I never ask for more than I deserve/You know it’s the truth/You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this earth/I’m tellin’ you, no way.
-Janet Jackson, What Have You Done For Me Lately
There are two ways to think about Stephen Santos and his new novel, N: The Compass Series, and the differences of how we interpret a failed marriage between two people whose worldview is inharmoniously synched with spirituality, practicality and conventional wisdoms that always seem to betray even the most decent of amorous intentions.
Joshua and Bridget are married, and Bridget wants (and is eventually granted) a divorce from her husband. She moves with her children into a new marriage which she feels will provide her with a better sense of emotional and financial security. Joshua is understandly devastated, torn with anguish, and is forced to accept the way his wife feels, and he thus spends the remainder of the book laying the bulk of his problems at the winged feet of his wife (whose voice in the matter seems controlled, choked and regulated, but more on this later). At times, Joshua seems delusional and romantic about marriage and women. He seems ironic and contradictory, believes he knows what Bridget wants, yet he is unable to hear her for sake of his own veiled conceit:
We were young, and she had so much life in her. I loved her with all of my heart, but I didn’t have concrete plans as to where I was headed in life. She, on the other hand, had a plan, a purpose and a desire to be free from uncertainty about things. She kept dragging her feet when I would ask her about our future. She knew that I couldn’t change, and that she would have to be the one to. That sounds bad. It’s not that I didn’t want to change for her, it’s just that I had discovered what everyone really wants (63-64).
But Bridget did seem to know what she wanted in life and marriage, if only Joshua had listened. The novel is full of these moments, Joshua is steady with his blame-game, and Bridget struggles to find happiness and a sense of marital fulfillment. All is difficult mostly because Joshua cannot bring himself to think in practical terms regarding the breakdown of his marriage, the problem of arrogance, and the limitations of spiritual/religious panaceas. He spends too much time ministering to us (in first-person), undervaluing his wife, and, fatalistically, seeing the world through romantic lenses.
Sing your praises, hold your hand/Tell the world that I think you’re grand/I’ll do any, thing for you, (he-he) but slave.
-Ray Charles, I’ll do Anything But Work
Much masculinity, particularly when it is aggressive and overbearing and hostile and unrelenting, is really a mask for the innate puerile frailty most men suffer. This is why it is so important to repress oppress suppress and control women. This is why it is difficult for men to listen to women, husbands their wives. It is difficult for a man to respect a woman’s independence and self-assurance, but particularly her right to control her body mind and soul. And religion undergirds this male persistence simply by way of its own support and confirmation of female subjugation (Ayaan Hirsi Ali is still on the run last I heard). Throughout the novel, Joshua never accepts responsibility for his failed marriage, only insisting that Bridget has fallen from (his) grace like in a biblical scene, thus it is his righteous duty to rescue and rehabilitate her. Her dreams and ambitions (which he has taken for granted and/or is unable to bear) is never really the focus of Joshua’s concern, just that he must save her from herself. More of Joshua’s sermonic hubris:
I refused to worry about things, and I was ok with the ways that life changes direction. She figured she needed to control her life so that nothing was left in the air. I know why she did this, but I knew she would always be nagged by the fears of her childhood unless she followed me. She knew deep down her desire was to live with me, but she kept wondering how she would function in reality? She used to always tell me she thought I lived on a cloud somewhere, and she was trying to make things work down here in the real world (64)
“Why did she have to do this? Why now? Why ever? For comfort. That’s her reason. So that she could feel more comfortable, that’s what it boils down to. She was tired of being a journey. Well, did she really think that life was supposed to be easy?” (23) Ironically, the answers to Joshua’s questions – which he cannot see because of his evangelical preoccupation with all that is wrong with Bridget – is revealed in the futile soliloquies where he finds himself suffocated by his own romanticism.
In a scene that is quite revealing, Joshua asks Bridget pointedly if he is the reason to blame for her leaving the marriage. Bridget says yes. “If you would’ve just provided a safe place for us, a place where I didn’t have to worry about the things I was worried about, then I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to go look for it elsewhere” (44). Bridget is redolent with reason, trying desperately to lift her voice above Joshua’s impassioned sentimentality, hoping he will see the importance of financial and emotional security a woman needs and desires from a husband. She tries to explain what is practical in a marriage and what security means for her: “Josh, you know just as well as I do that whether you worry or not, there are still bills that need to be paid, people who get sick and things that were outside of our financial reach” (44). Again, Joshua misses his chance to learn something about women and how they view marriage. Here he cloaks his personal inadequacy in ignorant romanticism: “Yeah, but life is more than just paying bills. It’s more than just paying bills. It’s more than a feeling of safety” (44).
In his great novel, Baldwin wrote: “We all commit our crimes. The thing is to not lie
about them – to try to understand what you have done, why you have done it. That way, you can begin to forgive yourself. That’s very important. If you don’t forgive yourself you’ll never be able to forgive anybody else and you’ll go on committing the same crimes forever” (79, Another Country). Joshua’s burden is that he cannot forgive himself for his inadequacy as a provider. He cannot forgive Bridget (in the real sense) because forgiving her would place a deeper burden of confrontation: to excavate hidden pain; to look at the man in the mirror, to challenge all that he has come to know about life, love, and about people. Perhaps this is partly the inextricable burden Santos, too, confronts inasmuch as why he avoids the subcutaneous questions pervading the entire novel: Why is Bridget’s character so condensed, paralytic, voiceless, and solely dependent on Joshua’s holy mercy and righteous wisdom?
The biblical meaning of the name Joshua is “a savior; a deliverer.” The American meaning of the name Joshua is “a savior; a deliverer.” The Hebrew meaning of the name Joshua is “Jehovah is generous. Jehovah saves. In the Old Testament, Joshua was chosen to succeed Moses as leader of the Israelites for their journey to the Promised Land” (http://bit.ly/2h2Po4r). So perhaps that is Joshua’s real problem: He thinks his job is to save Bridget. He thinks he is on a righteous crusade of biblical importance, to rescue the fallen woman, the harlot, from imminent self-destruction and eternal doom – this, he believes, is his sacred calling. He ministers when he should seek counseling; he analyzes when he should accept; He proselytizes when he should be silent.