Dani culture, Catholic mass, and sex with a photojournalist in a seedy hotel all come together in this excerpt from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In the Dogpatch, we do what we do, which is talk about writing. We had a lot to say about this riveting chapter and can’t wait to read more. Here’s an excerpt to help you see why we’re riled up:
She was also witness to a burgeoning — well, maybe feminist movement wasn’t the right word for it; but with pacification, and a marked decrease in the need for protection from neighboring hostile tribes, the role of women in Dani society had greatly expanded. Of course women still did most of the work, farming and mending what little clothes they wore and watching after the children, as well as the pigs (which, along with sweet potatoes, were the staples of their diet). But the men’s lodges, the center of all important discussions of a political or economic or social nature, and formerly off-limits to all married women, were now a place where everyone in the village gathered to talk and eat and tend to everyday chores in the company of their family and friends. The division between the sexes was not as clearly demarcated as it had been in the past, and women were rushing in to fill the void left by the enforced cessation of (formerly incessant) tribal warfare. Social gatherings focused less on the planning of attacks and the mourning of the dead, and more on the communal tending of the fields and the improvement of the settlement. And Amnesty was a witness to all of it.
The Dani made her feel like one of them; every moment she was there she felt more alive than she had at any time before in her life. When she was there among the Dani, she didn’t have to try to live. Then one day, near the end of her first full year at the Dani settlement, a wave of concern swept through the small village. She had never seen anything like it in all her time there. Some of the men looked scared, and they were muttering names that were unfamiliar to Amnesty, as they grabbed spears and other weapons long disused and gathering dust as old war trophies in the men’s lodges. It appeared to her to be something right out of the literature, with the men of the village gathering to repel a surprise attack on a remote outpost.
Wow! That was my initial reaction to this chapter. I honestly had to read it a few times before I could stop being simply fascinated and try to look at it critically. Wes, I find it very fascinating that your initial question to the group was whether there was enough action content to sustain this chapter. I sometimes think you are completely unimpressed by your own ability to mesmerize the reader as well as your ability to weave unique and complex content into a character’s on-the-page experience. Somehow you make it completely reasonable that a character would go to church, call to mind her time spent in the highlands of New Guinea, and regale the reader with tales of the Dani people that somehow link to her own need for both action and atonement.
For someone just joining this discussion, I’ll say loosely what unfolds in this chapter. A character with the unlikely name of “Amnesty,” who is non-religious, goes to Catholic mass because it offers a place to think without the usual interruptions. That’s wildly ironic because the cacophony going on in her brain is deafening. Amnesty is a little Hamlet, in that she’s kind of stuck in her life and subsequently tortured. On a past anthropological visit to the wonderfully bizarre Dani villages, she pulled a Captain Kirk and got way too involved in the daily goings on of the isolated modern-primitive Dani. Her bosses kicked her to the curb, and now poor Amnesty spends more time planning her next move than actually making it. Of course, in church she can’t help but turn her anthropologist eye on the rituals of organized religion, and her opinions are not surprisingly damning. If we read what she thought in an academic paper, it would be fascinating. But putting the character in scene and having her dissect the religious ritual as it unfolds is beyond riveting. But then it gets better, because despite her brilliance, we see how stuck in place she is. She’s rooted in that pew and rooted in place in her life. We think it’s because of her screw-up on the field trip; but as the layers of her life are further implied, we realize her dilemma goes much deeper. Having read other chapters, I also know that her wacked-out upbringing further ups the stakes for poor Amnesty having any semblance of a peaceful inner life.
Much of the time reading, I forgot we were in church and felt completely transported to the Dani village. That is a strength of the writing, although I ultimately thought you could consider leaking out the Dani story en route while Amnesty observes the mass ritual and letting the climax of the village story (which, sorry readers, I’m not gonna tell ya until the book comes out) intertwine with that horrific (from Amnesty’s perspective and mine as well) moment when the chanting priest holds the wafer aloft and all of Amnesty’s missteps among the Dani and her interpretation of the mass collide. That wafer waving moment is important in this scene, and I think you could slow the writing down to highlight it even more. That’s really my main comment: that I’d love to see the church scene and the village scenes told more concurrently until we hit that ultra moment of tension and imagery in both.
As for the interpretation Amnesty herself needs to take away. I would like to know whether you agree with the reading that even while Amnesty doesn’t believe in the religion she observes, her time in church is nonetheless akin to religious action. I find it drastically ironic that your non-believing character nonetheless enacts a sort of religious interpretation of the mass service: a prayer, inward meditation, an account of her past sins, and, finally, seeking atonement. It’s completely masterful, and I’m dazzled by your skills.
Finally, about said photojournalist: That’s an awfully sexy career, and I’m all in favor of wild sex in a cheap hotel with a thrill-seeking photojournalist. But I think the hotel romp adds too much of an ending to this chapter and sends it in a different direction. Once mass is over, I really think the chapter should be too. Of course, don’t cut the sex scene. Pretty please. It’s wickedly great. But consider moving it to another chapter and possibly separated from the mass chapter. Let us all wait to find out the bedroom coda to the conclusion of Amnesty’s day in church.
The only other thing I have to say is please hurry up and finish writing this book so everyone can read the whole thing. It’s going to be a hit.
XO Laurel Leigh
Geez, Louise. Laurel got to say all the important stuff before I could jump in with my 2 cents. Your initial question, Wes, was “Is it OK if nothing HAPPENS in this chapter?” Hmmm, I say, hmmm. Well, the way I see it, it doesn’t matter whether something physically happens in this chapter, but something darn well better happen to launch Amnesty into the search for her brother. I mean, I enjoyed learning all these things about the Dani people, BUT I’m not reading a book written by Margaret Mead (although I have read her work and enjoyed it). I’m reading a book about murder and the messed-up lives being lived by “Love” children, with a little side helping of Margaret Mead. So, while it’s all well and good (don’t you hate clichés, but they’re so useful) for you to include this info about the Dani, I think some of it should either leak through in earlier chapters, with the final leak being the moment with the hatchet. That will then deepen our understanding of the moment where we see Amnesty conclude that she must take ACTION. Use this chapter as the launchpad for the search.
I want to understand the scene where she’s moved to kill but thwarted by cultural taboos. As it is, I knew something had terminated the interaction, but I wasn’t sure what. It’s a critical moment in the story, and I’m not there yet. I DO understand that her interference got her fired, but I don’t understand how her interference completely altered the events between the two warring factions. Give me more there.
As an aside, I think you need to weed out those authorial intrusions that distract, you know, the ones where you can’t help but pass judgment on the situation or add a little pointed but subtle commentary, thinking that reader won’t “get it” otherwise. Some may be in there to elicit chuckles. And some may be in there just because you find them entertaining (or maybe you’re too close to see them). Kill them!!
Oh, and get rid of that sexy scene in the humid hotel room. It distracts and sends us off in a different direction, as Laurel said. OK, I agree with Laurel: put it elsewhere. It’s entertaining. But when I’m in church, I want to be in church or with the Dani. When the church scene ends, we should be following Amnesty into the heart of darkness, so to speak.
Nuff said. Now finish this sucker! I want to read the whole thing!
Photo of cathedral interior: Pixabay.