Heresy: First things first. Many people seem concerned that this book is heresy. To which I respond: Meh (said with an indifferent shrug). Perhaps I'm a heretic myself (but I don't think I am; Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton is my favorite book after all), but I don't see anything to get too freaked out about. Am I going to write my religious doctrine based on it? No. We shouldn't rely on any book for doctrine other than the Bible. It's a work of fiction, speculative fiction at that. Christians (including me) love C.S. Lewis and drool over anything that he has to say. We are willing to overlook borderline heretical insinuations, such as in The Great Divorce people in hell can choose to leave it at anytime to go to heaven, in favor of the greater truths that are made vivid in his writings. I don't see how this is any different.
Life Changing: This book is being described by many as life changing. To which I respond: Meh. I'm sure it is life changing for many, it just wasn't for me. We're each at different places on our life's journey and certain things will strike someone at a certain time and place as infinitely poignant and meaningful, while it will strike another as vapid. A book that changed my life was New Kind of Christian, because at the time of reading it, I was mired in legalism. So the truths in it were like water to me. But my husband, who is far too independent and rebellious to ever get stuck in someone else's legalism, read it and said: Meh. I think the Shack could take others, who have gone through traumatic loss and have a hard time liking a God who permits evil, through an incredible healing process. But I haven't had to cope with the trauma that the author or protaganist did, so for me it remains: Meh.
What I Did Learn While Reading The Shack is:
- There's a lot about this world and life that I don't understand.
- God is not human and is infinitely different from me.
- I've still got a lot to learn.
- I'm excited for heaven.
Literary Criticism: Now for some good ol' literary criticism. I'm not a fiction writer, so I should be stoned with a thousand stones for critiquing someone else, but "those who can't write, criticize." This book reminded me of how key good dialogue is. The number one reason I didn't love this book is the dialogue. He writes beautifully, using metaphors and imagery expertly. His pacing and suspense and tension are perfect. But for me it all broke down with dialogue.
The story was singing along until the author entered in many long conversations between Mack and God, which for me took the narrative to a thudding, sputtering halt and took me completely out of the story. The main character, Mack, is supposed to be a pretty sharp guy. But the dialogue left me suspecting he was a bit of a dolt. (I'm sure if I were having a conversation with God, I'd sound like a dolt too, but I don't think it was the author's intention.)
This line epitomizes it for me. A very obvious plot thread has been wound through the book of a princess and a waterfall. The reader has figured out the meaning of the metaphor a long time ago, when Mack finally says (and I quote): "Princess? Waterfall? Wait a minute!" Ugh. That could have been a line taken from Scooby Doo on Saturday morning as Scrappy figures out the mystery simple enough for the 8-year-old viewers to piece together.
As soon as the story would go back into pure narrative, it would sing again and was a pleasure to read. Then blam, you hit up against of some mystical explication prompted along by Mack's "Golly Gee God, I think I done get it!" I chalk this up not to Young being a bad writer, which he clearly isn't, but to the need for experience and a good editor. Let this to be a lesson to all you thinking of self publishing. Hire my husband first to help you with dialogue, or I'll make fun of your stilting words too.
The other main issue I had with the writing was what I'll call the Deep Waters Technique. Young had a lot of thoughts he wanted to get out there. A lot. These thoughts were revealed through many "deep" conversations with God. But so many thoughts were thrown in that none were explored in depth. It was "here's a thought," then off like lightning to the next insight Young wanted to cram in. One of my husband's favorite quotes is from Thoreau (or someone) and goes something like this: "As long as there are pools that you cannot see the bottom of, there will be those who imagine they are bottomless." Sometimes writers write in such a way to make things seem mysterious and deep. Readers don't quite understand what things mean, so the reader assumes the thoughts are just really deep, man, and they're just not quite smart enough to fully get it. But the truth is that the ideas were never clearly explained in the first place. The reader assumes that because the waters are muddy, they must be deep, and the writer is off the hook to fully explain himself.
The Clincher: (Spoiler Alert: I will tell you the ending here.) What really made my feelings on this book final was the ending, which happens to fall into one of my biggest writing pet peeves. If you have the chutzpah to write a story in which God is embodied by a big black woman who makes winking comments about greens and indigestion, at least have the cahones to bring it on home and NOT MAKE IT A COMA-INDUCED DREAM SEQUENCE! I hate dream sequences. At least the author included a clue that made it clear that what Mack experienced was true. But honestly, all you authors out there, don't you know how much dream sequences piss off your readers? I've invested how many hours reading and caring about all these crazy events and then you slink back from all your outrageous ideas, saying he was hit by a truck and was in the hospital the whole time? This irks me to no end. Irk, irk, irk, irk, irk. The end.