Kaya Genç on Avi Steinberg on The Book of Mormon

image

In Orhan Pamuk’s novel The New Life, a young university student reads a book and, in it, finds a description of a new life that he sets off to find. The novel chronicles the student’s adventures with fellow readers who are similarly impressed by the mysterious book. At the novel’s end, in a distant Anatolian town, the student finds an angel that the book depicted and, in the novel’s depressing finale, he winds up meeting her. (Spoiler: He has to die to see the angel. Death is the price the reader has to pay to achieve the full wisdom offered by the book). 

Pamuk’s mysterious novel was mind-blowingly successful in Turkey when it came out in 1994. It sold hundreds of thousand of copies, made its author a star in the literary scene and paved the way for Pamuk’s Nobel Prize in Literature. The New Life seemed to strike a chord among Turkey’s readers, most of whom are pious Muslims, by way of showing the fascinating role a holy text can play in people’s lives.

I am not sure if Avi Steinberg, author of the The Lost Book of Mormon, and Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, read Pamuk’s novel. I have a hunch that if he did, he would enjoy it very, very much. Steinberg, in The Lost Book of Mormon, presents us with a text equally mysterious to the one found by Pamuk’s student: The Book of Mormon; and Steinberg also presents a reader similarly fascinated by it: himself. Happily, he does not die at the end.

“At the heart of my Book of Mormon quest was an effort to understand the difference between prophecy and fabrication, angels and inspiration, delusion and fact,” Steinberg writes in the first chapter. From the start he is aware that being a fan of The Book of Mormon is “to walk a lonesome road” since none of his friends have even read it. “There are many people who don’t realize, or have forgotten, that it is in fact a book, not just a hit musical,” Steinberg observes.

When I Googled “The Book of Mormon” in Turkey last month, all the results—including the Wikipedia article—related to the Broadway and West End stage adaptations which, more than anything else, is a satire of Mormonism rather than an examination of its founding text. Steinberg carefully avoids any discussion of the musical throughout his book, which is difficult. At this point, writing about The Book of Mormon is like writing a book on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey without once mentioning Stanley Kubrick’s film. 

*

The catch here is that the book that impressed Steinberg happens to feature a frame narrative in which Joseph Smith is himself so impressed by a book that, over the course of five years, he ends up excavating it from a hill in upstate New York. And the book he excavates itself is also about a man who struggles to get his hands on a book.

“Joseph spent about a third of his adult life just trying to dig up the book and prepare it for publication,” Steinberg notes. He is fascinated by Smith’s patient determination to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of digging The Book of Mormon from the ground and publishing it.

Officially, Joseph Smith is the translator of The Book of Mormon, not its author, and Steinberg is more interested in the “modern drama of Joseph becoming that saga’s author and proprietor” than the saga itself. Although Steinberg doesn’t fail to provide us with a very useful precis of the opening scenes of The Book of Mormon in the first chapter (he retells the story as a film treatment) Steinberg’s book is more interested in The Book of Mormon’s formal qualities (its production and publication history) than the adventures chronicled in it. Throughout his book, Steinberg is meta-reading, by which I mean he is reading about reading and then writing about the experience.

Of course, it is not only Steinberg who devotes his project to meta-reading. Joseph Smith is also an avid reader: he digs the ground so that he can read and transcribe the holy text, and so that we, too, can read it. And Lehi, the protagonist of The Book of Mormon, is by all means a passionate reader: his goal is to get back the Old Testament-like brass plates and carry them throughout his journey, making him the kind of reader who can’t travel abroad without taking books.

Steinberg, in The Lost Book of Mormon, reads the narratives of Smith and Lehi “as one interlinked story, which together form a modern American novel.” This is, I think, an ingenious way of bringing a religious text to a secular audience.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether the religious text, or the secular reader, will benefit more from this treatment. Steinberg makes no secret of his intention to approach Smith’s frame story and The Book of Mormon’s story proper as components of a modern American novel (“that novel is what I talk about when I talk about The Book of Mormon” he writes). The question here is whether a text that demands to be read as a bible really should be treated as a secular book.

When French philosopher Ernest Renan treated the early history of Christianity through a secular perspective in his 1863 book Vie de Jésus not everyone was delighted with his assertion that a writer can approach life of Jesus as if he was an ordinary historic person, rather than the person situated at the heart of the history of mankind.

As a non-believer who has numerous existential questions about his life role as an author, Steinberg is reverent in his approach to The Book of Mormon. He wants it to do something to him; as a fascinated reader of the book, his life has already been affected by The Book of Mormon but Steinberg is certain that tracing the footsteps of the book’s characters will inflict a much greater change in his life. Here is a modern day writer, a big fan of Louis C.K. (Steinberg compared C.K. to Gogol in a New Yorker piece) looking up to a religious text for meaning. Steinberg’s Lost Book of Mormon, published 184 years after The Book of Mormon, is fastidious about its handling of a sacred text, and represents The Book of Mormon both with reverence and through the doubting lens of a secular reader.

*

The Lost Book of Mormon’s seriousness and fastidiousness are surprising, given how much I laughed while reading it. When I say laughing, I mean laughing out loud, Seinfeld style. It is as if he has managed to find a way of telling a Faulkneresque family saga through the form of a perfect sitcom.

Steinberg’s comedy arises not from his irreverence toward the religion of Mormonism, but rather his irreverence toward the main character of The Lost Book of Mormon, Avi Steinberg, who wants to believe and, after all his adventures in the footsteps of Nephites, ends up believing in something (something that can’t be categorized as religious). Remember Woody Allen’s filmmaker character in Hannah and Her Sisters? Steinberg resembles him, although there is a crucial difference between the two, since in The Lost Book of Mormon Steinberg plays the role of himself—a writer—one who lives in our anxious age where a writer has to reinvent herself ad infinitum to finish book proposals, sell pitches, and pay high rent for a lousy apartment. Steinberg’s book is less about Mormons than the world of freelance writers who try to make ends meet through their neverending process of reinvention. 

Joseph Smith could easily be one of us. He, too, suffered greatly as a writer. He, too, has remade himself many times but “never discarded the old selves along the way.” In the biographical bits of the book Steinberg compiles a list of Smith’s fictional selves: translator, mayor, city planner, editor, ditch digger, wrestler, museum curator, church president… and the list goes on.

In The Lost Book of Mormon, we watch Steinberg as he, too, becomes a collector of selves. In his first stop, Jerusalem, he struggles to locate a copy of The Book of Mormon which the city mysteriously seems to lack. Steinberg’s explanation is that some of Jerusalem’s religious Jews had decided “that an official presence of Mormons, known for their aggressive—and successful—missionary work would not be tolerated.”

As he tries to finish Running the Books, his debut memoir about being a prison librarian, Steinberg discovers he is a bit of a procrastinator. “I was actively trying to not finish it,” he writes. “This wasn’t hard to do.” Searching for The Book of Mormon in the world’s only city where it is almost impossible to find The Book of Mormon proves to be a good way of not finishing a book. Steinberg’s wanderings through Jerusalem in this section of the book are a delight to read.  

For example, one day Steinberg visits a shop in Jerusalem. “The first shop I visited was the one in which I worked,” he writes. The shop’s proprietor asks him how much he wants to be paid and Steinberg suddenly becomes a “deputy junk man” in the city he is supposed to do his writing. While working at the shop he stays true to his determination not to finish the book. But why? “I feared what was to come: the certain public shaming, the critical floggings, the editorial recriminations, the horror that would surely attend the publication of my book.”

Here is a fragile writer totally okay with revealing his fragile state of mind. Steinberg writes that he had been an avid fan of The Simpsons and it is fun to see a fan of The Simpsons, rather than a theologist or a Mormon historian, write about The Book of Mormon. Steinberg, in the book, travels to Jerusalem in search of ruins related to The Book of Mormon, reaches the spot where “Nephi once struggled with his conscience before decapitating Laban”, and visits the center of the city where “young Nephi used to hang out—probably.” Whether his adventures with the Book of Mormon are at the foreground or the background of this narrative depends on how you read The Lost Book of Mormon.

*

One thing is certain, though: walking through Jerusalem’s ancient streets has a madeleine-like effect on Steinberg’s mind, bringing memories of his past and giving meaning to his interest in Mormonism. “After generations of obsessing over Jerusalem, my family finally moved there. Four years after Israeli paratroopers captured the city—during the heady years between the 1967 and 1973 wars—my parents moved to Jerusalem, the first in their families to live the ancient dream of living in Zion,” he writes. “As young Americans of the ‘68 generation, they were simultaneously disillusioned with America and deeply illusioned with Israel.” Although he does not share their illusions, Steinberg is nevertheless compelled by the city where he had lived as a child, before his family decided to move to Cleveland because of financial difficulties.

Every life has lost chapters and every life offers us chances of retrieving them. Steinberg notes how most of The Book of Mormon’s Jerusalem chapters had vanished:

“Onto mysteriously empty tombs and missing manuscripts, we are left to project our own visions. When I thought about what might have been told in those missing 116 pages, the lost backstory of Nephi’s family, my own family’s Jerusalem-to-America backstory seemed as good a substitute as any.”

Elsewhere in the book we find Steinberg struggling to complete a magazine essay about ventriloquism, while simultaneously visiting the historical sites where Nephi’s family had wandered.

Early in the book Steinberg likens The Book of Mormon to a novel by Dostoyevsky. “The New Testament begins with the mysterious birth of a boy god,” he writes, “What kind of bible starts off in a dark creepy alley, with a sleazy drunk guy and a gruesome murder/robbery?” Quite a few times Steinberg mentions Edmund Wilson, the great literary scholar who wrote about his travel to Hill Cumorah. “Standing at the top of the hill and taken by the prettiness of the New York countryside, Wilson allowed himself, for a moment, to imagine the view through the eyes of Joseph Smith.” In the end, Steinberg is less interested in how scholars had read The Book of Mormon than his own adventures with it.

In his first attempt to unearth the book in 1823 Joseph Smith “was roused in the middle of the night by the angel, who showed him a vision of the hill where it was buried—and then more or less talked his ear off all night.” This is a magical moment, regardless of one’s belief in magic or in religion. Here is a man who faints from exhaustion in the course of his efforts to dig out a book, and who, when he puts his hands on the gold plates, “was sent reeling from a terrific jolt, like a tremendous electric shock.” I will not spoil the end of the book and tell you what Steinberg discovers at the end of his adventures. Suffice it to say that with its vivid, honest and often hilarious prose The Lost Book of Mormon does justice to an electric text where many readers have found a New Life for so long. 

Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books blogSalon, and Guernica Magazine, among others. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently working on his third novel. He blogs at www.kayagenc.net and tweets @kayagenc.

In Tags