Searching for Intruders Revisited

By Beck, Ervin | Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Searching for Intruders Revisited


Beck, Ervin, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: As a novel-in-stories, Stephen Raleigh Byler's Searching for Intruders challenges interpretation because of its fragmented narrative, which obscures three overall patterns that give it coherence: the coming-of-age experience, the journey-quest archetype, and the literary genre of philosophical novel. The nature of the "searching" carried out by the protagonist Wilson Hues is clarified by the effects on him of three very different "intruders": Stephen Hawking, who poses the philosophical and moral dilemma that Wilson must resolve; the caballero, who offers Wilson a viable but rejected option; and Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrificial, healing alternative Wilson chooses to follow.

As its subtitle indicates, Stephen Raleigh Byler's Searching for Intruders: A Novel in Stories (Morrow, 2002) is a novel-in-stories, one of the most successful of the six or seven written thus far by Mennonite authors. The genre, as I have pointed out elsewhere, can be defined as

  a collection of short stories that are unified in ways that create a
  reading experience commonly expected from a conventional novel. That
  is, the stories offer an extended, if interrupted, prose narrative
  focusing on a central character who interacts with others in a
  complex, realistically depicted society and culture. The main
  character is gradually revealed to the reader, and/or undergoes
  personal development that sometimes even leads to self-understanding.
  (1)

Searching for Intruders consists of eleven major stories, each of which could stand alone as a discrete narrative. Each story is preceded by a separate cryptic narrative vignette of less than a page. These twenty-two segments are then divided into part I and part II, as many novels are. Most important, the eleven chapters are told in first-person by the same narrator, Wilson Hues, whose personal development progresses throughout the book. The vignettes are lyrical, thematic links for the stories, and even seem to establish their own, different narrative unit.

This essay reconsiders Byler's novel in light of the two major essays that have interpreted the book. Writing in The New York Times (Dec. 30, 2001) Dwight Garner reviewed the book in an essay titled, "The Beauty Queen and the Beast." Shortly thereafter Carroll Yoder presented a paper on the novel at the "Mennonite/s Writing" conference in 2002 that was later published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review (Oct. 2003) as "Searching for Intruders: The Story Behind the Novel."

While I share Gamer's admiration of the book, I disagree with his claims: that Byler has "appropriated" the voice of Raymond Carver; that Byler "tends to overload his stories with terrible events"; that the Stephen Hawking material in Idaho runs the book "off the rails"; that the ending in Chile is a "corny flamenco guitar riff"; and that the only way to rescue the book is to "carefully tear out everything after Page 132," i.e., part II, the second half of the book (where, in my judgment, the most important things happen). With criticisms like Garner's, how could The Times have declared Byler's work a "Notable Book" of 2001?

Carroll Yoder's analysis is much more perceptive in arguing that Searching for Intruders is a coming-of-age novel that upholds Mennonite values of "nonresistance and nonconformity" in being a "counter-cultural response to the dream of the typical American male." (2) Yet Yoder develops the coming-of-age motif in a sketchy manner. Yoder also has little regard for the Hawking material; and he ultimately judges the novel to be "increasingly predictable, repetitive and sentimental." (3)

In this essay, I will argue that the book is extremely complex, yet coherent. Its novelistic coherence can be clarified by answering the standard question of formalist criticism: "How is this work unified?" I will examine three patterns found in conventional novels that Searching for Intruders also follows: the archetypes of coming-of-age and journey quest, and the genre of the philosophical novel. …

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