Ruminating on The Father's Tale

sheep chewing cud
Here I am, ruminating on The Father's Tale
In Book Ten of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo refers to the memory as “the stomach of the mind” – an image that probably seems strange to many modern readers, but one that has been very useful to me. He wasn’t talking about the kind of stomach we humans have – which are a kind of way station for food on its way to the intestinal tract – but the kind of stomachs found in sheep (as well as cattle and goats, etc.), i.e., a ruminant stomach. The ruminant stomach stores food until it can later be brought back up and chewed over (ruminated).

I’ve always loved this idea of the memory as somewhere that we store our experiences until we have a chance to bring them back to mind and “chew them over” or ruminate upon them. Animals who literally ruminate (chew food that they have already swallowed) do so in order to get the nutrition out of what they have eaten, and to be able to digest it properly; in a similar way, as Augustine understood, our memory lets us bring back things we have already experienced and not only “taste” and feel them again, but also derive more profit from them than if we just let them sit in our memory unexamined. When we ruminate (in the figurative sense) we get more out of our experiences.

Some of us are more inclined toward rumination than others. I am definitely a “ruminant creature,” and one of the reasons I started this blog a few years ago was to give myself an excuse to ruminate on things I’ve read. In fact, I would say that rumination provides a great part of the pleasure of reading. This is why I prefer to read books that will reward further thought – books that are “good” in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term in An Experiment in Criticism.  One of the problems of reading things that are the literary equivalent of junk food is that they really don’t provide much of a “mental cud” – if you try ruminating on them, you find that there is nothing there.

Good books require thorough chewing to nourish the soul

The Father's Tale by Michael D. O'Brien
 A lot of my rumination these days occurs while I am taking a walk along the shore of the lake where I live. There’s no telling what will come to mind as I walk along. This morning, it was Michael D. O’Brien’s The Father's Tale, a book I read a couple of months ago, which I’ve been allowing to sit in the stomach of my mind until it was ripe for rumination. I have been planning to write about this book here, and find that there is a lot to discuss – which suggests that it is a very good book.

You wouldn’t know this from many of the reviews that appear on the internet. Google “Michael D. O’Brien The Father’s Tale” and you’ll find that the reviews that show up in the first couple of pages of results complain a lot about the length of the book (nearly 1,100 pages -- one reviewer suggested that you could trim it down to 300 pages and not lose the "essential story") and the “absurdity” of the plot. Most readers considering this novel will be put off by such remarks and, like the reviewers who say such things, like the rich young man to whom Jesus said, “You are very near to the Kingdom. One thing more is required of you,” they will go away sad, never knowing what they are missing. Or perhaps they are more like Euthyphro, whom Socrates had been guiding toward a true understanding of piety, but quit the discussion at the last minute, saying it made his head hurt and, anyway, he had more pressing things to attend to.

The truth is that this book is probably fare too rich for such readers, who have been weaned on modern novels that traipse expeditiously, and superficially, through plot points to their happy endings. Such books are the literary equivalent of a quick meal at Chili’s. The Father's Tale is not such a one. It is a rich and varied banquet, one to be savored and ruminated before being digested. Just as a banquet is not gulped down in one mouthful, nor quickly digested before bedtime, I don’t think I can do this book justice in a single discussion. So I will discuss different aspects of the book in separate posts. These will not be “reviews” in the usual sense, but reflections on things that I find have spurred my own reflection.  

Literature, like life, takes us on unexpected journeys

I’m going to discuss this book as if you all have already read it – so take the spoiler warning as read. Of course, many, if not most, of you have not yet read The Father’s Tale – that’s okay. Perhaps my discussion of it will make you want to read it (I hope so). Let me warn you right now, though, that this is a huge book – both literally and figuratively (nearly 1,100 pages). And it’s a little slow getting started, so hang in there. After the first 75 or 100 pages, though, it just gets better and better and better, right up to the last page. 

fictional world map by Alex Vitti
As you read, you may find that the book seems constantly to be changing from one kind of story into another – don’t let this upset you. The author has divided it into four separate parts, which suggests that these kinds of changes are deliberate, and together they create the overall architecture of the story. At the beginning of each part, the protagonist's life takes a sharp left turn. And what happens when you make four left turns? Well ... read it, and you'll see. As the old Shaker song says, By turning, turning, we come ’round right.

By the way, it's always good to think about not only the contents of a story, but the way they are arranged. I sometimes do this deliberately, as a formal exercise, and I find it gives me a kind of “God’s eye view” of the plot, revealing the integrity of the story, which may not be evident in a single, superficial reading (the only kind of reading that many novels deserve or require).

If you haven’t read The Father’s Tale, but are beginning to think maybe you should, get started. Don’t rush, but keep going once you begin. Think of it as an adventure – not as if you were jumping on a jet to get from New York to Johannesburg in the shortest time possible, but as if a friend has kidnapped you to take you on an around-the-world ramble whose itinerary is unknown to you. Like Alexander Graham, the protagonist of The Father’s Tale, you will go places you never expected, experience things that may seem unpleasant and uncomfortable at the time, you may even reach a point at which you despair of ever reaching the end of the journey, but at the end you will know that you have been greatly enriched by the experience.

Update 2015: I realize I didn't say much about the novel in this post — probably because I didn't know where to start, it stirred up so many ideas in my mind. But I will get back to it one of these days, honest! Meanwhile, I've read O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri (his first and only venture into science fiction) which I also liked very much. If you get a chance, read it — there is a big surprise, about two thirds of the way through, one you won’t want to miss.

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas


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