Sometimes there's a novel ... I won't say an instant classic, because, what's an instant classic but an oxymoron anyway? But sometimes, there's a novel that blows your mind. I'm talking about Death Comes for the Deconstructionist here. Sometimes, there's a novel, well, it's the novel for its time and place.
I don't even know where to start with the superlatives, so I'll start with the first page. As you can read here, the first page of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist mimics Dostoevsky's breakthrough novel, Notes from the Underground, with a dizzying burst—I didn't want to say jouissance—of high and low culture. It's an unmatched display of literary fireworks that made me worry that Daniel Taylor would not be able to hold up for the rest of the novel.
Yet, somehow he did!
Dostoevsky's Notes are a nub of a text mutilated by the czar's censor who thought that the section with the Christian answer to the Underground Man's manias was blasphemous. He cut those sections out and Dostoevsky never subsequently restored them. Therefore the Russian's text is haunted by Christ, but never quite gets beyond laying out the problems that might be addressed by belief.
Death Comes for the Deconstructionist lays out its own set of problems in the wake of the overwhelming victory of French theory in American academia. The plot revolves around the protagonist Jon Mote being called to investigate the death of his former grad school mentor, the deconstructionist, Richard Pratt—something of an academic star a bit past the peak of this popularity.
One of Derrida's most famous dictums was that "there is nothing outside the text," that every meaning is deferred in the play of words in texts that never rub against reality out there. This conveniently ignores Derrida's intentions and much of his later engagement with theology.
Nevertheless, I remember my undergraduate days when students carried their Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, & Co. everywhere they went like a fundamentalist might carry their Bible—without being aware of the irony. To them the notion that nothing could be pinned down by phallocentric-logocentrist-ontotheology was liberating. They never noticed how dogmatic their opinions were. Their way of carrying themselves was so comical that Deleuze hangers-on eventually earned the moniker "Deleuzers."
Jon Mote's ever uncomfortable interviews with people possibly connected to Pratt's murder uncover many phenomena that resist vague fade-outs into deconstruction: rape, lynching, racism, suicide, wartime memories, divorce, religious experience, mental illness, the irrepressible desire to learn about life from literary texts, and yes, even sexism. It is a novel about lives ruined, lives crying out after justice, and lives seeking restitution and reconciliation.
As Jon uncovers these indestructible, un-deconstructable problems he is accompanied by his mentally challenged sister Judith whose presence helps to keep his demons—the insistent and increasingly autonomous voices in his head—at bay. The voices are both a kind of postmodern pastiche of voices, some recognizably literary, others not, all of them bordering upon the demonic. The parallel between demonology and contemporary theory is apposite.
Judy emerges opposite to this mental chaos with the almost monastic habits taught to her by old-school nuns in a special care home. Their repetitive nature, on a daily and seasonal schedule that has become second nature, give Jon an anchor, order for which to hope. Her hospitality toward all strangers tends toward the silent openness to the gift of being practiced by monastics. Her limitations are turned right before the reader's eyes into a Christlike grace that Jon cannot help but want to imitate. In the end, her simple example helps to draw Jon out of his complex nihilistic hole.
It thereby demonstrates, following Alasdair MacIntyre, the revelatory nature of disability and dependence.
This book cannot be recommended enough. It is a literary achievement on a grand scale. As one of my friends put it:
I don't know. Maybe you're going to think I'm crazy, but I read this as world class literature. Bernanos comes to mind. But also, for philosophical acuity, Thomas Mann. I didn't say Flannery or Walker. They are left far behind. (Shoot me, go ahead.) As for the genre aspect, it works. Perfectly.
Death Comes for the Deconstructionist is a novel for our cultural time and place, but it also transcends it. It will be discussed long after deconstruction has killed itself and the humanities. Daniel Taylor's debut novel (hard to believe it's a debut!) matches just about anything you will find on my top living religious novelists list, or even my list of all time favorite novels.
It's that good. Don't miss it.