Edward Mullany writes in a genre I’m going to call apophatic fiction. Let me explain.
In Christian mysticism, there is an ancient type of meditation called apophatic meditation or apophatic prayer. Not often used in the West, apophaticism is a recognition that we approach the limits of language when we attempt to talk about God. (For a quick introduction to apophatic mediation, listen to this.) Apophatic meditation or prayer often centers on silence, but may also involve a kind of thinking about God via negativa. It begins with a positive statement about a Divine attribute, which is followed by a negative statement, and then finally a negation of the negative statement. The idea is this: the positive and negative statements provide a language framework; the negation of the negative statement remind us that our frameworks are just that—frameworks. And while the frameworks can provide useful descriptions, they cannot contain the Divine.
So, for example, a sequence like the one below would help us approach the limits of using a word like “father” to describe God:
God is our father.
God is not our father.
God is not not our father.
Likewise, in his third book The Three Sunrises, a collection of three novellas—‘Legion,’ ‘The Book of Numbers,’ and ‘The Three Sunrises’—that is, itself, the third installment in the “Holy Colors Trilogy,” Edward Mullany places figures and objects in the our minds, and then by negation and double negation—a kind of apophatic fiction—he rearranges the person or object in order to move the story forward. He nudges, first this way, and then that, and then often brings the figure or object back to where it began, but the motion in this is important. Mullany’s narrators do this as well, creating a rhythm by oscillation. Notice how the narrator uses this oscillating rhythm in this scene from ‘Legion’:
With me in the elevator, though headed to a different floor, were two young women I didn’t know but who seemed to know each other; they’d gotten on the elevator together, after I was already on, and had been talking in amused voices about plans one of them had, or was hoping to have, for that evening, or for one of the evening that would follow.
Mullany’s figures almost never express certainty about anything, as if they understand the branching possibilities that gestate in each moment and are unable to discount or inhibit any of them. That the world is not predictable can be a source of terror or dread, but for Mullany’s figures, it also means the world “isn’t lacking in possibility or hope” (‘The Three Sunrises’). At its best, it is a realization like this that makes a morning commute deeply spiritual even as it is mundane. It is in moments like these that Mullany and his figures become theologians.
And like a good theologian, Mullany shows that the deeply spiritual is not extracted from so much as grounded in the mundane. In these novellas, there is no profound experience outside of the mundane. In ‘Legion,’ driving into a city, the sounds of tires on the highway, the jostling for position in lanes of traffic, leads to the realization that all of these travelers are going somewhere, that all of them are pursuing some activity or interaction with other human beings.
In other words, it leads to the realization that we are all here, and this is plenty of reason to feel wonder and terror at participating in this time and place. “We are here” is not an understanding, but a recognition of the things that are beyond our ability to put into language and yet are.
These novellas are full of meditative moments, often as characters are being conveyed from one place to another over a long period of time. After getting stuck in the middle of the ocean, the ‘Legion’ narrator swims and floats for at least several days. In ‘The Book of Numbers’ a couple of characters crawl through a tunnel, often stopping to sleep. Later in the same novella, a figure rides an elevator for years. The moments feel like years and the years feel like moments. Or as Mullany’s narrator in ‘The Three Sunrises’ describes it: “I maintained a motion that only looked like motion; that in fact was more like stasis.”
In each of these spaces, the figures become acutely aware of forces beyond their control—a presence that is not present, but is also not not present. Sometimes, they strain against the pattern at first or are paralyzed by what confronts them. And sometimes they eventually let go and allow themselves to be carried. It’s not that they resign themselves to a kind of passive fatalism; rather, they actively surrender themselves to these forces. In ‘The Book of Numbers,’ the narrator is trapped in a cavern until water begins to fill the space.
[He] allowed the water to rise until his head was brought into contact with the ceiling of the cavern.
ddddddThis took days.
ddddddThe entire time he floated on his back, sleeping at some hours, at other hours looking at the ceiling, which slowly but inevitably came closer.
ddddddHe thought about nothing, or, rather, he thought about anything that happened to enter his head, and that he thus considered nothing.
ddddddHe didn’t try to think of one thing more than another.
ddddddSo that, when finally his head did come into contact with the ceiling of the cavern, and his mouth and nose went underwater, he felt ready for whatever would happen next.
It is difficult to let yourself be carried—to maintain a posture of both rest and active anticipation of “whatever happens next.” And that is how these figures make room for whatever kind of grace is at work in these stories. To invert the formulation of the narrator in ‘The Three Sunrises,’ they maintain a stasis that is more like motion.
For me, the thing that holds all The Three Sunrises together—in fact, what holds the trilogy of books together as well—is this stasis that is more like motion. It is a kind of meditative attention. And Mullany has written with this kind of attention before. The scenes are strange and saturated with off-kilter symbols, many of them Christian (images of resurrection are important to each of the novellas). There are still big questions moving behind the everyday occurrences and objects, and characters still find themselves in impossibly disruptive situations.
But what is different in The Three Sunrises is how all of these familiar sentences and images and figures accrue. The novella form gives Mullany another axis on which to plot moments and figures. And the accrual on this new axis creates a kind of motion from what appears to be stasis: a motion that is also not motion that is also not not motion.