"I think extravagance in your life takes energy from the possible extravagances of your mind."

- Kay Ryan, in an interview with The Paris Review
Auralia's Colors, by Jeffrey Overstreet



Phil has already reviewed Auralia's Colors for the blog. But I have read it at last, on his recommendation, and feel compelled to add my word of appreciation for a fine, fine creative work, informed by Christian truth. I am tentatively prepared to declare Jeffrey Overstreet the best Christian fantasist working today (Walter Wangerin is doing other things). Possibly even better than me (!).

What are the things that irritate me about contemporary fantasy generally, and Christian fantasy in particular?

First of all, contemporary fantasists tend to use words badly. They strive for the same effects as Tolkien or Lewis, but lack the rich erudition of those scholars. Their prose is stilted and artificial, their word choices poor.

Overstreet does not suffer from this problem. He uses words deftly, as Rembrandt used brushes and paint. Every description is vivid, every image apt. It's a delight to read his prose. I was reminded of Tolkien's use of Old English names to evoke unconscious meanings in the reader. Overstreet doesn't use that technique, but the whimsical names he gives to humans and beasts had a similar effect on me.

Contemporary fantasists tend to be derivative. When you read their work, you can easily detect a) which favorite writers they are trying to ape, and b) their political and social beliefs and prejudices.

Overstreet's work is as original as a new baby. He goes his own way, telling his own story. The only thing Auralia's Colors reminded me of was—in a general way—Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, but the resemblance is superficial. Where Peake portrayed a grotesque world, barely concealing the disease under its skin, Overstreet creates a world full of wonder and beauty, its potential buried under the weight of destructive ideas.

I won't give a synopsis of the plot, except to say that it involves a country stripped of all color by law, where a miraculous young girl named Auralia, working in the wilderness, gathers and weaves together wonderful hues that remind the people of a better life and give them hope. It would have been easy to make the characters in this story black and white, but Overstreet's creations have the stamp of real life on them—in their various ways they all think they are doing good, and they often commit their greatest sins in full assurance of righteousness.

Some readers will be tempted to allegorize Auralia's Colors. This would be a mistake, I think. It needs to be allowed to speak on its own terms, to work secretly in our dreams.

Auralia's Colors (the first of a series) is a book to savor; a book to break your heart. Not for young children (a little too intense), but highly recommended for anyone older.

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Comments on "Auralia's Colors, by Jeffrey Overstreet":
1. Phil - 07/11/2011 9:49 pm EDT

Hurrah. I'm glad you like it. The second one is much more intense. I still haven't read the third or fourth. Overstreet's novels seem to pursue the idea in that curious quote of Dostoevsky's, that beauty will save the world. Exactly how it will be saved isn't at all clear.

2. Michael Lynch - 07/12/2011 2:02 pm EDT

I tried to read this book and actually gave up three quarters of the way through! I found it a discouraging, confusing read. I may have become biased as I saw more and more of Overstreet's liberal thinking (political and religious) come out on his blog. But I enjoy art of all kinds by unbelievers, so I don't know it that was my issue with Auralia's Colors.

3. Lars Walker - 07/12/2011 3:02 pm EDT

I didn't know that about Overstreet. I'm sorry to hear it.

4. Phil - 07/12/2011 8:11 pm EDT

Oh, let's be generous. Michael, I'd recommend the second book to you, but the end of the first one sets up the rest of the story in a big way. I wonder if we could talk it through somehow, dissect the novel on his blog, but we may not have enough energy for that.

5. Jeffrey Overstreet - 07/14/2011 12:02 pm EDT

Oooh, I've been pinned with a scary label: "liberal thinking"!

I suspect that the term will call up all kinds of unsavory associations in your mind. That's what labels do.

Lars, before you let anything make you feel "sorry to hear it," please investigate to see if it's true first.

I recoil from fiction that is tainted by any kind of heavy-handed political sermonizing, and I avoid identifying myself with either "liberal" or "conservative" camps, because I'm disgusted by a lot of what I see on either side of that debate. I prefer to avoid the scene of clashing gladiators who speak in extremes, and prefer to work with the thoughtful people in the middle who are striving to thoughtfully work together. The dualistic, prejudice-driven nature of political dialogue in the media is paralyzing and poisoning to thoughtfulness, humility, and progress.

The stories I write are a process of asking questions, not making political points.

I'm sorry that my blog - which is mostly about movies, actually - has been so discouraging to Mr. Lynch. But I'd encourage you to explore it yourself, and feel free to ask me any questions. I'm quite accessible: joverstreet@gmail.com

I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

6. Michael Lynch - 07/15/2011 7:14 am EDT

I'm not a fan of preachy fiction either, so that wasn't my problem with Overstreet's writing. It was his writing. And I'm not telling anyone what to think about that--I was just sharing my thoughts.

The sarcasm in Overstreet's first sentence above is interesting considering the criticism he's had of anyone who criticized Rob Bell during the debate a few months ago (I'm thankful for men like John Piper who still have the guts to be unashamed of Scripture. Yes, if Ghandi died without Christ, he went to hell).

And I stuck with his blog for a while. Then it started sounding like an Obama fan club from time to time. I guess his idea of thoughtful people are radical leftist thinkers like Obama.

I would encourage Lars (or anyone else) to peruse Overstreet's blog for the last several months and tell me my suspicions are wrong. Again, I'm not saying this is a reason NOT to read his fiction. But as for me, I can't help wondering if he's a wolf in sheep's clothing of the worst kind.

7. Phil - 07/15/2011 9:17 am EDT

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michael. I haven't come to the same conclusion, but I do hope to make time to read more of the blog of someone I'd like to count as a friend someday.

To all readers, I hope this blog is a place where we can type out strong opinions and argue them to some degree without animus. So let's write as we would want to be written about--not that we haven't in this thread. I'm just putting the sign on the wall.

8. Jeffrey - 07/15/2011 11:33 am EDT

Lars,

Heck, I'd encourage you to follow me on Facebook, email me, even give me a phone call last night. That way you can come to your own conclusions on something more than a few blog entries (entries Lynch is exaggerating), and from actual relationship.

1) I *welcome* criticism of Rob Bell. I disapprove of rash, presumptuous condemnation of Rob Bell. (Piper's dismissal - his message "Farewell, Rob Bell" was a public rejection based on having seen a marketing description of Bell's book; it was hasty and inappropriate.) I think dialogue and thoughtfulness are wiser than hasty public pronouncements of judgement. If that's crazy leftist behavior, so be it. But I learned it from Jesus.

2. I didn't vote for Obama. I have admired *some* of his choices, just as I've disliked other choices. My vote for the next election is still up for grabs.

3. The sarcasm in my first sentence speaks to my aversion to dualistic labels that *prevent* thoughtful consideration of individuals, rather than really opening things up. The word "liberal" is loaded with negative associations, as is the word "conservative" - and neither are particularly helpful.

4. "If Ghandi died without Christ, he went to hell." Right. But we don't know what the truth of his mind and heart were when he died. And I don't think it's my business to guess. That's God's job. I've written an article about Rob Bell's book and a discussion of it that took place at Seattle Pacific University; it'll be published in the September issue of Response magazine. Stay tuned. You may find that my response to Rob Bell's opinion is far more complicated than Lynch makes it sound. Do I agree with him? Onsome points yes, on some points no. But do I grant him the liberty to ask questions and provoke discussion? Yes. And am I glad he has asked us to research carefully what Christ meant when he used terms like "heaven," "hell," and "the kingdom of God"? I'm happy when *anybody* inspires us to meditate on the Scriptures.

"A wolf in sheep's clothing of the worst kind?" Michael, you have an open invitation to meet me on Facebook and raise this question. I'll answer your questions. Don't you think dialogue would be better than throwing out judgmental labels?

And I'd encourage you to read "Through a Screen Darkly," my memoir about faith and art. I start the book by talking about the regularity with which I'm accused of being too conservative and too liberal, and then I offer all kinds of stories that should serve readers better than gross generalizations.

Lars, again - thank you for the review.

My invitation stands to any of your readers to come and have an open conversation on Facebook. I have nothing to hide and no political agenda to promote. I like exploring questions and conversations with people who value art and imagination. And I do my best to pursue that in a spirit that honors Christ.

9. Michael Lynch - 07/15/2011 11:51 am EDT

I realize my last sentence was a bit strong which is why I framed it in speculation. Let me say something nice about Mr. Overstreet. I appreciate some of his movie critiques. The love he diplays for his wife is admirable. And I've discovered some fiction by writers I was unfamiliar with through his recommendations.

The "wolves" are purposefully deceitful. I hope this isn't the case with Overstreet. But he has a voice in the Christian culture and if he is going to advocate something, I would hope that he would be informed. In the case of politicians, does he know their views and voting records? In the case of theology, does he know scripture?

I know I've taken this thread off topic. I will leave it at that before it starts looking like a debate over at Veith's blog (Another blog I enjoy).

10. Micayla - 07/15/2011 12:17 pm EDT

Michael, I understand where you're coming from when you say the book was a confusing read. When I first read "Auralia's Colors," I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters to follow and trying to see where the story was taking me. (I've always been the type to try to "read forward" and see if I can figure out what will happen later). However, I did make it through to the end, and now I am working my way up to the 4th book.

In fact, I already have the 4th book in my possession, but I decided it was necessary to reread the 3rd in order to fully appreciate the delicacies of the last book in the series. This is why I enjoy Mr. Overstreet's writing; I have to be dedicated to the story. His style pulls me into the world he has created and that is what I love about reading! But even better than this departure from the "real world" is that upon my return to reality, I'm still thinking! And I'm always looking forward to plunging back into the mysterious world of the Expanse.

I follow Mr. Overstreet on Facebook and I've read only a few of his blog posts. While I haven't noticed any comments dripping with political viewpoints or saturated with far-fetched religious ideas, I won't deny that, just maybe, some of his opinions differ from yours. That happens sometimes. Rather, I have occasionally been offered new ideas for consideration. I'm grounded enough, I feel, in my own faith that words from somebody I don't know would send me reeling away from getting to know this person or force me to completely reject my system of beliefs. I hope that someday, when you're in the mood for a good "thinking book," that you would have the courage to pick up "Auralia's Colors" and read it with a mind thirsty for adventure and mystery, rather than with a mindset polluted with political prejudice.

The Auralia Thread is engaging, inspired, and beautiful. Mr. Overstreet, I look forward to seeing how it all ends.

11. Justin Hanvey - 07/15/2011 4:37 pm EDT

Are we talking -to- Jeffrey Overstreet here, or -about- him, I see a strong lack of actual response to what he has said in his defense, instead talking about his posts as if you were commentating on them and critiquing them. Either way, I know I'd appreciate it if someone talked -to- me when I joined a conversation rather than over me.

I really don't have much else to add except that, other than I've been struggling with the "hell" question for years, and I was really glad when Rob Bell decided to open up the debate. I was also very saddened to see how many people responded to his thoughts with such quick condemnation. The only thoughtful humble response I've seen so far is from an interview Relevant Magazine had with Francis Chan, Chan really showed his brotherly kindness towards Bell in that interview, and his willingness to enter the conversation without preconceived arguments clouding his view.

I've only read Auralia's Colors so far, but I found it refreshing, and the kind of story that I wish I had written myself. I already reviewed it on my blog so I won't say much more about it here.

Thank you Jeff for being willing to ask questions, and humbly let us seek our answers.

12. Micayla - 07/15/2011 4:50 pm EDT

Oh my, I just noticed a horrendous typo! I meant to say that, "I'm grounded enough... that words from somebody I don't know WOULDN'T send me reeling away from getting to know this person..." Oops!

And Justin Hanvey, I just wanted you to know that I like the way you wrote your post.

13. Jeffrey - 07/15/2011 5:16 pm EDT

I appreciate your words, Justin, Phil, and Micayla.

I'd go a step farther and say that this is not the place to be talking *about* me or *to* me. If anything, it's a place to comment on Lars Walker's review. He took the time to write it. I'd rather not dishonor his efforts by contributing any further to a largely speculative and divisive debate about whether or not I do research on politicians. Good heavens, could we be farther from the subject that Lars raised?

In respect to Lars, I'll surrender the conversation now, hoping it either comes to an end or else return to the subject that he introduced.

14. Lars Walker - 07/15/2011 7:12 pm EDT

Mr. Overstreet: I hope I didn't appear stand-offish by not addressing you directly. Although authors have occasionally shown up in these comments before, none has ever come back to continue the conversation. I assumed your (very welcome) appearance was a fly-by.

I'm a very hide-bound, orthodox fundamentalist (Lutheran variety) myself, and I hate theological arguments. I won't boycott the rest of your novels because I may have some theological differences with you. Heaven knows I enjoy a number of authors with whom I cannot entirely agree.

Thanks for your participation.

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