Eve Tushnet’s new self-published novel Amends (available as an e-book or a paperback) is peak Tushnet: there are more quirky one-liners than the best standup you’ve seen, more offbeat metaphors than even Michael Chabon can conjure; there are themes of friendship and sacrifice, themes of recovery and religion; there are gay characters, and there’s even a Christian one (the latter features in an extended scene near the end that moved me as much as anything I’ve read this year). The only favorite Tushnet theme missing from this hugely entertaining romp is figure skating, and she makes up for that absence by including a couple of hockey player characters for good measure.
Over the years, Tushnet has been quietly, unsystematically developing what you might think of as a spirituality of humiliation. She’s never put this in the form of a global pronouncement but rather developed it piecemeal and from multiple angles: in blog posts, movie reviews, and more focused treatments of her own questions as a celibate gay Catholic. Consider, for instance, this post from 2010 about the self-humbling involved in “coming out” as gay or lesbian:
The closet also offers a lot of temptations to sin; I’d say for many people it just is a near occasion of sin. There’s the obvious temptation to lie. There’s the temptation to throw other people under the bus to make yourself look more hetero, or butcher or whatever. There’s the temptation to deny or speak uncharitably to openly gay friends (or, for that matter, enemies). There’s the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don’t get too close—to avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly. To the extent that being out involves humiliation and lost opportunities (although it is also extraordinarily freeing and opens a lot of doors you may not have realized existed) I would say that sometimes you have to journey through what Spenser called “the Gracious Valley of Humiliation.”
The implied positive here—that coming out is a way of surrendering a more presentable version of yourself in exchange for a more relationally committed one, and that that surrender is best described with the category of “humility”—is one that Tushnet has returned to over and over again.
Here’s another, more oblique iteration of the theme from a review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood:
[One of the main problems with the movie] is that Mason [the protagonist] never does anything really wrong. He’s a prototypical good-but-aimless kid. We see his foibles—he’s a bit surly and a tad whiny, he smokes some pot if you consider that a foible, he comes home late at least once which possibly makes his mom cry, he sometimes fails to do his homework—but no real sins. He’s bullied but never bullies back. His sister at least gets to be snotty about her grades, which makes her seem like a real person. Where’s the casual cruelty of childhood, the hurtful rather than just boring narcissism of adolescence, the misdeeds which will only be acknowledged and regretted years later? I mean, I get that “Boyhood” isn’t “Carrie,” but must it be “Annie”?
The unstated premise here is that if the filmmakers had allowed Mason to be a real character, much less a redeemed one, he, too, would have had to journey through Spenser’s “Gracious Valley of Humiliation.”
Most recently, in a harsh review of this summer’s Judd Apatow/Amy Schumer romantic comedy Trainwreck, Tushnet criticizes the film for not letting its protagonist be really, truly bad:
Genuinely sleazy stories can expand an audience’s sympathies. If you let your characters get low, get sordid, while still loving them, you can prompt the audience to share that empathetic love for sordid people. You can suggest to the sordid people in your audience that they’re worth caring about—and to the clean people, that they might be more sordid than they realized. But if you want any of these effects you have got to let the characters be bad.
By trimming down a character’s nastiness and thereby undermining any possibility of that character’s humiliation, Tushnet thinks that a gracious (read: grace-giving) valley has gone sadly unexplored.
Her novel Amends—which revolves around an ensemble cast of six young alcoholics going on a fictional MTV reality show about rehab—could be read as Tushnet’s effort to translate her spirituality of humiliation into story form. Like all good fiction, you could enjoy it well enough not knowing any of that background. The story stands on its own as a solid first novel; I could hardly put it down, and I suspect I would’ve felt that way even without my interest in Tushnet’s writing career or my own Christian theology of grace and humiliation.
But for those with eyes to see, this is a book about how humiliation is better than sheer moral success if and inasmuch as it becomes the occasion for love (the positive virtue of self-giving always being better than the merely negative virtue of abstinence from something bad). Recovered sobriety, unlike clean living from the get-go, may be for some of us the necessary road to grace insofar as it shifts our perspective from ourselves (“I can stay clean”) to the lives of others (“I need you in order to get sober, and my saying ‘I’m an alcoholic’ means I’m in the same boat with you and I want to love you back”). Discovering a vocation, as Tushnet often says, isn’t primarily about white-knuckled self-denial and moral achievement; it’s about saying “yes” to a community to whom you have responsibilities, whom you’re called to love. Amends is a story about what that might look like. And it’s funny as hell, to boot.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.