"Asleep in the Lord" by Jeffrey Eugenides Originally published in the June 13 & 20, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I was thrilled to see that this fiction issue featured a new piece by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose third novel, The Marriage Plot, comes out in October. For whatever reason, it took me a while to read. It’s a slowly-paced story, and I found myself putting it down to think quite often. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it has made an impression on me and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since I finished it.
The story takes place in 1983. A post-graduate named Mitchell has left his home in Michigan and, after travelling Europe for a while, has ended up in Calcutta, just beginning to serve at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes. Nothing in his life has prepared him for his task.
Mitchell had never so much as changed a baby’s diaper before. He’d never nursed a sick person, or seen anyone die, and now here he was, surrounded by a mass of dying people, and it was his job to help them die at peace, knowing they were loved.
He takes it easy at first, offering head massages to those with headaches and passing out medication he knows nothing about, feeling he should work his way up to the larger tasks he finds repulsive, like bathing the sick. We note his hesitation early on, and we wonder if he’ll get over whatever barrier is keeping him from fully engaging in the service he’s signed up for.
For me, the best part of the story was the background on Mitchell’s own spiritual quest. He doesn’t seem to believe, only to want to; or, rather, he wants to be the kind of person he sees when he sees someone who believes (perhaps it’s even a bit of vanity). He was heavily influenced by William James, finding himself perfectly described in the passages about the infirm, and he finds particular promise in this line: “If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.” So he’s questing for such a signal.
Mitchell had embarked on his post-graduate travels in a state of exquisite receptivity. In Europe, he had found churches everywhere, spectacular cathedrals as well as quiet little chapels, all of them still functioning (though usually empty), each one open to a wandering pilgrim. He’d gone into these dark, superstitious spaces to starte at faded frescoes or crude, bloddy paintings of Christ. He’d peered into dusty reliquary jars containing the bones of St. Whoever. In stiff-backed pews, smelling candle wax, he’d closed his eyes and sat as still as possible, opening himself up to whatever was there that might be interested in him. Maybe there was nothing. But how would you ever know if you didn’t send out a signal? That was what Mitchell was doing: he was sending out a signal to the home office.
On the other hand, despite feeling giddy, “like a fan with a backstage pass,” when he finally catches a glimpse of Mother Teresa after he’s arisen pre-dawn to attend Mass, he still “didn’t feel as if he fit in with them, not matter how much he tried.”
I found the ending perplexing in the best of ways, though, as I said above, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. Looking forward to comments to help me out.