The MTC: Set Apart
Linda Paulson Adams
Aspen Books , 1995. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $9.95 (US)
Audience: Young adult to adult, primary audience LDS, may have non-LDS crossover potential
I enjoyed reading The MTC: Set Apart very much. It was good reading, and very refreshing to see this kind of quality writing in LDS fiction at last. Benson has done a good job with this book and there are many quality elements in it. I have read the previous reviews posted on AML-List about this book, both the positive ones and Evenson's negative one, all which piqued my curiosity enough that I wanted to buy and read it. I know much has been said about this book already, and I will try to be brief and address points that may not have been covered yet because of that.
Benson has made it clear on AML-List that this was not intended to be YA fiction, but adult fiction about the missionary experience. I agree here. This does not read like young adult fiction. It is quite literary in style. In fact I was surprised after reading it that the publishers wanted to market it as YA.
The book's real strengths are in the characters. The chapters which explore each missionary's background and reasons for coming on a mission were very realistic and fascinating to me, and very well-written also. I didn't mind the "clumsy" Elder Wilberg's characterization at all, as some have mentioned. I was engrossed by his background in the beginning of the book. I think, however, his story pales in comparison to Rignell's and Jeppsen's, both of which are much more compelling. I will say I was a little disappointed that Benson did not include a similar background chapter for Elder Fergason. We know very little about him, yet he becomes a more major figure in the book than Wilberg. Fergason nearly leaves his mission, which is a crisis point in the book. However, I didn't feel his anguish or homesickness nearly as much as if it had been one of the other elders that I 'knew' about. It might have been a better choice to tell us about Fergason rather than Wilberg, or just to include both stories. I'd like to understand better what was making him tick.
I definitely did not feel the spiritual experiences recounted in the book to be "cheap shivers," as Evenson noted. The characters had some real depth, and their problems were not resolved in the end. Where there was shallowness, it was intentional: the characters themselves were shallow people. I felt LaDawn's character was a wonderful example of a "whited sepulchre." Anthon had not yet suffered any real pain for his infractions, but that does not always come immediately in real life either. It was definitely not what I would call a "shiver" or a Deseret-Bookism sort of thing. I think in describing the spiritual feelings of his characters Benson succeeds very well. It was uplifting, with a 'real' quality that did not run over into preaching, which is very difficult to accomplish well, and I haven't seen a better example of this yet.
The chapter headings were another issue that has been brought up. As for me, they were all right, but the book would also read just fine without them. It might have been nice to know who was speaking, whether it was a collective opinion of all of the elders, or just one of them, or someone else entirely.
I do have a couple of points to bring out that might have improved the reading experience for me. First, the dialogue has been brought up before. I didn't mind this style, of spelling out exactly how the words sounded, until I had a BYU creative writing professor seriously object to this, labeling it as unprofessional. It was one of his pet peeves. (He also didn't like to read anything but "He said," in dialogue -- he didn't like "He countered," or "He answered," or "He cackled," etc, so take that FWIW.) Anyway, I find that I don't mind common slang words like "gotta," "gonna," etc, (where it's actually a contraction or a different word) included in dialogue. But when it comes to alternate spellings of things like "Hello" (Hullo) and such, then I begin to stumble over it while I'm reading. I think it might be good here to tone that technique down somewhat. The children speaking with "w"s instead of "r"s was hard to read. While I know plenty of children speak like that, it was hard to figure out what was being said, and I had to read aloud. This slows me down as a reader, and it's pretty much unnecessary for plot advancement or characterization. I think that eliminating as much as possible of this from the dialogue (without losing actual meaning or necessary characterization) could only help elevate the literary nature of the style.
Another comment I have is that towards the end, the book does slow down as the missionaries get anxious to leave the MTC and the days there seems they will never end. Benson does establish this feeling of trunky-ness -- almost too well! :-) I think this section could have been shortened or condensed, including fewer scenes where the elders sit around studying and fighting with their discussion memorization. Those parts did drag a little for me, although as far as providing the reader with an experience very like being in the MTC, it probably succeeds well. I don't know, since I haven't had the opportunity to go (yet). It depends on his goals with this section. I also feel the background chapters worked better than this section and flowed more readily, partly because the point of view of each character is more separated. It becomes tricky to keep the POV straight with one person or another when each is a main character. On the whole, though, he does a good job not mixing up the different POV's within scenes.
Benson has expressed interest in knowing whether his Cordell Anthon character succeeds or not. I think he does to a degree; however, the initial scene of his 'necking' with LaDawn is entirely too vague. I didn't know enough about what happened, in that I also didn't know if anything wrong actually happened or not. It's more clear in the later part of the book, when he leaves the MTC to find her and doesn't leave her house until 3 am or so, that he's at least broken a lot of mission rules and probably gone a little too far with her. Still vague though. Explicit detail would also be unnecessary and possibly jarring, but I think the reader needs a better sense of what exactly has happened between them. I am very curious to know if those parts were actually written clearly to start with and then needed to be rewritten before publication. More clarity here should have been allowed, IMO. I didn't get a clear sense that Anthon had actually committed sin requiring confession before an authority, which (I think?) is what Benson wanted to show with this story. It is plain that Anthon is uncertain whether his actions are severe enough to warrant it. But it's not clear to the reader. I do have a complaint with his name -- Cory Anthon -- being altogether too obvious both in symbol and foreshadowing. I think the average LDS reader should be able to put things like that together without being told. That is how parables work, after all -- the meaning may slip by some readers, but to those who are pondering and thinking, we'll figure out the comparison to Corianton.
Overall, I feel The MTC: Set Apart succeeds as a literary novel, and is impressive as a first novel. (I can only hope to do as well with mine!) Benson is a talented writer. I found it refreshing to read something with both good literary quality and LDS perspective and experiences at the same time. It was a treat. So much of the LDS fiction that I've read tends to be either fluffy or preachy or otherwise shallow, but this book addressed serious spiritual issues well and thoughtfully without digressing into those less-desirable areas. Thank you for it, and good luck on finding a publisher for the sequel. I would like to read it.
-- Linda Adams firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/8776
© 1997 Linda Adams