A Rhinestone Button

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
317 pages,
ISBN: 0676975496

Post Your Opinion
A False Sense of Awe
by Maureen Lennon

In a recent interview, Gail Anderson-Dargatz explained that mystical experiences, as she understands them, manifest in "ā a feeling of profound awe..." People who undergo them have a mysterious sense of 'understanding' settle over them, although they are unable to articulate what it is they have come to understand. Often, they assume that they have come to understand God. According to the author, A Rhinestone Button is "āabout that core mystical experience and what it can mean to a person's lifeā"
The author came to some awareness of mystical experiences because of what her husband went through prior to suffering an epileptic seizure and the discovery of his brain tumour. It turns out that mystical experiences and epilepsy can be brought on by certain types of brain tumours. So, Floyd's experiences were after all neurological in nature. And therein lay the gem of a story ideaųthat what is believed to be profoundly spiritual is really only a hoax perpetrated by illness.
American author, Mark Salzman, dealt with this same issue in his novel, Lying Awake. There he posed an intriguing question. How would his main character, a devout Carmelite nun, react when she learned that the sense of divine connection she believed was being occasioned by God, was, in fact, merely a symptom of her worsening epilepsy?
Anderson-Dargatz took a different tack, choosing, instead, to focus solely on the sense of 'awe'ųattempting to translate this deeply-affecting experience for the reader. But before she even begins her story, the author admits that "āa true mystical experience, by its nature, can't be articulated."
In order to get around this problem, she chose to give her principal character, Job Sunstrum, synesthesia, a curious disorder that causes sufferers to feel and see ordinary sounds. But this device single-handedly sinks the story. Writers can re-create emotions, but they cannot re-create 'colours' and 'shapes'. They can only describe. Consequently, throughout the entire novel, the author tells us, and tells us, and tells us what synesthesia is like. "His friend Will's voice was the deep blue-green of a spruce treeā Stinky Steinke's was the blue-black of a crow's wing. āa cat screech set off an explosion of green jagged lighteningāThe bull's breath was loud, wedges of raspberry sherbetā" This tedious recitation of detail never comes close to recreating a sense of 'awe' for the reader.
So what is left? A story about a young man, with white-blonde curly hair, a 'sweet face', and a flair for baking. His sympathetic mother dies when he is thirteen. He grows up in rural Alberta, and, while in his early twenties, comes to live alone on his parents' cattle farm after the death of his bullying father. The neighboring community is resolutely Baptist, and Job's older brother, Jacob, is one of its uninspired preachers. Throughout the novel, Job falls on and off the church-going wagon, suffers from social isolation, feels sorry for himself, comforts himself with the colours he sees and the shapes he feels, works hard, wonders about God, and hopes to attract a girlfriend.
Unfortunately, the story does not succeed in distinguishing itself from countless other stories that chronicle the emotional pain resulting from social ostracism. And the writing consistently lacks confidence. Although this is Anderson-Dargatz's third novel, the prose is still littered with annoying explanations of the obvious. While driving, Job passes over 'rumble strips' which are "āa series of bumps on the asphalt that warned mesmerized drivers of an upcoming intersection." The squeak of dry snow underfoot, is "ālike the sound of Saran Wrap being balled upā" When an obviously fair-weather male friend suddenly drops Job in favour of dating a young woman, Job "āfelt dispensable, a friend of convenience." One hundred pages into the story, after first telling us on page seven that Job is 'pretty', she tells us "āhe'd never been part of the crowd."
Her use of metaphors is forced and she misses some wonderful opportunities that would have taken little effort and would have yielded a great deal. For example, she describes, quite poignantly, the plight of a calf that cannot keep up with the farm herd because of an inability to walk properly. Then, unable to resist, she tells us that Job feels just as left out of society as the calf does from the herd. She would have done better to forget about instructing the reader and to simply show Job reacting sympathetically to the animal. As for the rhinestone button, it is a metaphor that is introduced late in the story and it sits on the surface of the work, rather than being sewn on effectively. Nothing about the story turns on it.
The best thing about the novel is the characterization of the Godsfinger Baptist community with its desperate preachers, attention-seeking worshippers, and fevered services. Anderson-Dargatz does a good job of disclosing the shamming ways of the leaders and the utter mindlessness of the followers. Job's older brother, an unctuous preacher and a failed human being from every angle, is so successfully drawn, it is a relief finally to see the end of him and his selfish wife. In addition to the description of the calf, there is also some very emotive writing in a passage depicting a frightened bull hopelessly trapped in mud. The dangerous, panicked animal allows itself to be comforted by Job. Such moments have indisputable magic. Here we sense the 'awe', but we should have felt this way throughout the story.
In the end, those folks who want to be together get together and live happily ever-after. Job gets a girlfriend, a tearoom to cook in, and the farm's silos bearing Christian slogans come tumbling down in the name of progress. The story could have benefited considerably from a more thorough analysis of this type of religious experience, and the writing from some rigorous editing.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us