June 13 & 20, 2011: “Asleep in the Lord” by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is the second of three pieces of fiction in the Summer Fiction issue.
As we learn in the interview with Eugenides, this “story” is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. As excerpts go, however, I think this one works well as a short story. Eugenides also says that the basis of the story is autobiographical in that he, like the character Mitchell, took a year after college to travel and volunteered at the Mother Theresa Home in Calcutta.
So: Mitchell is in Calcutta as part of his post-graduate year of spiritual discovery. He’s volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes (Monday through Friday, as if the Destitutes took the weekend off). There’s seems to be a steady stream of doctors and other volunteers at the home, some for extended periods, some not. Mitchell is trying to do good works and associate with people doing good works. He reads a lot of Thomas Merton and other spiritual writers. Meanwhile, he has to deal with other travelers, most of whom have less lofty goals.
Aside: I loved Mitchell’s interaction with the other travelers. Having done a shorter version of his trip—in 1978, after I finished my Peace Corps service—I found the café and the hostel experience completely real. Or plausible, at any rate.
But the story is really about Mitchell overcoming his fears in the hospital. At first he’s only willing to dispense medicine—bathing and other more personal interaction is something he can’t handle. Until he has to, and then he’s faced with a bigger fear from which he flees: “And Mitchell began to move. Already knowing that he would regret this moment for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life, and yet unable to resist the sweet impulse that ran through his every never, Mitchell headed toward the front of the Home . . . and up the steps to the bright, fallen world above.” And he keeps running, continuing his spiritual journey.
Based on this excerpt, I’m interested in reading the novel—so it has done its job.
>I had the feeling that Mitchell leaves to go to Thailand or somewhere like that (or was that obvious and I am being dense?). He seems to feel like he cannot live up to sainthood after all and that no matter what he does he will never "feel" the good works he is doing.
Towards the end he blows up at Mike, the character who serves as the trope that Mitchell uses to cast his stones upon. Mitchell just washed a dying man's tumorous scrotum and then he sees Mike who is more drawn to petite, dark skinned Thai girls.
Maybe Mitchell is a saint and I am missing it. Maybe he goes to the Ganges and becomes more spiritual. But I think that he finds himself caught between Sainthood and Hedonism, and then he meets the German traveller who is not bad, not good, and keeps his needs very minimal. It reminds me of the Issa haiku, 'Not a devil, not a saint, just a sea slug.'
>Since the "story" is an excerpt from a novel, we'll get to find out what he does!