Comedy and the Catholic Novel: A Visit with Lee Oser

“I was expecting a bearded Dan Rattelle,” said Lee Oser, professor at Holy Cross and author of three novels: Out of What Chaos, The Oracles Fell Silent, and most recently Oregon Confetti, out last fall from Wiseblood Books. I had recently shaved and he had done his homework. After offering me coffee and chocolates, which I gratefully accepted, we sat down at his dining room table, which was littered with books and classical music CDs. Dr. Oser took his seat perpendicular from me, against a backdrop of a west facing window, so that shimmers of sunlight glinted off his thick-rimmed glasses. Oregon Confetti, is a gritty, almost potboiler type novel, in which Devin Adams, a Portland art dealer, unwittingly assumes custody of the infant heir to the Chinese imperial throne. Having been an undergraduate at Reed College, Portland is a world Dr. Oser knows first hand. I was eager to ask him about the grittiness of the novel and how that figures into his thoughts about Catholic fiction.

“The mystery of evil is very terrifying,” he said. “What we’re talking about here is human dignity, and that’s a Catholic conversation. I like it, I feel at home in it. On the other hand, I tend to shy away from definitions of the Catholic novel. These are things that Flannery O’Connor was worried about and T.S. Eliot before her. I may like conservative and orthodox churchmen, but on the other hand I’m not sure that they’re going to like me. You see, I’m dealing with a world that many of them are in such strong reaction against that they just may not recognize my peculiar angle on it, and we writers have peculiar angles on things.

“But yes there are certain taboos that a Catholic writer has to respect, and those did come up in my writing. Samuel Beckett will violate those taboos, and it’s interesting to watch him do it, and I respect Beckett. As a writer, not as a theologian. Without our taboos we lose the sense of who we are, we lose the reality of our emotions. We become more and more vaporous.”

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The distinction between the artist and the theologian was something Dr. Oser kept circling back to so I said, “There’s lots in the book that I understood as nods to the conversations the Conservative Catholics have with each other, particularly related to aesthetics, but also you have a joke about the Benedict Option in there—”

“You noticed that, huh? You and about seven other people.”

“What about the moment when Froio,” who is a beleaguered, politically incorrect comic strip writer, “spray cow manure over the heads of the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ types who are protesting outside of his home?”

“It’s satire. It’s in the tradition of Swift. Maybe I regret that the target was a little too easy, but I’m afraid in Portland in particular there’s just been a virulent strand of political insanity and people who are warriors on behalf of peace and social justice are being violent.”

As he refilled my coffee I took a look around the room. The floor plan is semi-open, the only border between the dining and living areas is the beginning of a carpet. There is a grey stone hearth with a crucifix and family photos, some icons, and lots and lots of books. I noticed he had the newest issue of First Things on his coffee table. He’d set out before me a stack of other books he had written including his scholarly book, The Ethics of Modernism. Dr. Oser was the first person in a generation to write a dissertation on Eliot at Yale. Since Oregon Confetti is so driven by its plot, I couldn’t resist asking him, “As a scholar of modernism how did you work through writing a plotted novel?”

He paused, leaned his head against the window and said, “you know sometimes in your subconscious you just have veins of ore. And so the plot became a way to extract that. I take plotting seriously and I care about it and I’m aware of how Woolf and Beckett and other more recent writers have riffed around, even with the very idea of plot. But mostly what I had to do was find a way to access the material that was very compressed in my mind.” Beckett’s fiction was another recurring theme.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that Oregon Confetti’s plot is naïve or unsophisticated. He says that the nineteenth century realist novel cannot be written again because our sense of realism has been changed by movies, television, and the internet. “It would just seem outdated to write things in the sense of realism in the style of Dickens, whom of course I adore, or George Eliot whom I adore less, but still I’m not going to try to conform to those conventions of realism.” I didn’t dare ask him his trouble with George Eliot.

Lee Oser’s writing space is upstairs and really just a spare bedroom, but with stacks of manila folders—his drafts—like giant beige crags about to collapse. His computer monitor is propped up by a pile of books. He also keeps rosary beads and a bottle of Macallan 10. There are a number of framed photographs, some of which he showed me and told me about, one of his parents, other family members. One which caught my eye was a young, Rock and Roll looking Lee (I presume) with some of his friends. He had admitted to playing in a band before attending grad school.

Back downstairs, before getting back to work, he showed me some other books that were important to him. His mother had been a poet. We also chatted about mutual acquaintances (Massachusetts is a small place).

“We’ve had this airy moment in the Church where we’ve said beauty will save us,” he began after a question about the presence of One Thousand and One Nights in his book, “but you’d be wiser saying sex will save us—if it’s the right kind of sex, you know, because it sure beats on the one hand being an insane life-hating or on the other hand a life-hating sybarite.” Both of these extremes Dr. Oser relegates to the gnostic, along with our current black-and-white political situation. “So that’s something I think that Devin is really wrapping his mind around as he goes forward in that book, and that’s certainly the kind of thing I was thinking about.” Dr. Oser puts much stock in the physicality of life. In fact the main thing he likes about his protagonist is that he “fell for the right girl.” His thought is fundamentally grounded in the fact that we humans not only have bodies, but we are made as bodies. Art requires some combination of eyes, ears, tongues, fingers, teeth. Dr. Oser is plain spoken about the human body. “We’ve had this counter-educational moment, where people can no longer read about human beings—you know especially what we’re really like.” He said politically motivated authors tend to downplay the complementarity of man and woman, the mysterious gift of human sexuality. “So much of our fiction has retreated from a frank assessment of human nature.” This punctuated by the meow of a small but very clever cat.

“Why do you think that is?” I said.

“Because we live in a bureaucratic society and the administrative state does not want to deal with our irrational nature. And yet that’s who we are. We have the guiding power of reason, yes, but we are not little machines. We have depths that we don’t understand, we’re not always present to ourselves. Look, we fall in love, these are time wasting activities and the administrative state does not have time for it. You follow me?”

“Yeah, yeah I do.”

“Okay now we’re talking, I’m enjoying this conversation all of a sudden.” He said, pulling his knuckles from under his chin.


  • Daniel Rattelle

    Daniel Rattelle is a poet and arts journalist from Massachusetts. His chapbook, The Sleeping House, (2018) is available from Eyewear Publishing.

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