The Books of Michael O'Brien

ELLEN M. RICE

Whatever I am reading, whether fiction or fact, lowbrow or highbrow, it must take a back seat if I find a new Michael O'Brien novel. For some reason, his books are addictive.

I thoroughly enjoy the books of Michael O'Brien. I have read all four published books in his six part series Children of the Last Days. I was moving along quite well through Northanger Abbey until O'Brien's Plague Journal arrived on my desk. I abandoned Austen for O'Brien; there is the sense that his books must be read now. Moreover, O'Brien can spin a nearly seamless tale that cannot be put down.

Lest I spoil the books for you, I will discuss O'Brien rather than his stories. This essay will contain none of the sneering remarks of a literary critic; I make no pretense of holding such an office. I am merely a reader, but no reader of Christian dime-novels. My taste among Catholic authors drifts toward classic writers such as Dante, Robert Hugh Benson, and that genius of human psychology, Walker Percy. I have good taste in books in general. While not ashamed to read a good best seller, the great classics of civilization do not intimidate me. I love Fitzgerald, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and one-hit wonder Margaret Mitchell. Whatever I am reading, whether fiction or fact, lowbrow or highbrow, it must take a back seat if I find a new Michael O'Brien novel. For some reason, his books are addictive.

Part of O'Brien's mystique is his relevance. In a very real sense, his books are historical fiction about the present. Although three of the books are set in the “near future,” reading them reveals they are actually set today, for the machinations of totalitarianism, an anti-religion, and a world government hostile to Christianity are already in place. Strangers and Sojourners, which can be thought of as a prequel to two dystopian novels, Plague Journal and Eclipse of the Sun, is vitally connected to the present by providing a sweep of the twentieth century (subtly characterized as the devil's century). O'Brien stretches our imaginations just a bit to let us see where, if unimpeded, today's trends will take us. Unlike much current fiction and nonfiction, which deal with our world using a superficial metaphysical backdrop (feminist, Marxist, or other), O'Brien is able to weave together the everyday events of today with the eternal, the personal love of God, and with what he presents as the accelerating struggle between good and evil.

After reading one O'Brien book, it is clear that we have among us in him a contemplative genius — one who has the gift of surveying the world around him with great sensitivity and accurately measuring the true meaning of things. Allusions abound to the problems within the Church, the tragic deaths of our young through abortion, and the encroachment upon our civil liberties. Like his predecessor Msgr. Benson, he presents most characters as likeable, if malleable and sheepish. Like Benson, O'Brien depicts a dystopia not of Hobbesian anarchy, but one of a benign Leviathan. O'Brien's is a spiritual Brave New World, in which the enemy is not progress or science or man himself, but principalities and powers. O'Brien artfully presents a believable angelic intelligence operating behind the evils which affect his characters in practical ways. To those firmly entrenched in the here and now, the scenario will seem like science fiction. But even for such readers, O'Brien presents such a seamless alternate world that they must ask themselves if, in fact, that world could be real. O'Brien's God and devil are at least as believable as George Lucas' Force.

It is noteworthy that O'Brien's books are qualitatively different from Benson's tour de force vision of the last days in Lord of the World. Tour de force because somehow he wrote about the 1990's eighty years ago. Benson postulated a “humane” global state in which euthanasia was the preferred method of ending physical or psychic pain. But Benson postulated. O'Brien observes and interprets. And in doing so, he relies more on the literary device of the character than he does on plot and setting. Father Elijah, whose job it is to exorcize the Antichrist, and so give him one chance at salvation, would be godlike and uninteresting were not his life in Nazi-occupied Poland, his marriage, his wife's death, and life on Mount Carmel narrated in a way that connects him with the lesser mortals among us. O'Brien's best character is his heroine Anne Delaney, who struggles with agnosticism yet possesses the most endearing sense of right and wrong. Had he not created such interesting, complex characters, O'Brien could not pull off his feat of convincing the reader that our familiar world is the setting of a cosmic battle of the highest stakes. The novels would collapse into tracts, with no mystery or exploration of the interior dimension.

More technical critics have found flaws in O'Brien's characters and setting. Reviewers have convicted him of didacticism, particularly of endowing dissolute characters with too much knowledge of personalist theology. Some readers have rejected his series after one book because they find the presentation of eschatological. events in the present too hard to swallow. None of these perceived flaws has deterred this reader from becoming fully absorbed and engaged in mysterious, frightening and beautiful stories. Only once in the whole series did an “Oh, come on!” experience present itself. This was when, in Eclipse of the Sun, the very stodgy Archbishop of Vancouver heard the voice of God coming from the tabernacle. I put the book down for a moment and paused. it seemed fitting when O'Brien's holy mystics like Father Elijah and Father Andre heard the voice of God. But supernatural signs for this bland man who was doing a terrible job of leading his flock through a crisis? He was not worthy of such favors. I nearly stopped reading altogether, and then I remembered that visions and signs are not given because you are holy; they are given to make you holy or guide you through a troubled time. I reflected that, if God is God, as O'Brien's God surely is, he can do anything, even provide direct instructions to a reluctant Archbishop. Perhaps because this vignette jarred my sensibilities so, I have remembered the point of it better than I remember most of the book.

If a story's beauty can move me, if can lose the ability to put it down and if at the end I feel the book has edified me, I tend not even to notice “flaws.” Some of the greatest writers filled their novels with quirks. Charles Dickens was perhaps the most contrived writer of all time. Cervantes' knight errant grows predictable after a few adventures. And who can read Jane Eyre without throwing the book across the room at least once because Bronte's heroine is a simple ton and her hero a wife-abuser? We value the greats not so much for their technical virtuosity as for their ability to speak to the human soul in a way that is lasting.

Fifty years from now, in my old age, I will write again on O'Brien. Only time will tell us how enduring his writing is. Although his work is time bound in the post-Christian twentieth century, it is my guess that it contains enough substance and art to pass the test o time, and to be included on a canon at least of the Catholic greats. I hope wistfully to see his name in the general canon some day. He is a writer who grabs you heart.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rice, Ellen M. “The Books of Michael O'Brien.” Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 33-35.

Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Ellen M. Rice is assistant editor of Catholic Dossier.

Copyright © 1999 Catholic Dossier


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