Book Review: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

 
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FIRE SERMON

 

Saying that Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon is a love story, or the story of an affair would be like saying that Moby Dick is about fishing. Yes, there is an affair at the centre of it, and there is talk about love, but this novel is made of so many layers that it may require multiple readings to unfold them all.

The central character and part-time narrator of Fire Sermon is Maggie (after Maggie Nelson, I suspect), who constructs her story through first person narration in the present, third person descriptions of the past, emails, texts, unsent letter, and dialogues with a therapist who might or might not be there. Maggie is married to Thomas. James is married to Beth. Maggie and James are the same age, they got married to their respective spouses at the same age, they each have two children who are the same age, they are both scholars of Christianity. After Maggie reads James’ book, they start emailing, and then texting, then they meet face to face. This is the story of an affair that spiraled from innocent emails about Christian thinkers into a rainy night in Chicago, a night that will torment Maggie’s thoughts for years afterwards.

At this point one is completely forgiven for thinking that this is just another book about an affair; there’s love and sex and heartbreak and maybe a sad ending. Jamie Quatro is clearly aware of this, as she has included a few inside jokes here and there in Maggie’s narrative, where she acknowledges the clichéd nature of the book’s thematic appearance. Love, sex, adultery, spirituality – it’s all been done before, countless times.

I imagine writing this all down and giving the manuscript to my agent.
This has been done to death, she says. I won’t be able to sell this.
— Jamie Quatro (Fire Sermon, p. 156)

What better invitation than this to welcome you to explore everything else about this book that makes it so uniquely touching: the non-linear structure broken into diary entries, emails, letters no one will ever read, opens in April 2017 in Chicago, goes back twenty two years to a third person narration of Maggie’s wedding day, and proceeds to go back and forth in time like a needle fixing a hemline.

What is perhaps the least clichéd aspect of the novel is the ingenious and deeply moving fusion of the erotic and the spiritual. No one has been able to write with such grace about God and sex together since Leonard Cohen. The language here is also crucial to achieving this effect, even on a metafictional level. On page 105, Maggie writes about James that “He reminds me of Hopkins, recalibrating the language of faith,” and indeed their affair is also about that caliber of language. In their correspondence they analyse ideas about the manifestation of the divine in the erotic, and the divine being accessible through the erotic.

This idea that the language of faith is a translation from a higher system to a lower. Pepys wrote in his diary that when he was sick with aesthetic pleasure, it was the same way he felt when he was amorous with his wife.
— Jamie Quatro (Fire Sermon, p. 123)
The tripartite Godhead contained in almond-shaped vulva–Eros as necessary to access the Divine.
— Jamie Quatro (Fire Sermon, p. 156)

For Maggie this affair is certainly a practice of this order, but on the other hand it is also a sacrilege, a breaking of holy vows, a cause for punishment and repentance. Now, maybe that is also a cliché in some genres, but it takes a high-caliber wordsmith to invoke this level of commitment to a text that is by its own admittance “nothing new.” First by admitting this, and then by renouncing every element that would reinforce the cliché (even when these elements are things such as quotation marks in dialogue), Fire Sermon is able to reach new depths. It reinvents – or recalibrates, if you will – the language it needs for this relationship that is trying to transcend the physical, looking for a higher register of experience.


 
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PLATON POULAS

Successfully impersonated a student of English literature for three years, and is now doing a masters in Publishing. Interested in the direction English literature is taking in the 21st century, noir comics, beautifully shot films. Can bore you to death with Hollywood trivia, extensive knowledge of Leonard Cohen, and La La Land.  

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Platon Poulas