There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it—challenges with which any religion, however “primitive,” which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope. –Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System”
Chaos, or unintelligible, un-interpretable events, says anthropologist Clifford Geertz, assails humankind from three directions: When one’s analytic capacities fail, when one’s endurance shrivels, and when one’s moral insight is defective or lacking. Is life comprehensible? Geertz says that religion seeks to make it so through its various orientating systems. In his new novel, Forest Life, Shane Crash faces these issues square in the face, and questions the role of religion in making the world intelligible. Pain, suffering, chaos, religion, coping mechanisms, human relationships: Crash weaves these themes together effortlessly. The setting is simple enough. A young man, reeling in the wake of a tragic accident, moves to the fringes of rural America to deal with his ever-increasing despair. He works to make sense of these events, but finds that they are inexplicable. Chaos threatens him from all directions.
Forest Life is an angst-ridden meditation on human pain and suffering. It is a story about hurt and despair, gut-wrenching emotional-psychological sadness, and human phantoms flitting in and out of the margins of awareness, hovering at the borders of (non)existence. Because pain is illogical, the story, too, is partly illogical; as a reader I found myself questioning Emmett’s self-depreciations and frequent disillusioned sessions of introspective despair. Especially in the early chapters of the book, I wondered if Emmett-qua-protagonist was too despairing, or unrealistically dark in demeanor and carriage. I found it hard to trust Emmett’s cynicism—I didn’t believe it. Emmett’s character seemed stilted; Emmett just didn’t work, for me. But hear me out–all of this changed as I progressed in the narrative. I finished a chapter—chapter three, I recall—and realized that I was invested in the characters, that I cared what happened next. I remembered that dealing with pain is never logical. I realized that by whatever literary magic or writer’s craft, Crash had transfixed my interest and attention. Maybe it was Crash’s prose. Maybe it was the striking similarities between Emmett’s struggles and my own biography. Maybe it was the art of intertextuality—a sequestered cabin in the woods (think: Thoreau’s Walden), the serene lake, the physical attraction between Emmett and Maraye, the Tolstoy and Camus allusions. I imagine it was a combination of all these elements. Regardless, I found myself irrevocably invested in the narrative of Forest Life.
I also found myself consistently moved by Crash’s prose, captured by the in-between-dialogue parts of his writing that reflect the protagonist’s thoughts as he meanders around in the forest and by the lake. Crash has managed to essentialize experience through evocation, and in particular, the experience of suffering. Crash’s descriptions are profoundly embodied. Emmett’s pain is not just psychological but registers itself in his very cells, in his limbs, in his body. The alcohol numbs the pain, of course, but further blurs the boundaries between reality and subconscious fantasy. As readers, it is easy to empathize with the Emmett. I (we) know his pain. I (we) feel the ways his sadness and his overriding sense of helplessness gnaw at his consciousness and knot his stomach. Emmett is in pain—Crash paints this in broad brushstrokes. Emmett is alive—he exists, yes—but this existence is frustrated. Life is inexplicable; even religion fails to provide answers. Death is tantalizingly attractive to those whose lives pulse with despair and unaccountable hurt. When it hurts to breathe, when every breath is a focused exercise in inexplicable suffering, death is a viable solution.
Forest Life reads like a Cianfrance film. It’s dark, gritty, and emotive, but chalk full of fleeting glimpses of ecstasy and, for lack of a better term, joy, in a relational sense. In Cianfrance’s anti-romance, Blue Valentine, it’s human relationship that is the source of the film’s wonder, the source of its pleasure. But it’s also the harsh reality of relationship that is also the unraveling of the characters in the end. Analogously, Crash’s prose at points shines although the subject matter is painful. The repeated descriptions of Maraye’s skin are themselves metaphors of what could be; they’re metaphors of the unlikely possibility of healing and loving, of quasi-reconciliation, of hope. These descriptions of beauty and attraction, of Maraye’s pale, glistening skin and sheer sundresses, are consistently undercut by Emmett’s cycles of guilt and turmoil. Yet, these descriptions of attraction and wonder represent Crash’s best writing.
Like many readers, I read novels wearing more than one hat. Aside from my being a lover of contemporary American literature, I’m also an anthropologist of religion who studies, in particular, evangelical and pentecostal Christianity in the U. S. Obvious to any careful reader is a consistent polemic edge in Crash’s writing that works to problematize Christian (and more specifically, evangelical) culture in the U. S. In classificatory terms, Forest Life is a literary corollary to the burgeoning theologies of those provocateurs known by many names: emergents; emerging churches; postmodern Christians; The Hyphenateds; progressive Christians; or the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). Whether Crash is conversant with these groups is unclear, but in the scheme of things this is where his work fits categorically and historically. Forest Life is a work of religio-cultural protest, one that seeks to separate the essence of Christian spirituality (often framed in terms of “love” or “justice”) from the traditional cultural trappings of Christian America (implying things such as anti-intellectualism, über-patriotism, pro-violence, ultra-conservatism, patriarchal conceptions of gender, and so on). There is a danger in such a critique; no matter how compelling is one’s charge against the sins of American Christians, one runs the risks of reifying simple caricatures of those groups in focus. Sometimes Emmett’s accusations of Christians are viable. Other times, they reproduce simple caricatures and (in my opinion) ultimately undermine the value of the respective literary scene. Yet, Emmett (or Crash, rather?) redeems himself; in chapter six, when Emmett attends a worship service with Jack and Maraye, he transcends his cynicism and caricaturizing tendencies in a freeing moment of empathy: “It strikes me that most of these folks are probably just contending with life and loss. My chest begins to ache for them. I stop seeing them as back-wood rednecks and townies. I see myself in their sad expressions. I am truly ashamed of my judgment.” Chaos, if only momentarily, is held at bay; Emmett sees himself in the Other, he recognizes the universality of suffering.
And while Crash’s polemics against religion might appear to some readers as somewhat redundant or at least overplayed—I agree to a point, by the way—Crash’s writing tone is reminiscent of other American novelists like Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. But perhaps Crash will learn from Hemingway, another American literary giant, and make his critique more effective by showing instead of telling, showing via evocative story-craft. Polemics and provocations are literary tools that must be wielded carefully and applied with reserve; too much, and the character becomes nothing more than a political talking head. Sometimes concealing some point in an artful way is much more effective than rote explicitness.
With all of that aside, Forest Life is a refreshing and rewarding read, dark and provocative in parts, but bursting with emotion and life. It is a modern elegy, recalling the mournfulness and sadness of human existence while it simultaneously draws on the beauty of nature; in this sense, the book is reminiscent of the small body of early Anglo-Saxon poems, dark and somber, called The Elegies. Forest Life is a beautiful meditation on pain and coping, human frailty and resiliency, and the capacity to love, even while inexplicable chaos hovers all around. Crash demonstrates rare wisdom and insight for his age. I plan on reading the book a second time. Crash is a brilliant young writer, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for his next novel. Make sure to purchase Forest Life over at Civitas Press. Crash’s other publications, including a travel journal and collaborative essay project, can be accessed here. Check out his blog here.