Kind of continuing here with the theme of “expectations” that we bring to books … I’ve blogged recently about a new book I loved by an author I love, a book I didn’t expect to like but liked very much, and now … a book by an author I used to love, which disappointed me every bit as much as I expected it to. This is going to be not so much a review of Angel Fire as a rant about Why I’m So Over Andrew Greeley.
I started reading Greeley’s novels, beginning with Patience of a Saint, back in the late 80s, and for awhile I was a huge fan. His books — racy novels with racy covers, given that the author was a Catholic priest — did a lot for me when I was first exposed to them, particularly in the areas of understanding grace, appreciating the concept of God as a passionate lover, and opening my mind to feminine images of God.
Somewhere along the way, though, I fell out of love with Andrew Greeley. I thought it might be that his writing has actually gone downhill and gotten lazier, but Angel Fire changed my mind. I haven’t read a Greeley novel in years, but I decided to try this since an online book club I usually participate in was reading it. Worth another try, I thought. Angel Fire, which tells the story of Nobel Prize winner Sean Desmond and his encounter with an alien life form who may just be an angel, was written in the late 80’s, the same era as Patience of a Saint. After reading it, I’ve concluded Greeley’s writing didn’t go downhill in the 90’s and 00’s … it was just as bad back in the 80’s. When his ideas were fresh and new, the writing didn’t matter as much to me. But his style is so cliche-driven that for me, prolonged exposure makes it intolerable.
I still like his ideas, and the way he plays around with traditional Christian thought, while his “iconoclastic” ideas often have some solid theology underlying them. In this book, I think the concept of angels as playful, even sexual beings, is an interesting challenge for any reader with very traditional pictures of angels. It might broaden a reader’s perception of what angels could be. And it could be kind of a fun romp, if a reader wasn’t already sick to death of Greeley’s cliches.
(This is where the rant starts). I recognize that Greeley is a popular, commercial novelist, with no pretensions to serious literary acclaim, but he is such a lazy writer even for genre fiction that he drives me crazy. His characters, particularly, are stock characters, reshuffled and dealt out for every new book. Desmond in this book is a typical Greeley hero — stagey Irish, attractive but doesn’t realize he’s attractive, brilliant but persecuted by those who are jealous of his brilliance (don’t get me started on Greeley’s persecution complex and how it plays out through almost every one of his heroes), unlucky in love but only because he’s been afraid to find the “right” woman, able to be a tender, passionate, protective yet humble lover as soon as he meets that right woman.
And the women!!! Greeley thinks of himself as very pro-woman, and a visionary in promoting images of the divine feminine, but in fact his views of women are incredibly narrow and patronizing. Any “good” woman, including the angel Gabrielle in this book, is always beautiful, large-breasted with a fine posterier, nurturing, maternal, well dressed with flawless and expensive tastes, yet filled with a core of self-doubt and even self-loathing that leads her to burst into tears at inopportune moments, which can only be healed by the right man. “Bad” women in Greeley’s writing are invariably thin, flat-chested, whiny and unattractive. The concept that a thin woman wearing an A-cup could be a manifestation of the Divine Feminine would be anathema in a Greeley book. His characters are not even remotely real people with real human complexities: they are puppets on sticks to be moved around to the appropriate places to demonstrate the typical Greeley concepts.
There are always standard villains — the media is bad, the Catholic Church is good at a micro level but evil at a macro level (nuns are always evil too), socialists and anyone involved with liberation theology are evil, most academics are evil. Teenage girls are always good and, like Greeley’s Irish and Irish-Americans, speak in the most unbelievable and completely identical cliches, indistinguishable from one another.
The narrative voice is so cliche-ridden it’s unbelievable. Every single character who has ever sat in Blackie Ryan’s study has observed his medieval Madonna and Child icon — that’s OK, I guess — and every single one has mentally used the word “saucy” to describe it. Really? Everyone thinks of that word when they see that icon? In this novel alone, three different characters at different times are described as sighing in a way that suggests an asthma attack, and at least two out of the three times we are reminded that this sighing is a typically Irish characteristic — and don’t worry if you missed that, because different characters will sigh that way in every book (as will some of the same characters — Blackie Ryan seems incapable of drawing a breath without authorial comment) and other, different characters, will notice it and mentally remark on it in the exact same words.
I love Greeley’s underlying themes — grace, love, sexuality as an expression of grace and love, feminine images of God — except for the underlying theme of A Good Man Is Always Persecuted by Those Who Are Really Just Jealous of Him, which gets old very very quickly. The language, the characterization (or lack thereof), and the plots he uses to explore those themes, are so tired and lazy that I can no longer stand to read them. All Angel Fire did was irritate me by reminding me how very, very over Andrew Greeley I am.