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The Urban Space Man : In this story of municipal anxiety, Keith Scribner's comic hero resorts to a variety of self-serving strategies as he unwillingly probes the possibility of a modern religious miracle.

Donald Secreast teaches at Radford University. His novel, Rough End, is presently being considered for publication.


Keith Scribner

Publisher:New York: Riverhead Books, 2003

257 pp., $23.95

In the opening chapters of Miracle Girl, his second novel, Keith Scribner employs the same narrative facility that made his first novel, The Goodlife, such a compelling read. With a notably smooth and efficient pace, he sets into motion the three major components that develop the plot of the novel. While the main character, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Quinn, finds himself involved in a fraying relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Rita, he also faces being shafted by an unscrupulous real estate developer, Bobby Jensen. Most important, Quinn finds himself dragged into a religious controversy involving a 30-year-old deaf girl--Sue Phong--that threatens the credibility of Hudson City's Catholic church and the stability of the municipal resources.

Although the dominant themes concerning the nature of miracles and how modern society responds to them occupy the central current of Miracle Girl's narrative flow, the channel of that flow takes it shape from Quinn's preoccupation with space--a preoccupation that rivals his sometimes adolescent need to turn every encounter with a woman into a sexual hypothesis. In one short scene, after another of his frequent altercations with Rita, Quinn goes to his improvised workshop to work off his frustration:

"Sanding dust stuck to my skin, making me hotter, but I didn't mind. I was building something for Rita. The sides were ash with cherry inlay. It would be a beautiful piece of furniture, the shape of a scroll. Rita could lie over it to stretch and open up her body."

"You only had to look at Rita's back-bending bench ... to understand how we shape space so that space can shape us. Everything else followed."

With the same narrative economy that distinguished The Goodlife, Scribner, in this compressed passage, (1) implies Quinn's pure dedication to Rita, (2) establishes Quinn's sexual connection to her, (3) suggests his integrity (as a craftsman, but an integrity that resurfaces in his relationship with the miracle girl), and (4) announces his faith in the formative power of space.

Undeniably, in a novel about miracles, some attitude must emerge about the nature of faith. In Miracle Girl, Scribner hastens to establish the precedence Quinn's metaphysics of space takes over his more theological pursuits. Early on, several pages before the woodworking scene, he takes a brave gamble by emphasizing Quinn's intriguing but rather abstract belief in space. "I have faith, I thought, as I grabbed the contract and stepped out into the dense heat, heavy in my lungs. Faith in the form and function of space; we shape space, and it shapes us right back."

Before Quinn worked with and developed his belief in space, he studied it. To a certain extent, he majored in it at college and became a specialist in organizing space, an "inventory analyst" who is concerned not with objects but with the space they occupy. When he discovered inventory theory during his senior year in college, he became convinced "that nine-tenths of a problem could be solved by counting." This epiphany sounds like the kind of experience Scribner might have enjoyed when he worked on his economics degree at Vassar. For Quinn, however, this conviction establishes an important flaw in his character and perhaps a flaw in the novel's conclusion. Quantification is the highest abstraction he can imagine. Space is Quinn's metaphysical reality, and it might ultimately limit his capacity to accommodate miracles on their own terms.

Metaphysics of narrative space

If we consider a novel as movement, then the two-dimensional page must participate in a development of dramatic space. As a character like Quinn moves across the page--especially with his consciousness of the shaping power of space--creating a detailed plane of reference that functions as his dynamic present, his past automatically emerges from two processes. First, the momentary present must be replaced by a more immediate present, which itself is replaced by an even more immediate present, until this string of less than immediate presents coagulates into an immediate past. The second narrative process for creating a "historical space" involves Quinn's flashbacks. These periodic jumps back in time create another sense of historical space that supports and broadens the space required by his more immediate past. By extruding two pasts (immediate and flashback) while rambling across his linear present, he becomes multidimensional.

As Quinn drives through town, taking the bishop for his first meeting with the miracle girl, his linear motion across the page detours into a flashback when they pass a movie theater: "Just past the Hudson City Pork Store, traffic stopped in front of the Grande Theater. Seeing 'For Rent or Sale' spelled out on the great marquee always brought me down. In elementary school I'd seen all the great Disney movies here: The World's Greatest Athlete and The Snowball Express. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory played here for months. In junior high it was Death Race 2000 and biker movies. And by the early Eighties, the Grande was a porno theater." In the short time Quinn takes to roll by the front of the theater, he revisits three decades of his cinema-going history and provides a terse account of American society's cultural decline.

On a purely physical level, Quinn has an immediate future just as surely as he has an immediate past. Its reality is as tangible as the next page of the novel. Faced with the undeniable space that conducts his future, Quinn, in his habitual pessimism, harbors serious misgivings about the contents of that space he's yet to occupy. Tortured by his present frustrations, he takes on psychological resonance as he oscillates between his regret over the past and his desperation about the future.

Against his will and contrary to his spatial allegiances, Quinn undertakes his own spiritual pilgrimage. That Scribner would employ the spiritual quest as a dramatic device seems a necessary and natural move. About fifteen years ago, when he knew he was on the verge of dedicating his life to writing for the next ten years, Scribner found himself confronting his plan in the Himalayas. In a Baltimore Sun essay, he confesses: "Never in my life had I talked to myself for hours as I did that day, and though I was self-conscious of the moment's staginess, I had to talk through the decision that I'd climbed the mountain to make."

In terms of personality and spiritual texture, Quinn bears a remarkable resemblance to another great spiritual pilgrim: Eugene Henderson in Saul Bellow's 1959 novel, Henderson the Rain King. Early in their stories, both men detect an emptiness in their lives. Both men are slobs--physically and spiritually. At one point in Henderson the Rain King, after he's been told that a man takes on the traits of the animal he spends the most time with, Henderson despairs because he has worked many years of his life raising pigs. Quinn spends most of his private time sweating, seldom changing clothes. At one point, Rita even accuses him of mildewing.

Most significantly, as both Henderson and Quinn fumble in their attempts to connect with the redemption promised by spiritual fulfillment, they become threats to the people around them--often, the people they're trying to help. Both men's charitable intentions sometimes drift awry, as if caught in wayward, destructive currents. This tendency to attract disaster to the most benevolent undertakings is pointed out to both men by a female spiritual guide. Henderson has a medicine woman, Willatale, the Woman of Bittahness, to warn him that a destructive spirit always accompanies his altruistic actions.

Similarly, Quinn eventually finds himself sharing the abandoned Immaculate Heart cathedral with the miracle girl. Her reputation as a religious marvel began when her visit to a class for the deaf, blind, and disabled results in one of the students regaining his hearing. Prior to this, the student has passed out; while unconscious, he dreams about Sue Phong. Soon after the boy's story appears on television, "dozens" of other people in the town dream of Sue Phong and "several minor cures were reported." Until the evening when Sue Phong crawls through the cathedral's coal chute in her first step to escape her religious celebrity, her spatial reality has been defined by the pilgrims who flood Hudson City, blocking traffic and straining the city's utilities. Unexpectedly, the miracle girl admits to being as inconvenienced and repelled by the influx of the pilgrims as the rest of the town's native population.

Making sure that his metaphysics of space and miracle achieves a thorough blend, Scribner uses the miracle girl's deafness to merge her sense of language with Quinn's space obsession. When Quinn has begun to bond with Sue Phong, she confesses that she prefers sign language to spoken English: "English is so linear. It takes forever to say anything, one word plodding after the next. With one gesture, my face, my body, I can say what takes a long dull sentence in English. Sign language is 3-dimensional, it's deep." This confession encapsulates the challenge faced by every fiction writer: how to create a sense of life's simultaneous multidimensionality while using a linear medium such as language.

Religion's interior space

In a novel already exceptional for its economy of means, the image of the cathedral as the convergence plane for two spatial systems, Quinn and Sue Phong, further attests to Scribner's remarkable skill with structural compression. Serving as both characters' escape space, the cathedral also assumes a role as religious space. Dark, dusty, littered with the church furniture nobody could put to use, a ruined building in a ruined neighborhood, it might be taken for a critical representation of all organized religion.

The most powerful outward manifestation of Sue Phong's spatial reality appears in her ability to fill up the city's space by attracting the daily increasing flood of pilgrims drawn by rumors of her healing powers. Sue Phong claims equal narrative status with Quinn and Jensen because she is the kinetic center of the story. All crossing of narrative space is movement toward her.

Once he becomes a space accountant for Hudson City's Catholic church, measuring space becomes an even more abstract activity for Quinn. His considerable analytical skills produce financial rewards--not for himself but for Buddy Jensen, a man whose greatest skill is being able to capitalize on the opportunities generated by Quinn's organization of space. In Quinn's totally subordinate relationship with Jensen, the underlying truth about his character takes shape. Despite his cynicism and delusions of participating in the exploitation of real estate space, Quinn lacks the fundamental irreverence to profit unfairly from less fortunate people. At every narrative turn, Jensen's voracity outlines Quinn's subdued but obstinate ethical yearnings. But as his relationship with Sue Phong demonstrates, Quinn lacks the degree of reverence, of transcendence beyond his own spatial references, required to participate in miracle space.

Perhaps intending to offer both skeptics and the faithful a sincerely balanced set of possibilities, Scribner presents coincidence as a valid alternative to miracle. In the short prologue to Miracle Girl, he furnishes a wonderfully comic scene that establishes his concern for creating synchronous effects in his fiction. As the main character's mother struggles to give birth, her husband negotiates with a vending machine in the hospital lobby. At the same time the doctor and the nurse are telling Mrs. Quinn to push, Mr. Quinn "squeezed the corresponding plastic knob and pulled--lubricated levers clunked open a trapdoor." Introducing an additional historical layer to the synchronicity of this birth scene, the narrator adds, "A thousand miles away in Dallas, a gunshot crackled in the brittle air."

In a novel concerned with the relevance and reliability of miracles, the coincidence of Quinn's birth and Kennedy's assassination seems to portend some circumstance that will become significant later in the narrative, but that connection isn't made. Taken at face value, the opening scene seems to imply that coincidence really is more reliable than miracle as an explanation for baffling events. After all, coincidence can be used to explain a miracle, but miracle is seldom allowed to explain coincidence.

This inability to grant a space for the miraculous distinct from the more reliable space occupied by coincidence draws Quinn very close to betraying the miracle girl when he ponders turning her over to Jensen. In direct proportion to his capacity for skepticism, Quinn carries around a tremendous capacity for self-justification, revealed when he thinks "how betrayal was only a problem when you believed in something." Of course, Quinn decides to deceive Jensen instead.

The tightest space of all

In the climactic moment of the novel, Quinn sits in a confessional booth with Sue Phong, who is wearing only a towel and sitting on his lap. Briefly, Quinn thinks about the baby she is carrying: "Maybe that explained it all--the visions, the visitations--simply a new life, the possibility of a new life, within her." Having finally reduced the miracle girl's possible connection to divinity to the transformative power of motherhood, miracle as possibility, Quinn can now allow himself to be part of the process.

Occurring in a confessional booth, this ultimate contact with the miracle girl raises a question about narrative intent. In Scribner's first novel, Stona Brown, a chief executive for a large oil company, is taken hostage by a man and a wife who plan to use the ransom money to reinstate themselves in what they see as the good life. When he's kidnapped, Brown is sealed in a casket-sized box, then transported to a ministorage unit where he eventually dies. Although the story is based closely on an actual kidnapping, its imagery carries a powerful poetic argument for the fatal effects of restricted space.

In the similarly confined space where Quinn comes into intimate contact with the miracle girl, Scribner interrupts their serenity by having the bishop break into the cathedral. A herd of photographers bursts in after him. To make matters worse, when Sue Phong jumps from Quinn's lap, her towel falls off, providing a vision that really incites the photographers. Gallantly, Quinn tries to hold the newsmen back but "the stampede charged after her. The last I saw of her, she grabbed the rain poncho off the candelabra and her naked butt shot down the stairs." And so another potential entrance into spiritual space is blocked by scandal.

Too often in novels that set out to explore spiritual realities, authors do not want to run the risk of appearing doctrinaire. To maintain a proper artistic perspective, they will employ comedy, parody, skepticism, and satire. Most serious writers have been trained or self-taught never to sacrifice the concrete to the abstract. In their attempts to present the spiritual side of reality, they find themselves forced to translate the metaphysical into the material. But one of the primary hazards in finding physical correspondences to the spiritual is to choose stock images tainted with sentimentality. Quinn's spiritual awakening, his seeing "possibility" in the pregnant miracle girl, fails to satisfy because he contents himself with a mental state rather than a spiritual space.

In his Baltimore Sun essay, Scribner writes: "I was reminded that as writers we always wonder if our work is good enough, if it rises to the level of art. It can be hard to know. Thomas Aquinas wrote that 'beauty' in art requires three things: 'wholeness, harmony and radiance.'" Nacreous with humor, delightfully textured with detail, charged with wonderfully integrated and escalating conflicts--moral and dramatic--and snugly constructed on the narrative principle of literary consciousness as a self-proliferating, motion-initiated progression of overlapping spaces, Miracle Girl, surprisingly, fails to achieve its final and most important sense of space, that movement into radiance. Luminosity could have been part of this novel if Scribner would have granted just a few more square feet to the spiritual.
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Title Annotation:Miracle Girl
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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