Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"The Five Wounds" by Kirsten Valdez Quade

Congratulations to Kirstin Valdez Quade, who has placed a story, “The Five Wounds,” in the July 27 issue of The New Yorker. According to the contributors’ notes, Quade has just finished an MFA program at the University of Oregon and will begin work in the Fall at Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow.

You have to admit, Quade has achieved two dream victories in the New Writers’ Triple Crown. What’s next? A bidding war for her first book, followed by a triple digit contract with a major publisher? I am sure all my readers join me in wishing her great good fortune in her career as an “emerging” writer.

“The Five Wounds” (which refers to the five wounds of the crucified Christ—on hands and feet and in the side) has generated a bit of discussion among bloggers, some of whom have suggested that it is the New Yorker’s token nod to new writers. I don’t know. Maybe so, maybe not. The fact that the New Yorker is willing to publish a new writer (As far as I can tell, Quade has only published one other story, in the summer 2008 issue of The Colorado Review.) should be encouraging to all struggling writers. For, to the best of my knowledge, the New Yorker pays more for a single short story than anybody else. And you do want to make some money at this, don’t you?

I recently picked up an old book at a library book sale entitled Indirections: For Those Who Want to Write, by Sidney Cox, published in 1947. Cox, a Dartmouth professor asserts: “Do not call yourself a writer, until you can include and shape enough to make a publisher and a public pay.” I wondered if the owner of the book ever reached his or her own desire to be a writer and made a publisher and a public pay. The book was only lightly read—no annotations, no underlining, no signature.

I have read “Five Wounds” three times now—the minimum, it seems to me, to give a short story that aspires to literature the kind of attention it deserves. My first reading simply follows the linear flow of the story, driven by my wish to know what happens next. My second reading is to determine the themes or motifs of the story—identified by looking for details that are almost obsessively repeated, looking for those points when the author cannot resist poking the reader, discovering whatever contexts I need to know about the story. After the third reading, I stand back from the story and try to see its shape in space. My reading model here is Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

“The Five Wounds” is a fairly conventional story, driven by a combination of something old and something new. The something old is the theme of guilt, redemption, penance. The something new is situating this theme within a cultural context that may be novel to many readers. The story takes place during Holy Week in New Mexico and focuses on a religious fraternity or brotherhood named Hermanos Penitentes, which the Catholic Encyclopedia identifies as a brotherhood of flagellants located in New Mexico and Colorado in the late nineteenth century, who, during Holy Week, name one brother to be bound to a cross. If the ritual, which is now forbidden, is still practiced, the Encyclopedia reports it is done so in secret.

I don’t know if Quade has any first hand knowledge of the brotherhood or whether she read about it and it caught her imagination as a means by which to explore the theme of penance. By choosing Amadeo Padilla as her Jesus, Quade picks someone who, if he has not committed all the deadly sins, has done enough to make him interesting. Quade also introduces, for the sake of creating a template against which Amadeo must be measured, a hermanos Jesus from the past, Manuel Garcia, who begged the brothers to use real nails, and obviously does not think Amadeo is worthy. Into this mix, Quade introduces Amadeo’s teenage daughter, Angel, who is unmarried and pregnant and who has come to stay with him. The plot development is clear enough. Whereas Amadeo thinks at first that Angel is a distraction from his role as Jesus, he inevitably comes to realize that, of course, his desertion of her when she was a child has made her the reason for his penance. When Amadeo tells her that he is carrying the cross this year, that he is Jesus, Angel says sarcastically, “And I’m the Virgin Mary.” That must have been a hard line for Quade to resist.

The complex thematic center of the story is announced when Angel, only mildly curious about Passion Week, says, “So, it’s like a play,” and Amadeo replies, “It’s not a play—it’s real. More real…” The ellipsis is Quade’s way of reminding us that whereas Amadeo does not have the language to explain the mystery of transubstantiation, her story is going to try to explore that mystery. When Amadeo takes Angel to see a wooden Christ on the cross, she asks him, “So you really want to know what it feels like?” Again, he cannot say, but he needs to know if he can ask for the nails, if he can do a performance so convincing, “he’ll transubstantiate right there on the cross into something real. He looks at the statue. Total redemption in one gesture, if only he can do it right.”

On Good Friday, the hermanos tie him to the cross, and start off “acting,” but then punch and slug him, and he is surprised that it is “actually happening.” By the second mile, he tries to “get into the part,” but is “just not feeling it.” He asks them to whip him, but Manuel Garcia, the old man, laughs at him. Then Amadeo realizes that Garcia’s mockery is a “gift,” and that Angel isn’t a distraction, but “the point. Everything Jesus did He did for his children.” He realizes that she is the one he wants with him today.

When the hermanos swing the cross upright, he asks for the nails, and the mayor Hermano, or elder brother/chief officer, sterilizes them and they pound them into his palms. It’s a powerful scene, not only because it is “actually” happening to Amadeo, but also because it is symbolically happening—a reenactment of the passion of Christ that at the moment becomes real to Amadeo. However, he realizes that he is not the son, but the father—that Angel is the suffering Christ who says to her father, “why hast thou forsaken me?”

The final image is of Angel holding out her hands toward Amadeo. He knows that she and her child will feel the pain of what it means to be human and that he is helpless to change it. He twists in agony on the cross and the people applaud as an expression of the fear and hope that the passion of Christ inspires in them. What Amadeo cannot explain and Quade’s story explores is the sin of all human beings—that we are mere flesh as a result of the Fall and must suffer pain and death. The paradox of Christ’s sacrifice that saves us all from death lies in the necessity of the Passion that makes possible the Resurrection. Christ serves as the Scapegoat, the one who becomes body and therefore must suffer the wounds and death that body is heir to, so that body can then rise from the dead, the ultimate promise of the Christian religion, the core of Christian faith: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.” Hebrews 11:1.

Again, congratulations, Ms. Quade. Good luck on your future as a writer. I hope you make the publishers and the public pay.


Unknown said...

Please, although interesting, Kirstin you are writing about something that is religious and private, really not open for public entertainment. Brothers of the Light represent a society of truly passionate believers, maybe it is not you intention to exploit or expose, but show there are still people in this world who will worship in the extreme. I hope that your readers will appreciate their dedication.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to reach Kirsten Valdez Quade? I believe she's at Stanford in a writing/teaching program. I'm interested in optioning her story "The Five Wounds'. Any help is appreciated.
Denise Crosby

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Does anyone know how to reach Kirsten Valdez Quade? I believe she's at Stanford in a writing/teaching program. I'm interested in optioning her story "The Five Wounds'. Any help is appreciated.

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his brings me to the ending of the story, gruesome as it is. The final images are hard to see through, and almost drown out the emotions of Amadeo and Angel. The cinematic suspension of time between the nail being driven into Amadeo’s palm and the very believable physical agony resulting from it, provides a perfect occasion for revelation.