Earlier this month, Phil Klay’s 2020 novel Missionaries was published in paperback. The book was selected by former President Barack Obama last December as one of his “favorite books of 2020And was named one of the “10 Best Books of 2020” by the Wall Street Journal. Not bad for a first novel, right? And he’s not even 40, so we love him but we hate him a bit for that too.
Klay is a former US Marine Corps officer who served in the Second Iraq War. He is also what New York Catholics call “a Regis man,” meaning he graduated from Regis University in Denver, Colo. (So many angry letters to the editor are typed right now. ) Klay won the National Book Award for Fiction for his 2014 short story collection, Redeployment, and was the 2018 recipient of the George W. Hunt, SJ Award, co-sponsored by The Catholic Chapel & Center at Yale University and America Media. He currently teaches in the MFA writing program at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
“For a number of characters from Missionaries, their encounters with violence function as a kind of baptism that leaves another kind of indelible mark on their souls.
In his review of Missionaries for America, Zac Davis notes that the book forces the reader to ask, “What happens to a world, a nation, a society constantly engaged in an eternal war?” Klay, he writes, “is part of a chorus of talented veteran writers who are helping unravel decades of almost collective indifference to military action around the world. He is also part of a new generation of writers who are putting an end to exaggerated claims about the death of modern Catholic fiction.
âTo say that all violence and war are linked is not just a foreign policy statement, it is a moral statement,â Davis writes. âThe work of literature is the same as that of religion in this area: to remind us that we are all keepers of our brothers, and to show what happens when we fail. For a number of characters from Missionaries, their encounters with violence function as a kind of baptism that leaves another kind of indelible mark on their souls. And Klay, Davis notes, seems to draw from two sources in his meditations on violence:
God and violence intertwine in the novel in a way that only a writer worthy of claiming a Catholic imagination could accomplish. A staple of the Catholic literary tradition, from St. Paul’s description of baptism as dead to bloody moments of grace by Flannery O’Connor, is that conversion is an act of violence. We are only just beginning to understand the cultural violence that Christian missionaries, sometimes armed only with a Roman missal and devoid of any modern sense of inculturation, inflicted on indigenous peoples around the world. It is unclear whether Klay’s military service or all the time he spent before a bloodied and crucified God further contributed to his understanding of violence.
In Klay’s speech at the 2018 Hunt Prize reception, he explained the connection between the violence of the world around us and the life of faith. âPaul tells us ‘the Kingdom of God is not in words, but in power.’ And, sometimes I think I can feel that power around me. Catholicism is not, or should not be, a religion of strength. No hard mechanical rules, but stories, paradoxes and enigmatic parables, âhe wrote:
It is an invitation to mystery, not to mastery, to communion, not to control. It is a religion which corresponds to what I know of reality, which helps me to live honestly, and which helps me to put aside my dreams of a less atavistic world in which men follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, does not come from men, but from machines. Control fantasies are fantasies of domination over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.
Klay also sat down in 2015 for an interview with Kevin Spinale, SJ (okay, that was by email), to chat Redeployment, his collection of short stories. One of the many convincing answers Klay gives in the interview is when Spinale asks him about the connection between being a soldier and being a writer.
Klay spoke about the need for every veteran to find someone or a way to communicate their war experience. âSin is a lonely thing, a worm wrapped around the soul, protecting it from love, joy, fellowship with men and with God,â he told Spinale. “The feeling that I am alone, that no one can hear me, no one can understand, that no one responds to my cries – this is a disease on which, to borrow from Bernanos,” the vast tide of love divine, this sea of ââlife, the roaring flame that gave birth to all things, passes in vain.
Phil Klay: âControl fantasies are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.
This need for communication, however, can be hampered by a variety of factors. âThere is a kind of mysticism in the experience of war that soldiers and civilians often adhere to. There is a lot of political weight on how the experience is to be interpreted and expectations about what that experience is meant to mean. Sometimes it is painful to argue, âwrites Klay. “And often there is a reluctance among veterans to face trial, which goes hand in hand with a civilian reluctance to accept complicity in war.”
We expect veterans to feel the brunt of their actions in times of war. But why do we never expect civilians to accept our own responsibility in our eternal wars?
In his review of Missionaries, Davis also commented that âKlay’s work can be seen as a companion novel to Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’, also published last year.â Why? Because Pope Francis has expressed concern about the same themes that come up in Missionaries. “[W]With increased globalization, what might appear to be an immediate or practical solution for one part of the world sets off a chain of violent and often latent effects that end up harming the entire planet and pave the way for new and worse wars in the world. ‘future’, Francis wrote, resulting in a “piecemeal world war.”
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Other columns from the Catholic Book Club:
Who is the next great Catholic novelist? Is this Sally Rooney?
Jonathan Franzen writes the American Middlemarch
James T. Keane