Ora et Labora et Zombies

Ora et Labora et Zombies

Ora et labora et zombies

When Dom came home from the CNMC (That’s the Catholic New Media Conference, which was held in Dallas last month.) he was full of all sorts of stories and he’d brought home a pile of books and some other cool conference swag. But by far the most intriguing thing he pulled out of his bag was this innocuous-seeming fat white envelope with a return address stamped in the top left hand corner: LABORA/EDITIONS it read. Dom told me that the envelope contained the first chapter of a new epistolary novel. A Catholic zombie novel. With Benedictine monks. How could I not be intrigued?

This guy is writing a serial novel in letter format and actually mailing each chapter out to his readers individually at a rate of one a week? How absolutely awesome a concept is that? (And I love that he was marketing this old fashioned idea at the New Media conference.)

Still, me being me I left the envelope sitting, unopened on the shelf for more than a week. This did not signal disinterest on my part but rather an odd need to somehow extend the anticipation a little longer. It would be rather like waiting for the letter to arrive. Somehow it just never seemed quite the right time to fully savor the experience of reading the first letter. I finally slipped it into my bag to read on the plane to Texas, which seems rather fitting since the author, Ryan Charles Trusell, lives in Houston. Somewhere in the air between Boston and Austin, I slipped my finger into the envelope and carefully eased it open. I unfolded the letter and took a sip of my cranberry juice. The cover was a thick, red cardstock weight printed in white. A pattern of fleurs de lis surrounded a large logo of a crossed rake and shovel with a Bible and skull in the upper and lower quadrants of the X. Pretty!

The papers the letter was written on were nice and thick. It reminded me a bit sadly of the days before I was married when I regularly sent out fat handwritten letters to my friends and family that were four, six, even ten pages long. I always felt that the paper mattered and the handwriting mattered. Writing letters was a creative outlet and in a way the creation of a work of art. I never seem to find the time any more with all the little ones and their constant demands. All the more reason to adore the idea of getting this kind of fat letter in my mailbox. It reminds me a bit of the Griffin and Sabine books (does anyone else remember those?) except with the added bonus of really truly having the letters arrive in the mail.

As for the story itself… well I’ve only read the first letter; but it was enough to make me want to read more. So far it’s a classic story of a husband and wife separated by a disaster. It had one laugh-out loud on the plane moment. I love the little touches of liturgical time so far like that the story begins on the first Sunday of Lent—and that Tom’s phone stopped working at noon on Friday. And, as one other blogger pointed out, the project launched on the Feast of the Assumption and will wrap up on Christmas. Talk about uber-Catholic geeky!

I wanted to write more but I keep getting interrupted. I suppose it’s enough to say that Dom and I are definitely in. You can check out the official website here: Ora et Labora et Zombies. And I can send you to several other blogs that all say it better than I do anyway:

Julie D’s review at Happy Catholic:

Tom and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Ryan Charles Trusell, the author of these Zombie Letters, yesterday at the CNMC. A more pleasant lunch I have rarely had than eating over-priced box lunches while getting to talk conversion stories, Firefly love, Flannery O’Connor love … well, you get the picture.

He’s my kind of people.

I’ve just gotta say that I love someone whose eyes light up telling me about the book binding class just completed and whose contact page has “mail always welcomed” and “emails tolerated” information. He’s not a crank. He just loves beautiful things. What could be more Catholic than that? Go. Visit. Tell him hello … I bet in this case he would welcome an email.

Dorian Speed’s interview with author Ryan Charles Trusell:

I’ve had the idea since the summer of 2010, which I guess is about a year after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out, to which my title is of course an homage. I had no plan whatsoever to write anything pop-culture relevant. I am a sucker for Benedictine spirituality. I had just visited Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, had spent some time in the Adoration chapel, and was driving around town and saw a large, outdoor statue of the Sacred Heart, but for some reason the arms on the statue looked wrong. Instead of the usual gesture of open arms, or one arm open and one hand pointing to the Heart, it looked to me as though both arms were stuck straight out in front, in the Karloffian manner. The phrase popped into my head: Ora et Labora et Zombies! It was good for a laugh, and I thought about trying to turn it into something, but really it just sat there in the back of my mind for a year, fermenting. Eventually, out of necessity, I figured out how to tell the story.

The Anchoress: “A New Experiment in Old Media”:

these snail-mailed letters, these beautifully hand-printed covers are a sort of reclamation of something we have lost — a willingness to slow down and to wait for something; the notion that there really is something worth waiting for, anymore; the spiritual uplift that comes when we encounter a beautiful thing, simply done, and a simple thing done beautifully. Trusell is reaching out through the impersonalized ether of the internet and saying, “let’s reclaim a sense of the personal. Look, I’m sending you my story, my artwork.” In an age where people seem so disengaged, so lackadaisical about their work, there is something really heartening about a young fellow so willing to do things carefully, and with such an obvious love of craft.

“Zombies Are Like Garlic, You Can Never Have Enough of Either”—Leah Libresco weighs in.

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  • Neal Stephenson is wonderful.  My favorite was Cryptonomicon, until the Baroque Cycle came along (the only work of his, in my opinion, which ends instead of just stopping), and Anathem now grapples for first place.  I still think Cryptonomicon might be my favorite, but Anathem is so elegant.

      And it is such a… Catholic sort of novel, I think, don’t you?  Because it betrays such a deep respect for so many things that we love too… Like the cloister, and poverty, and liturgy.  That in the book these things are put at the service of philosophy (inclusive of mathematics and natural philosophy), including philosophy that looks beyond the physical universe to some other realm—doesn’t seem to matter—the beauty is still there. 

    And a lot of humor too.

    Are spoilers going to be okay in this discussion?  Because I can’t say what my favorite part of the book was without ruining the big reveal.

  • bearing,

    I think spoilers are ok so long as you add a warning to the comment. I can add a note to the original post as well that there are spoilers in the comments. Frankly, I think book discussions that don’t “spoil” the novel tend to be so generic as to not satisfy the need to converse.

    I must confess the only Stephenson I’ve read before this was Zodiac, which didn’t grab me when I tried it. (I might have tried to read Snow Crash too, I’m not sure.) That was ages and ages ago, though, and maybe being older I might better appreciate it. I’ve heard great things about the Baroque Cycle and was so excited to see them on my mom’s shelf last week. I was all set to snag them… then realized she only had the second and third volumes and not the first. So that’s still on my to be read list.

    * * * * * * * * POSSIBLE SPOILERS* * * * * * *

    Anathem is very elegant as you say. And I do think it has a very Catholic feel to it if you look at the way he treats liturgy and poverty and beauty. And I did find it very funny in parts. I laughed out loud at least once, which I almost never do. 

    I did experience some dissonance with the polyverse theory he’s playing with. I’m not sure I see quite how to reconcile the idea that each universe is the Hylaean Theoric World of the next with a Catholic understanding of creation. But then that’s probably the limitations of my own imagination, which feels like it’s being stretched to the edge of what I can deal with by all the philosophy in this novel anyway. I did find the various versions of religion that Stephenson imagines in the book to be sadly flat.

    Anyway, I have to run and get lunch but I do want to know what your favorite part is.

  • Spoilers follow.


    There were two places in the book where I absolutely hooted with delight.  (Nearly waking up sleeping children in both cases as I read late into the night, unable to put the book down.)

    The first was the unmasking of Zh’vaern (what I call the “big reveal” of the book) with the line, “In my world, we call it a Faraday cage.”

    See, one of the things that I loved, loved, loved about the book was the constant parade of alien terms that exactly correspond to well-known philosophical and scientific principles on Earth, many of which have Earth terms for themselves:  things like “Gardan’s Steelyard” (which on Earth we call “Occam’s Razor”) and the Adrakhonic Theorem (aka Pythagorean theorem).  I particularly liked the invented alien etymologies by which we got terms that recall Earth terms (“the Cartasian discipline” recalls Cartesian mathematics, but it’s named after Saunt Cartas; the “Deolaters” are followers of a “deity” but they get their name from Deät, a legendary human figure.) It is sort of a puzzle or a test of how well you know your philosophy and mathematics, to see if you recognize each of these things when they appear.

    The exclamation, “We’re in a Saunt Bucker’s Basket!” is hilarious.  We don’t need to know anything else about Saunt Bucker, but we imagine the theorics that would have gotten Saunt Bucker to describe his or her “basket,” and if we have had any physics we say, “Oh, ha ha, Stephenson means a Faraday cage.”. And then that is how Zh’vaern reveals himself as an Earthling to the reader – by giving the
    Earth name (for no reason within the story—it is a punch line, a dog whistle to the nerdy Earthlings following along.)

    Stylistically, I just adored it.  It is so elegant.

    I also liked the bit where the people cheered when the alien spacecraft’s bolts turned out to have been threaded the “right” way.  Left- or right-handed screw conventions are arbitrary… Compeletely, provably arbitrary… But people (even aliens) will identify folks as being “on their team” for very arbitrary reasons.  “yay, your bolts are threaded the same way as ours!”. So funny.

  • +JMJ+

    I can’t really join the discussion, because all I’ve read by Neal Stephenson is Snow Crash. Since you’re not sure if you’ve read it, Melanie, I won’t give the big spoiler here, but let me just say that I totally get what you mean when you say Stephenson’s treatment of religion in Anathem falls flat. He is so cleverly fascinating in many ways that it’s a real pity. It’s like finding out the wonderful new friend you’ve just met is actually a highly developed artificial intelligence.

    Still, I do find Bearing’s comments about Stephenson’s treatment of monasticism, liturgy, poverty pushing me towards this as a future read. These things are beautiful to me in a way, as I’m sure they are to many Catholics, and it says something about someone like Stephenson that they seem to be beautiful to him, too.