Robert Peake
Comp. Lit. 60AC
Deconstructing Religion Through Magical Realism

Both Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues and Ana Castillo's So Far From God employ elements of magical realism. In the following paper I will explain how both novels attempt to reconcile spiritual and religious perspectives through the genre of magical realism. The need for such reconciliation stems from the same impetus as the desire to re-envision and reshape American cultural identity. Likewise, this religious reshaping borrows upon some of the same techniques of deconstructing standardized perspectives and employing language and techniques outside those found in canonical Western literature. It is particularly in the use of language that we see unique, hybridized attitudes towards spirituality emerging in these books.
Both novels deconstruct religious attitudes through language. One way that they do this is through challenging religious attitudes toward death. Traditional Christian views of the timeline of one's life set forth a principle described in the book, Imagined Communities (Anderson, 1989) as "messianic time". Such time is characterized by awaiting salvation. Life and death are endpoints to the linear progression of life. Death is the terminating moment at which salvation occurs for the faithful. More importantly, death is the point at which all previous events culminate into a clear understanding of the meaning of an individual's expired life. The line segment is only explicable after it has been experienced end to end.
In contrast, both novels admit attitudes toward death that imply a lack of termination. In Castillo's book, nearly all of the characters die. Yet their deaths do not disappoint or really even sadden us as they could have. This is partly due to the flippant language and bizarre occurrences preceding the later killing off of each sister. Castillo builds an environment in which the we can not help but question the plausibility of any event. Therein lies the "magic" of magical realism. Because nothing can be trusted to appease our critical desire for realism, everything must be admitted as an inseparable hybrid of fantasy and reality.
In the case of Caridad's death, Castillo precedes the chapter by describing it as, "...the end of Caridad and her beloved Emerald, which we nevertheless will refrain from calling tragic." (p. 190) She explicitly tells us that the situation is not tragic, which is in direct contrast to our rational instincts. Usually, the death of a major protagonist is sincerely sad. Yet we certainly remember that the death of La Loca at the very beginning of the novel was not genuine. A previous event as dazzling as the resurrection and supernatural flight of an infant is hard to forget as proof that death is temporary in Castillo's world.
La Loca's flying and prophesying are immediately brought into question, however, by the existence of dichos , or rumors, in the community. In fact, many rumors about resurrected dead have survived for generations and been promoted into well-known folklore. La Llorona is one example of a woman who, in some tragic sense, lives on after death. Here, the permanence of death and validity of events in the novel are further confused. Is life after death possible? Did La Loca actually resurrect and fly? Do any of the other sisters really die? How can we gauge any of the events of this novel as valid?
All of these questions are deliberately left unanswered by the book. It is the lack of answers that further creates a schism between the ideas set forth in So Far From God and traditional religious values. Most religions attempt to provide answers to questions about the nature of life and what is valid or right. Often, this answer is a manifestation of living in messianic time: have faith and you will find out when you die. This seems unacceptable to Castillo.
Likewise, the actions of a traditional portrayal of God seem unacceptable to Sofia, the mother in So Far From God . She expresses her disapproval in confession:

"God gave me four daughters," Sofi told Father Jerome her confessor, who was still saying Mass at the church at Tome, "and you would have thought that by now I would be a content grandmother, sitting back and letting my daughters care for me, bringing me nothing but their babies on Sundays to rock on my lap! But no, not my hijitas! I had to produce the kind of species that flies!" (p.84)

She goes on to explain to a bewildered Father Jerome that, besides La Loca, one daughter flies to the mountains and another in jets to faraway countries. The only one that stays earthbound, she explains, is Fe. Father Jerome's insensitive response is that she should, "be thankful for that much". (p. 85)
This transaction demonstrates Castillo's perception that a canonical religion such as Catholicism, represented by Father Jerome, is incapable of dealing with the fantastic and bizarre realities her people experience. Fe, in Spanish, means faith. Father Jerome tells her to be thankful for faith, taking both the idea and persona of faith to be inherently valuable and irreproachable.
Indeed, Fe is the least absurd of the characters, but she is also the least entertaining. Ultimately, in the most poignant and political statement of the novel, Fe dies of cancer contracted through the illegal practices of the company she worked for. In the end Fe claims that she, "...had only wanted to make some points with the company and earn bonuses to buy her house, make car payments, have a baby, in other words , have a life like people do on T.V." (p. 189) The circumstances of her death are both tragic and unjust, leading us to question her undying loyalty to the company that ultimately precipitated her demise. We are led to question her persistent and continuous faith in the institution of a large capitalist company just as we are led to question the inherent value of faith in a religious institution like Catholicism.
Alexie takes a similar approach to questioning Catholicism and, more generally, traditional religious views. While Castillo reproaches God through Sofia, Alexie seems to trivializes the nature and importance of God through his main character, Thomas, in Thomas' interview with the radio station KROK:

[Interviewer:] Do you believe in God?
[Thomas:] Yeah, I do.

Do you believe in the devil?
I don't know. I'm beginning to. Seems there's more proof of the devil than proof of God, enit?

Is God a man or a woman?
God could be an armadillo. I have no idea.

Here Thomas not only reproaches God as having less influence than the devil over this world, but refuses to answer what gender God is. Catholic depictions, descriptions, and portrayals of God have asserted that God is a man. Priests are the agents of this god, and both novels involve priests with very similar personalities. Neither Father Arnold nor Father Jerome are characters that are in touch with the people to whom they minister. Priests in both books also struggle with their faith. In So Far From God , Francisco El Penitente is struggling greatly between his faith and the love of a Caridad. Likewise in Reservation Blues Father Arnold struggles between his duties as priest and his love for Checkers. Ultimately, both characters are unable to resolve such conflict. Father Arnold tries to leave but can't and Francisco kills himself. All of the male priests in both novels are, in these ways, wholly unsatisfying and pitiful to us. Symbolically, they represent an unsatisfying religion that cannot fulfill the complex needs of it's people.
Each novel begins to offer us replacements for the aspects of religion they have deconstructed. In the case of male priests, both novels offer powerful spiritual women. Castillo gives us the daughters, with clairvoyant abilities, prophecy, resurrection, and flight; as well as doña Felicia, Caridad's mentor. Alexie offers us Big Mom, a great musician and spiritual guide who supposedly taught her horses to sing. Big Mom is certainly a more satisfying spiritual embodiment. Checkers describes Big Mom in insightful terms:

I was so scared when I first saw Big Mom ... But then she called me a special woman. It made me realize Big Mom is really a woman and we could have a talk ... Anyway, we took a sweat together and it was great ... But I was kind of scared that Big Mom would know that I was in love with Father Arnold ... I was scared of what she would think of me. How can an Indian woman love any white man like that, and him being a priest besides? (pp. 204-205)

While this passage begins with a description of Big Mom that is reassuring, Checkers quickly begins to worry that Big Mom knows about and condemns her love for Father Arnold. What follows is a stream of thought that represents a complex and powerful attempt at reconciling a canonical religion with a more traditional cultural view. Having brought religion and Father Arnold's ability to relate to the people into question earlier in the novel, we now understand why Big Mom might reproach Checkers for loving a white priest. She continues:

Big Mom felt like she came from a whole different part of God than Father Arnold did. Is that possible? Can God be broken into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle? What if it's like one of those puzzles that Indian kids buy at secondhand stores? You put it together and find out one or two pieces are missing. (p. 205)

Attempts at reconciling her love for Big Mom and Father Arnold are too much for Checkers. She immediately divides God into pieces. The fear here is that her faith and love will be in vain. If indeed she is able to reconcile the various aspects of God presented to her by two different cultures, what if those results are imperfect? Her confusion continues:

I looked at Big Mom and thought that God must be made up mostly of Indian and woman pieces. Then I looked at Father Arnold and thought that God must be made up of white and man pieces. I don't know what's true. (p. 205)

Her final statement, that she does not know what is true, is in alignment with not answering questions about what is valid in magical realism. Just as Castillo refuses to answer whether fantastic events are "real", Alexie also will not attempt to answer what the nature of God is. Rather, he puts confusion and doubt into the mind of the most religious of his character, Checkers.
Alexie further confuses the question of what is legitimate or believable by employing unfinished deaths similar to Castillo's. The likable character Junior commits suicide and later returns as a ghost to speak to his old friend, Victor. When Victor questions Junior about his reason for committing suicide, he responds, "Because when I closed my eyes like Thomas, I didn't see a damn thing. Nothing. Zilch. No stories, no songs. Nothing." (p. 290)
Junior points out that songs and stories are escapes from reservation life that make such a life bearable. This is later exemplified as a sort of cultural value that stands in direct opposition to the beliefs of the church:

These are the devil's tools! the white catholic priest bellowed as his Indian flock threw books and records into the fire ... Thomas mourned the loss of those books and records. He still mourned. He had read every book in the reservation library by the time he was in fifth grade ... Thomas! the priest bellowed again. Come forward and help us rid this reservation of the devil's work! (p. 146)

Books and records, which are the tools of songs and stories, are a "piece of God" that Thomas found great joy in. The white priest burning books in Nazi-like fashion only serves to further alienate us from him and exemplify his insensitivity to people like Thomas. Finally, Thomas can not bear to accept the renunciation of his songs and stories, and so responds this way:

Thomas stepped forward, grabbed the first book off the top pile, and ran away. He ran until he could barely breathe; he ran until he found a pace to hide. In the back of a BIA pickup, he read his stolen book: How to Fool and Amaze your Friends: 101 Great Tricks of the Master Magicians. (p. 146-147)

The title of the book the white priest wanted Thomas to burn is of particular significance. It is a book of magic. While Thomas finds magic in the act of listening to and making music, as well as in telling and reading stories, the Catholic church as represented by the various priests is totally insensitive and denunciatory of this aspect of him.
Having thoroughly deconstructed religion, Alexie offers something in it's place. Stories and songs, particularly the act of performing rock and roll music, become a sort of religion of their own. He describes the lights, the thrill of the stage, and the grass roots performances in a romantic fashion. More significantly, Alexie gives us song lyrics from the various songs that Thomas wrote. Each song offers incredible insight into the emotional depth of Thomas' experience living on the reservation. In this way, Alexie has replaced a traditional religion with one founded on songs and stories. These songs and stories are not, however, traditional to the Native American culture. They are rock and roll songs. In this manner, Alexie hybridizes and blends some of the various "aspects of God" he has been considering into a modern "religion" that is inclusive and meaningful for Thomas, Checkers, and Chess.
Castillo, in contrast, never disembarks from the Catholic church when offering a replacement for the deconstruction of that religion. So Far From God ends with Sofia founding M.O.M.A.S., Mothers of Martyrs And Saints. Both martyrs and saints are people that must explicitly be given such a title by the Catholic church. Yet Sofia is recognized in the community as the mother of at least one saint, La Loca. The strange and none the less humorous ending of So Far From God provides insight into how she proposes to re-envision a religion inclusive of her culture. By admitting a humorous regard for Catholicism and likewise allowing for great fantasy and duchas , as well as resurrection, supernatural events, and an inconclusive attitude towards death, she provides her characters with a much more satisfying religion than canonical Catholicism.
Both authors employ an intricate deconstruction of Catholicism that paves the way for the creation of their own spiritual beliefs. Both authors employ elements of magical realism such as fantasy and the admission of multiple "valid" realities in the process of deconstruction. Yet they arrive at different results. Castillo evolves a humorous and culturally rich Catholicism, Alexie creates a rock and roll band. The differences between these two "religions" is testament to the flexibility of magical realism as a means of shaping identity. In this case, it was employed to shape a religious identity. But because religion is so often tied to culture, it is not difficult to extrapolate this example into the great question of American cultural identity.
By admitting the fantastic and never fully answering questions for us about what is valid, both novels imply something insightful about cultural identity: it is never finished. While each book arrives at a separate set of spiritual beliefs, the flexibility and openness of these beliefs allows for constant change. More importantly, the techniques of magical realism allow for a personalization and internalization of the various "pieces of God" or spiritual ideas set forth in text. Rather than asserting, each novel is successfully inclusive of the many facets of their cultural identities while not being evasive. The techniques set forth in each novel are just as important to the project of American multiculturalism as they are personally insightful.