A Review of Melissa Kuipers' The Whole Beautiful World
Review by Zachary Thompson
There is a great, long story toward the end of Melissa Kuipers' The Whole Beautiful World. Entitled "Happy All the Time," the story, through its study of faith, fanaticism, and the thin membrane which divides the two, is the strongest piece in this debut collection. In the context of the entirety of The Whole Beautiful World, "Happy All the Time" is a refreshing change of pace: where earlier stories are truncated, sentimental, and overly earnest, "Happy All the Time" is lengthy and ponderous, maintaining an unrestrained level of scrutiny which the earlier stories only hint at.
"Happy All the Time" follows Marcus, later shortened to "Mark," as he moves from his high school where he flourished within the Christian youth group on through university life, where he forms his own faith-based student group. It initially explodes with enthusiasm but quickly degrades into a toxic, insulated cult. Marcus' transformation into Mark is told with patience and care by Kuipers, and she has as keen an awareness of Marcus' good intentions as she does of his fatal misgivings. She addresses these misgivings cleverly, through the introduction of an outside character named Andrew, a campus reporter who infiltrates Marcus' cult in order to write a piece for the University newspaper. He ultimately outs the group as dysfunctional. Until Andrew's article is revealed, the narration remains relatively neutral when describing Marcus' motives and actions. Kuipers assures us that Marcus wants to serve God and that he intends to act nobly, but then with equally dispassionate narration tells us of his foregoing sleep for days on end, or of his mental abuse towards his fellow group members. It is only through Andrew's brief but far less passive critique that Kuipers holds Marcus accountable for his actions. Andrew can identify Marcus' faults in a way which Marcus himself is unable — and the narrator seemingly unwilling — to do, but which many readers are no doubt thinking all along. "...Love, kindness," Andrew's report begins, followed by: "cult, high, counter-cultural." Harsher terms than "high" or "counter-cultural" could be applied to the kind of abusive faith which Marcus practises; but at least by addressing Marcus' faults through Andrew, if not through the impartial narration, Kuipers does her story and readers both a good deal of service.
Earlier stories in the collection could have benefited from characters with Andrew's insight. "Mother-of-the-Bride Dress," for instance, is a charming but maudlin tale of an aging mother who is reluctant to appear glamorous at her daughter's upcoming wedding. While the premise is refreshing in its small-stakes realism, the story's resolution (the mother finds that dancing in front of a crowd alleviates her of her insecurities) feels less like a dramatic conclusion than it does an embarrassing scene from a family home movie. A majority of other stories employ adolescent characters in order to relate tales of innocence confronted with tragedy. Unfortunately, because so often we are only given the wide-eyed reactions of these young characters, without the experience and insight of a more mature voice, many of these adolescent narratives fall flat. In "The Missionary Game," a young girl is instructed by a friend on how to "properly" pray to Jesus in order to deliver her from Hell; to her dismay, even after she has been taught the "correct" prayer, she is still not convinced of her salvation. The story captures some of the uncertainty of a child's mind struggling to comprehend the abstract nature of faith, but does little to relate this uncertainty to the way in which an adult reader might still be struggling with such complexities. More distressing is a fragmentary piece entitled "Pretty Prayer," wherein another young female protagonist prays to God to relieve her of her pimply imperfections and make her beautiful. After the youth is struck by a truck and lies disfigured on the roadside, her thoughts turn to the redemption that awaits her now that her face will be reconstructed into something beautiful. Such a macabre fantasy smacks of adolescent naiveté, but without a more incisive voice to intervene and lend the story some irony or pathos, the whole tale comes across as melodramatic and superficially cynical.
Throughout the book, in fact, an overriding tone of wholesomeness and conventionality is disrupted by mistimed attempts at darkness and cynicism. "Fuck you, teddy bear," begins one otherwise well-mannered story; in another, a young girl refers to the colour of her mom's house as "Blood-in-your-Panties Red." The effect is not of edginess, but of contrivance. If Kuipers' characters often seem too homey and conventional to be real, then they become downright implausible when burdened with gratuitous profanity or vulgarity.
Kuipers has plenty of ability, much of it on display in The Whole Beautiful World. Where her growth will be is in her creative vision. Her situations are perceived through children's eyes, and tend to come with insights to match. But her consideration of faith is potentially enormous, and thrives within the longer form she grants it in "Happy All the Time." Behind the shortcomings of many of these brief stories, one can sense ambition and promise; perhaps not of a storywriter, but of a novelist. As one of her characters remarks: "...sometimes simple is boring. And now exciting is difficult." Likewise, the simplicity of these stories could be elaborated upon — going forward, making things more difficult could prove exciting.
Zachary Thompson is a writer with a B.A. in English Literature from York University in Toronto. He also received a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto Continuing Education program. Zachary currently lives and works in Hamilton.