Original Prin: A Novel
by Randy Boyagoda.
Paperback, 224 pages, $15.
Reviewed by Joshua Hren
Toward the end of Original Prin our protagonist Princely St. John Umbiligoda sifts through the Duty-Free shop in the Dragomans airport only to find the generically mandated crops of globalization, including “leadership books that promised to ‘unleash’ some things and ‘conquer’ others” and “books that promised all life’s lessons could be learned from Homer and Virgil.” Try as it might, this satirical gem cannot keep The Odyssey from opening up a major problem that the novel probes: who exactly is the center of this man bent on persuading us he’s a sympathetic cancer-survivor, tolerant global citizen, and “bad Catholic,” but who—with shocking quickness—morphs into a cheating, lying “suicide bomber”?
Odysseus, seer of many cities, traveler to the ends of the earth, connoisseur of many minds, is perhaps the first fictional wandering cosmopolitan, the first to practice what Ulrich Beck, in What is Globalization?, calls “place polygamy,” the phenomenon of being “married to several places at once” and loving more than one of them. Beck contends that through “globalization of biography,” the world’s oppositions (of continents, religions, cultures) and the world’s problems occur not merely “out there” but in the center of peoples’ lives: “To live in one place no longer means to live together, and living together no longer means living in the same place.” Multiple locations of transnational individuals threaten the hold of the nation-state.
Many pressures usher such globalized biographies, foster lives like Prin’s, a protagonist who moves from multicultural Toronto to terror-ridden Dragomans, striving to “repurpose” his college into a continuing-education endeavor tied to reeducation and humanitarian relocation (or so the story goes) of suffering Middle Easterners. All of the above, by the way, is underwritten by a sketchy Chinese businessman, known only as “the Nephew,” who isn’t afraid to exercise vague but volatile threats to seal the art of the deal. To go to Dragomans, Prin must leave behind his children and his wife Molly and knock knees, in a chillingly vacuous governmental “safe zone,” with his ex-girlfriend Wende.
As he has been doing since Governor of the Northern Province (and Original Prin, by the way, is better-written by far than both that novel and Beggar’s Feast), Boyagoda gives the yields of globalization comic twists; Prin, negotiating an unexpectedly shady deal concerning eldercare studies and healthcare internships, finds his devotion to literature subjugated to the dross of a woke Dragomans Minister who introduces the Canadian professor’s lecture like so:
“It’s time to hear from our storyteller. He will be speaking to us today about just one word—metamorphosis—and how all of us can transform ourselves and our nation. Many years ago, a passionate and innovative writer, Franz Kafka, absolutely crushed a story about metamorphosis. I remember reading it as a student and being truly inspired … Dragomans was once a lowly caterpillar. Right now, IMO, it’s in a cocoon. In the future … we will all be drag racers, we will all be butterflies!”
As Boyagoda’s able satire unveils, the corporatization of academe relegates literature to the cliché, the tritely and terribly “inspirational”—the therapeutic. “Place polygamy” is the new morality of globalization, says Beck. And Prin’s travels to Dragomans, the conjugal incorporation of Canadian college and Dragomans state, bear this out. But, as Boyagoda makes evident, “place polygamy” occasions awful questions concerning identity.
Through figures as distant from one another as Odysseus and Prin, fictionists have shown us that “many lives in one” makes the man of sorrows more than the acclimated pluralist of Beck’s postmodern peace. Like Homer, Boyagoda shows that rootlessness can make plain a deeper rootlessness—from the self and its Source. “Why do I request you to come to me when, unless you were within me, I would have no being at all?” St. Augustine asks. The Odyssey is so unsettling because in a very real way Odysseus becomes his fictions; he is his wiliness. But though the game of self-making is as old as Homer, the Catholic novelist knows that the capacity for conversion—the shedding of deviated desire masked by manufactured deceits, kenotic self-emptying without keeping receipts—is always the measure, even when characters marvelously defy it.
Odysseus, returned in the guise of a Cretan beggar, seems disassociated from whomever he was twenty years ago. Because he arrives in stranger’s form he is able to receive from his faithful swineherd a flattery-free portrait of himself. But the account that he receives of the original Odysseus, of a “good-natured lord” who treated even the lowly with justice, doesn’t convince Odysseus. Wracked by much strategizing and rationalizing, “the Cretan” launches into a story of early piracy raids, his participation in the Trojan war, his raw murder of a fellow fighter over plunder, and the divine visitations that aided him on his way home. It is difficult to parse out the interconnections between what actually happened to Odysseus and the ennobling lie he tells of himself; both fought in the Trojan wars, both suffered much, but mostly the threads are too distinct to invite easy comparison. Odysseus is an excellent liar, and one wonders whether he is deceiving himself just as much as his audience, at least until the keeper of pigs peppers him with skepticism: “yet I think some part is in no true order, and you will not persuade me in all your talk about Odysseus. Why should such a man as you are lie recklessly to me? But I myself know the whole truth.”
After the Christian succumbs to infidel kisses in the Middle East, Prin narrowly evades an eruption of leveling gunfire emitted from men in “drab cloak and black balaclava.” After the first rash of violence fades, shouts and shots flushing elsewhere, further away, Prin falters over children’s goldfish crackers and shattered glass, stilled in terror until he sees a gunman pull a weapon from the back of his pants and point it at him. Then he utters a line his stepfather sent him as protection against fanatical Muslims: La illah ila Allah, Muhammad Rasul Allah! The gunman, who has been crying, says “Wait, bro, you’re one of us.” Prin, until now a bad Catholic whose guilty conscience does him a great deal of good, “makes” himself Muslim.
Or at least he tries. He tries, like, Odysseus, to “reinvent” himself as a radical. “If we’re on the same team, bro, why are we both hiding back here instead of going out there to, er, to wage holy jihad?” Almost immediately his interlocutor says, “Something tells me you’re just pretending,” not “truly fighting for khilafah.” In the case of “the Cretan stranger,” every yarn of his that bespeaks Odysseus the swineherd calls bollocks, whereas the tender of pigs (and former prince) finds arresting the rest of the spool. Prin fumbles; how can he compete with a man who claims “My sheik’s the real deal, okay? I haven’t met him yet, but he accepted my bay’a after I asked for like a year online,” and who cites Hadith 54, which says that “we just need to keep on telling the truth.”
It is easy to forget, amid Prin’s bogus and comic attempts to mimic the fanatical Muslim, that he has abandoned his faith, that his lie is not just a clever survival tactic but an act of repudiation. How, we can’t help wonder, could he abandon his Catholicity so quickly? Clues come through, especially when the gunman says, “You’re going to tell the truth.” A few months ago he was diagnosed with cancer. This is true; the novel begins with Prin planning to tell his children the news at the zoo. He prayed to God “(didn’t even call him Allah Peace Be Upon His Name back then, that’s how far away I was)” that he would “do something important” with his life if he let him live. This is true; before going under “Prin vowed” that “if he survived the surgery … he’d be a much better husband … He would do something worthy of all that God had granted him.”
And he tried to. Post-surgery, the diapered Prin played pickleball with his fanatical sportsman father, on Good Friday. True, he tried to rectify this by fasting to the point of nearly fainting. Yes, as he hears the “half-dozen whiffle balls knocking against wooden paddles at long intervals—and also the gasps of men in sudden pain, stretching and lunging, hammering shots and being hammered right back,” he hears, with the sacramental ears of a saint, “the sound of the soldiers hammering into Christ’s hands and feet as they hung Him on the cross.” Yes, he goes to confession after his father insists that they celebrate their win by indulging at a steakhouse, on that same Good Friday. (Later in the novel, when he is spinning his lies to the gunman, he seems to both unburden himself of tensions with his own irreligious father and further acknowledge his own flippancy when he feigns that his father “laughed and ate steak and Snickers bars in front of his brothers and our cousins all day during Ramadan.”)
And ultimately yes, he agreed, albeit on account of being convinced that God’s own voice gave him a “Go,” to travel to Dragomans in order to establish an “all sides win” way to keep U.F.U. from closing. But he doesn’t seem to think much about whether what he’s seeking to save should remain open. What defensible goods does “U, F, U” embody—this professional playground where a professeur can perpetuate “cutting edge research into the symbolism of the seahorse in Canadian literature”? Prin’s school had at some point determined that “Holy Family College” was “becoming increasingly irrelevant and too Catholic-seeming, so they changed its name to the University of the Family Universal,” or U.F.U. The university’s former crest, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph living in a house made of books—had been pried off long before. In its place was a bare, bright space.” (Later in the novel Prin comes close to matching the image; after he kisses his former girlfriend on a Dragomans rooftop, and after he phones his wife Molly to confess the mess, he tries to reply to her hang-up with a text message, but his sweaty fingers fumble and he sends her no more than “a blank message from this, the dark end of his life.”)
Besides the problem of U.F.U.’s self-preserving desperation, there’s a more intimate catch to Prin’s quixotic quest—a catch that would strain credulity in a novel that isn’t strung-through with implausibles—that is, in a novel that shows us that our terror-troubled, globalized world is in itself implausible: to find a solution the school has hired his ex-girlfriend Wende, who “specialize[s] in identifying financially viable options for under-performing academic institutions to continue delivering content.” Once his wife gives him permission, he cannot stop “assuring” Molly that there is nothing to worry about. She finally points out that he is “constantly trying to make [her] not worry about [his] going to the Middle East with his girlfriend.”
Prin doth protest too much. His polygamous heart is displaced long before he takes flight. This is yet another truth that rolls from his feigned-fanatic lips: “I’m not actually married,” he says, when the gunman nods suspiciously at his “fellow fanatic’s” wedding ring. “I don’t have a wife,” he says, pulling off his wedding ring and passing it off as a way to “get past passport control” before he “tossed his wedding ring down the aisle” of the Duty-Free. From a certain angle, he is not lying. It is true that Prin’s explanations are consistently over-simple, so that the gunman grills him with an “I don’t believe you” and a “That’s just too easy. No one’s story is that easy.”
I do not wish to oversimplify here either, by contending that if his heart is not faithful to his spouse it may as well be as if they weren’t—or aren’t—married. When he gives in to Wende, however, he cannot help but admit that for who knows how long now his gaze has been craned away from Molly. (How carefully and masterfully he has for so long explained his late-night Google searches of his former girlfriend, their too-frequent communications kept “professional” through a “secure” (from what conscience?) messaging app called VaultTok.) He exploits the fact that his fling with Wende cannot consummate in the conjugal act; his imagination as impotent as his loins, he rationalizes a second kiss with his ex-girlfriend by concluding that “he felt nothing in his head and hips.”
Besides being fodder for Wende’s hermeneutic of skepticism concerning the persistence of Prin’s piety, fidelity, faith, Molly’s husband has long since tried to eliminate peccadillos from his spiritual economy. When his nephew fakes a drowning accident at the pool, Prin, who saw the lifeguard’s puckered, pranked face as and after she gave the young man CPR, decides not to confront his godson. Instead, he interiorly congratulates young Patrick, and then colludes with Patrick’s Iraq-deployed father who confers that “the lifeguard in question was worth the collateral damage he sustained.” Of course a considerable chasm separates a teenage prank from an extramarital affair, but the point is that the former foreshadows the latter: Prin’s disposition toward both, his initial rationalization of both, prove that the two are justified by the same divorce. His conscience has long mastered Odyssean deception, except that the pleasant fictions he tells fool only the original (pre-jihadi) Prin. Earlier in the novel, his conscience pricked him after he watched Wende’s lithe body walking away. He comes close to confessing the fact that he “looked at her walking away and then looked away,” but in the very confessional he rationalizes his gaze because “in none of this had he felt felt.”
Prin’s originating sin seems to be his transvaluation of the sacraments, of the Catholic faith itself, into a maneuverable system that can protect him from himself. Even though he regrets responding to the erotic selfie that Wende sent him after he initially rejected her, when Prin calls home from Dragomans he is diverted; he puts his family on speakerphone so “so he could look up the metaphysical implications of failing to do penance for a mortal sin.”
This isn’t to say that Prin doesn’t admirably struggle to turn away from deceit; Boyagoda gives us much nuance amidst the sometimes buffoonish self-justification. But the layers of rationalizations and lies are so labyrinthine that it somehow becomes believable that Prin could turn himself into a Muslim in a matter of minutes. After all, this is the same man who, though convincing us and himself that he is a decent dad and husband, bent on doing better, makes haste to conclude the following while watching a terrorist gun down his ex-girlfriend at the airport:
His only thought was that Wende was dead and now Molly need never have known. Damn. Just then he felt something open up near his chest. In it. All this noise of gunfire and casings dropping on the floor—had he been shot without noticing? No. So what was this sudden blackness come into him? It was that these, his final moments, that, that, had been his only thought. Not for Wende’s soul. Not for Molly’s mercy … but that it was unfair he had told Molly something now that never needed to be told.
Overcome by his overwhelming self-centeredness, Prin, like the defiant Odysseus, would rather damn the divine than make a confession with compunction: “Damn you,” he says to God, who has purportedly asked him to come to Dragomans “for this” incontrovertible truth. And soon thereafter, with laughable, amateurish storytelling, he remakes himself into the image of the violent God of his imagining.
“Nietzsche replaces sympathy or compassion with laughing together,” writes Beck, who argues that in a globalized world “the sacrilege of polytheism must be committed in the cause of universalism, and first of all with regard to oneself” (86). Laughter must ring out at the foolishness of human certitude. Although this novel may induce laughter over the shakiness of human certitudes, it is underpinned by faith, by “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” Prin’s many falls are only meaningfully funny or unsettlingly sad insofar as these things hoped for are substantial, unshakeable realities.
Catholic writers from Chaucer to J. F. Powers to Evelyn Waugh have given Boyagoda a comic vein to inherit. As John Hagopian has demonstrated, at its best the comedy of Powers, which “is initially satiric wit—not humor, but wit—which modulates into humor and finally into a quiet seriousness and even a sombre grandeur.” The weakest parts of Original Prin come when Boyagoda’s prose seems to be chuckling to itself, pleased with its own wittiness with a pressure that implodes the gravitas of the story’s lower frequencies. But taken as a whole the novel surpasses self-satisfied wit and leaves us instead wincing under the weight of the comic spirit’s humbling capaciousness.
With its comic skewering of conscientious Catholicity and fanatical Islam, Original Prin might seem bent on ushering in a hyper-tolerance; but Boyagoda’s novel does not laugh at what each of us holds most sacred so much as he laughs and then weeps at the self-delusions of believers. Nor does the novel present Islam and Catholicism as “equal paths” to the same shared Father. It is precisely in his fictional-actual metamorphosis from bad Catholic to Muslim terrorist that Boyagoda enunciates how far Prin was from the precepts of his faith in the first place. Although he fools himself well enough, whenever he spins deception aloud he fails miserably. Though this failure becomes undeniably apparent during his discussion with the gunman, it has always been there. Consider his abstracted, abstruse attempt to confess his attraction to Wende early in the novel: “No, Father, it’s more that any reasonable interrogation of the interior movements that informed my agreeing to serve on a particular committee in light of the external representative on the same committee,” to which the priest, tapping loudly on his watch like a referee awaiting the horsemen of the apocalypse, says, “You’re enjoying your professorizing to much. I’ve certainly heard worse language in here, but not by much.”).
If he seems far from salvation at the novel’s brutally abrupt ending (the ending is literally filled with abrupt explosions), Boyagoda teases us, in this first of a trilogy, with the possibility that this self-made suicide bomber might just yet—through the force of his own violent self-erasure—die to his fictional self and yet find his Source, might just barely meet grace on the other side of violence, taking the same route that O’Connor’s characters, in a prior century, travelled. “I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor,” Boyagoda once quipped. Thankfully so, or we might not have a novel such as Orginal Prin, a major foray into what “the” Catholic novel—through its many metamorphoses, beyond our many wiles—might become.
Joshua Hren, Ph.D. is Co-Founder and Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey, teaching and writing at the intersections of political philosophy and literature and Christianity and culture. For many years he served as Managing Editor of Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith, and he remains editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. Joshua has published poems in First Things, Commonweal, and Presence; journalistic pieces in Crisis, Touchstone, New Oxford Review, and America; and numerous scholarly articles in such venues as LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. Joshua’s first academic book is Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy. His first collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico Press) received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Christianity and Literature Book of the Year Award. His second collection of short stories, In the Wine Press, is forthcoming in 2020.