January 2016

Mary Mann

fiction

This is Why I Came by Mary Rakow

Bernadette, the central character of Mary Rakow's This is Why I Came, hasn't been to church in thirty years. Losing faith can seem simple, even elegant -- in her memoir More Than Conquerors Megan Hustad writes about a boyfriend's mother who just shrugged off her religious upbringing, letting it "drop like a shawl as she swanned into cafes." Not so for Bernadette, who's angry and irritable, anxious about death. If there is no God, then what happens? But bad things have clearly happened, faith-shaking things -- so if there is a God, then what the fuck is he doing?

This conundrum finally drives Bernadette to go back to church, to confession, bringing a handmade book with her. Haunted by whatever drove her away from religion, she wrote this book as something of an exorcism -- for thirty years she's been tackling, tearing apart and rebuilding stories from the Bible. These stories make up the bulk of This is Why I Came, immersing Rakow's readers in Bernadette's vision of Biblical characters, from Adam through Jesus, as well as a deep dive into the mind of God himself.

The first thing we know about Bernadette's God is that he is male, or that at least he's assumed to be by Adam, who's the first to get an inkling of God's existence. "Adam the Maker," so she calls him, because he assumes he's made everything -- that is, until he meets Eve, who's exactly what he'd been dreaming of but was unable to make himself. The Bible begins, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," but in Bernadette's story God doesn't come in until the very end of the first chapter, when Adam the Maker "names the maker he cannot see but whose work he sees."

As the book goes on, God's personality takes shape. He has a stereotypical artist's temperament, quick to find flaws in his own work and easily enraged by this disappointment. By the time Noah's story comes along, "he came to hate what once was magnificent, and to hate himself for making it." As a painter paints over a canvas, so the floodwaters rise.

As if to justify the flood, Noah's story is followed by Abraham's. Unlike in the Bible, God is absent in this story, not giving any commands. We only hear Abraham's desire to assume his son's purity by killing him, and Isaac's horror as he realizes that the "hunger for innocence in an adult can be the most dangerous hunger." It's like something straight out of Twin Peaks. God's creations really can be monstrous.

But... who's made whom? What seemed clear at first becomes less so on a second reading. Adam the Maker names God, and only then does God begin to exist in the text. He can be as frustrating to man as man is to him. In one instance, Jonah tries to run away from God, tired of being "dragged around by God and his ever-increasing need to be loved." After their showdown -- the epic storm, Jonah swallowed by the fish, his false (in Bernadette's telling) apology -- God finally leaves Jonah alone, and Jonah in turn coins a term for himself: atheist.

We know why Jonah lost his faith, but not Bernadette -- and we don't know whether she'll get it back. But the reader starts to see a different kind of faith form, built on her revision of the testaments (particularly the Old, which is more vivid and startlingly rendered than the New). In Bernadette's Bible, man and God are both vulnerable to each other's disappointment, both culpable for their own mistakes. Whether God made man in his image or vice versa begins to seems moot. Either way, we're in the soup together.

This is Why I Came by Mary Rakow
Counterpoint
ISBN: 978-1619025752
204 pages