Great works of literature show us the consequences of our choices. If we make bad choices a truthful work of literature won’t lie about the consequences. And so when you come away from such a work you end up finding the sacrifices necessary for happiness attractive and the path of least resistance less attractive than you did before you read the book.
By Nicole Tittmann
For some reason, there is a dearth of Catholic novelists today. Which is a little embarrassing, considering our rich history. Where is the modern day Flannery O’Connor? Or Evelyn Waugh? Is there a Graham Greene lurking in the shadows, waiting to be discovered? If so, I apologize. But I haven’t heard of you.
There is much promise, however, in Trevor Merrill and his debut novel, Minor Indignities. Like the works of the above authors, this is a book less about faith, than it is an honest look at narcissism and naïveté, in this case, of a college freshman at an ivy league university. At the same time, it is about the insecurities and pride common to us all, and how the faith relieves the burdens of our own making. I spoke with Trevor about his book, and the authors that influenced him.
Tittmann: What was the inspiration for this book?
Merrill: First, I really love novels and wanted to write one. But for this book, in particular, I really wanted to write a story about people of my generation and milieu stuck in this situation that is prevalent in the contemporary world, and affected me deeply. Which is the situation of an extreme freedom and how we live beneath the gazes of others. And how we either become enslaved by that or find a way to look at other people in a different way. I found this situation really engrossing and its possibilities held my interest enough that I felt like I could sustain that interest for the duration of a novel.
Tittmann: That idea of “living under the gaze of others,” seems to be a great introduction to a discussion of your protagonist, Colin. He is almost uncomfortably aware of what he perceives as the opinions of others.
Merrill: You can look at the novel form as revealing a shadow side of modern life. Fr. Robert Spitzer has this great idea about how the more we’re focused on satisfying our ego the more we get trapped in what he calls a “personal hell” of comparisons and petty competitions and insecurities. And I think the main character in my novel is trapped in that kind of hell. The novel shows him going through and hopefully to some extent coming out of it.
Colin is someone who comes to this very worldly place, this school with a lot of sophisticated and experienced, somewhat blasé people, and at first he’s overwhelmed by the hookup and party culture but then decides to embrace it, and so he pursues a kind of radical freedom. And he thinks this is going to make him happy; but of course it inevitably leads to the opposite.
Tittmann: Are you saying he is relatable because we all have either gone through that experience of betraying our values or principles for acceptance, or are going through that experience?
Merrill: I think that that’s a universal human experience, regardless of whether we have good formation, regardless of whether we are trying to see other people not as judges or mirrors but as people, regardless of whether we are here to love and serve, there is a tendency in this world to slip into that.
Tittmann: It’s almost as if it’s not relatable just in the “Oh gosh, I remember being a freshman in college” kind of way, but in that insecurity that we either see personally in ourselves or that we experienced among our friends and family—a situation that’s exacerbated by social media.
Merrill: Very much so. The Instagram world makes more obvious possibilities of human life that have always been with us—the sense that everybody else is living a perfect and beautiful life of front row concert seats and VIP passes and that the life that we’re living just doesn’t measure up to that. That if we were to show the truth of our lives to other people—the messy room, maybe the little spat we had with a spouse, the difficulties we sometimes have with our kids—if we let that come out that we would be shunned and ostracized for failing to be perfect.
Tittmann: I would not describe this as a conversion story per se. But there is a Catholic influence woven throughout the book. Obviously in his visits to a Catholic church, but especially in the relief he finds after what Colin calls his “confession” to his friend. That was his first experience of freedom from his overwhelming ego. In a way, it seemed like such a passing moment, his friend doesn’t even seem to realize the significance. But for Colin, it was a significant turning point.
Merrill: Newman’s first work after his conversion was a novel, Loss and Gain. And so I think he hoped he could lead others to conversion by writing a work of fiction. Because a work of fiction makes you identify with a character. Their thoughts and feelings become your thoughts and feelings as you read. It’s a deeper way of communicating certain things.
Flannery O’Connor would always say it’s embarrassing being a fiction writer, because people think so highly of things like statistics or abstract statements, and fiction seems little. It’s about everyday life. We are almost ashamed to take too much interest in it. We are embarrassed by the incarnational nature of fiction, by the lowliness of it. Why should we care about the insignificant social interactions of adolescents in a cafeteria? It seems totally unimportant. But of course it isn’t. We live in that everyday world, and to describe it truthfully is probably something that is worth doing.
The language of stories, of concrete experience, gets to the reality of things. We need to trust our experience more, or at least have a common sensical skepticism of what experts are saying, and to get in touch with the concrete.
Tittmann: The moment when I really started to enjoy this book was very early on when Colin and his friends go to a party.
“At eighteen you think of life as beginning in some distant, hazy future, unaware that as you eat your cereal in the dining hall or play ping-pong with a friend, it’s already well underway, taking shape in the unexamined present.”
I was really struck by how oftentimes, especially at that age, we’re so ready to start living our lives we don’t realize we’re actually already living our lives.
Merrill: Yeah exactly! And novels try to resurrect that sense of present-ness. The sense of thisness, of experience unfolding, which you don’t have in the moment. You lose that when you have that adolescent attitude of discounting the reality that’s right in front of you and living always for a reality that’s just over the horizon.
Tittmann: As a published author, what would your advice be to aspiring young writers out there?
Merrill: Read Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle says it all. He says accurate representations of reality bring us pleasure. He suggests that great tragedies are about characters that we can identify with, so relatable characters. And that the plot is the most important thing. Why are plots so important? Well because plots are about decisions, choices, and choices are ethical or moral choices. And so great works of literature show us the consequences of our choices. If we make bad choices a truthful work of literature won’t lie about the consequences. And so when you come away from such a work you end up finding the sacrifices necessary for happiness attractive and the path of least resistance less attractive than you did before you read the book or experienced the play.
Purchase Minor indignities here.
Nicole Tittmann is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and has an MA in education. She is a wife and mother of six living in Southern California. You can find her on Instagram @DressMeUpPodcast