approachable exercises in storytelling with the heft and feel of the immediate and with a Dickensian relish for striking character and absorbing plot. But what most estranges us from Buechner's fictions oddly is their joy. Buechner's characters, rare among late twentieth century creations, reclaim what has always been the especial province of characters in parables (and Christmas stories): the trick of converting difficult experience not into insight--that is the dreary alchemy of so much contemporary fiction--but rather into joy. It is that celebration, the sheer audacity of the obligation of joy, that has distinguished Buechner's fiction and that, curiously, has all but banished it from the scope of academic analysis.
It may be helpful to consider Ebenezer Scrooge. After all, Buechner's fictions reconfigure the elements of the familiar Dickens Christmas narrative--death-haunted, morally-challenged creatures of the immediate wrestle with potent paranormal phenomena that intrude without warning into their crabbed immediate to oversee the significant upheaval that leads ultimately to (un)earned spiritual reformation. Of course, we must be careful. Despite an acknowledged fondness for Dickens, Buechner, as minister, might resist as model the reclamation drama of Scrooge--after all, Scrooge is visited by ghosts, not angels; his reformation happens without the Christian rituals of examination and preparation--indeed, he is sleeping the whole time; his reclamation ignites no deep love for anything divine but turns him rather to the business of loving humanity--horizontal, rather than vertical movement. But we can recognize the Scrooge narrative in Buechner's long fascination with the Jacob figure from Genesis: another imperfect, unpromising figure, a conniving sensualist unconvinced of the God-assertion, a calculating materialist who comes to wrestle with paranormal phenomena of his own--the faceless stranger/angel along the banks of the Jabbok--before accepting the splendor of his designation as chosen, affirms the principle of verticality. Both narratives move with convincing grace beyond the puny pull of human muscle, to a world of dreams, visions, and mysterious visitors, to a world where the shabbiest human conduct is never the last word. And both offer what Buechner's fictions have long tendered, an offer that, given the marginalization of his work, we apparently would rather do without: the heavy responsibility of joy.
How, then, are we to approach Buechner's fictions, a shelf of Scrooges and Jacobs, of characters who make their way to joy in the harrowing environment of the twentieth century, which here drops its convincing pretense of routine horror and tedious banality to reveal itself for what it has been since Genesis: creation. …