Amends is the new novel by Eve Tushnet. Tushnet is probably best known as a blogger for patheos.com‘s catholic channel and the author of the non-fiction, really really good book Gay and Catholic. And that’s perhaps a good place to begin for people unfamiliar with this wonderful young writer.
As the title of her first book suggests, Eve Tushnet doesn’t fit easily in at least three camps. She is the child of ardent atheists, but is a convert to Catholicism. She identifies as a lesbian, but affirms and lives according to her Church’s teaching on human sexuality. The original subtitle for her blog was “Conservativism reborn in twisted sisterhood.” And that suits pretty well everything she writes.
A self-conscious outsider, Tushnet’s writing manages to unsettle the “just the way things are” of just about everyone–myself included–no matter what tribe they claim as theirs. And I think she’s great.
So, here’s the question I think Tushnet is engaging in this novel: how does one talk about sin and grace, about redemption and God, even Jesus and the sacraments to an audience for whom such language is, if it is known at all, saccharine or cliche?
By setting the story on a reality tv show, of course.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Amends is an MTV reality tv show in which six characters–a woman who identifies as a wolf, an Ethiopian Christian mystic, a conservative writer, a teen hockey star, a brash lesbian playwright, and a gay man who’s last job was in collections–learn about themselves, their addictions, and the harm they’ve inflicted. And they begin to make amends–hence the name of both the show and the novel. They are overseen by two tv executives hoping, in their own way, to make sense of themselves and, of course, to get the show renewed for another season.
This is a brilliant move. We might not be able to talk about sin and grace any more, but even the most secular among us knows all too well the inbuilt human capacity to make our lives difficult, or worse. We can easily find elements in one or more of the characters that echo in our own lives, that attract us. We can find similarly cringe-worthy elements that make us want to keep reading, too. And if the characters veer sometimes a little too close to caricature, it is always with Tushnet’s satirical wink and the reminder that this is, after all, reality tv.
Setting things on a reality tv show allows Tushnet the freedom to paint in even bolder colours than might be possible in a more “realistic” setting. The extreme behaviours make sense on reality tv, and therefore allow Tushnet to shout at her readers without actually raising her voice. This is a Flannery O’Connor move, allowing Tushnet to say, “Yes, this really messed up world full of really messed up people is the world that God loves!” to all who have ears to hear.
The banter is earthy, hilarious, and engaging. It can move from the ridiculous to the very thoughtful in a nanosecond. It skewers pop-culture’s sacred cows and invited us to reconsider ideas many of us think we’ve outgrown. It is a twisted, but very real and inviting, conservativism.
In short, Amends is Augustine’s Confessions cast as a novel for the age of Orange is the New Black.