The Shack (Intro)

It has always been in my mind that I would need to blog about this book at some point.  I’ve been putting it off, but then I went to see a movie at the theater, and a trailer for this dreck started playing. I decided that now was a good time to blog about it.

The Shack is a Christian fantasy novel about a man who goes to a cabin in the woods and meets God. As in, God appears to the protagonist in the form of a black woman. I actually really like this concept and wanted to write something like this myself, so when I picked up this book I was kind of a little jealous. And excited. I wanted to like this book.

But The Shack is not just a fantasy. The Shack is a theodicy. That is not what it says it is, nevertheless, in certain ways, that is exactly what it is. The Shack attempts to explain why God permitted a fictional event to occur, and we are clearly meant to try and apply this to our reality.

When I first read this book, I was a Christian, and I was on the fence about how well this was handled. It is one of the things we will be discussing, along with the literary merit.

When I first read this book, I thought that it was “a good concept poorly executed.” I loved the idea of going away to a cabin in the woods and meeting God in person. I didn’t even mind the fact that God appeared to the main character as a black woman. A lot of Christians are upset about that, but as a Christian myself, that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the spotty way it dealt with child abuse and the abysmal quality of the writing.

And so we are going to compare Christian!Abby’s responses to Atheist!Abby’s.

I’ll try to have these posts come out weekly. I am much more equipped to talk about The Shack than I am The Case For Christ, because the latter book is more scholarly whereas this one really isn’t. (That’s not meant as a criticism, just a statement of fact.) Because of this, posts about this book will be much easier to write and should come more frequently. (Unless I get distracted by the invisible flying squirrels, conveniently only visible to people with ADD.)

With that out of the way, let us begin.

Forward

The book starts with an info dump. Not even a prologue, mind you, just a 5 page long info dump. The Shack unfortunately starts with the protagonist’s best friend, Willie,  narrating the introduction. Like, seriously, all this material could be woven in throughout the story. I do not care to slog through pages of the protagonist’s backstory before I’ve even met the protagonist. 

A good book will start off with some mystery, and then fill in the gaps later. Who exactly is Mack? What is he like? Why does he seem to dislike God? Let us find that out throughout the course of the story. Slowly unravel this.

The book starts off with a pretty gripping sentence:

Who wouldn’t be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less? And this was the shack.

This is good. This is intriguing. You’re telling us what the book is about, but you’re leaving room for questions: What do you mean by “spent the weekend with God?” And what do you mean by the shack? This opening sentence makes me want to keep reading.

The narrator states that he’s been Mack’s friend for 20 years, then talks about how they met and what kind of hot drinks they drink when they hang out.

Our conversations bring a deep sort of pleasure, always sprinkled with lots of laughs and once in a while a tear or two. Frankly, the older we get, the more we hang out, if you know what I mean.

Um, what? No, I do not know what you mean. Please elucidate.

The narrator does not tell us what he means. Instead he plows on to yet another paragraph that needs some serious editing.  It reminds me of how I wrote as a teenager, really:

His full name is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, although most people call him Allen. It’s a family tradition: the men all have the same first name but are commonly known by their middle names, presumably to avoid the ostentation of l, ll, and lll. It works well for identifying telemarketers too, especially the ones who call as if they were your best friend. So he and his grandfather, father, and now his oldest son all have the given name of Mackenzie but are commonly referred to by their middle names. Only Nan, his wife, and a few close friends call him Mack (although I have heard a few total strangers yell, “Hey Mack, where’d you learn to drive?”).

Zzzzzzz huh? Wha? Oh, I’m reviewing a book. Right. Um, so, this is bad writing. It is bad writing in part because it is an infodump. It is also bad writing because it is rambly. The narrator goes on and on and on, and I know that this is kind of like the pot calling the kettle black because I have a tendency to do this as well, but this is bad writing. A good editor will catch this and edit it for you.

The whole forward goes on in a similar fashion. I only highlighted that one paragraph to show you the writing style. I’ll do you all a favor and summarize the rest.

We learn that Mack grew up on a farm. His family went to church, but God wasn’t really important to them otherwise.

We also learn that Mack’s father was an alcoholic, and that Mack doesn’t talk about him much. It’s clear to the narrator, however, that Mack’s father was a violent drunk.

One day 13 year old Mack goes to someone at the church about his violently abusive father. The church person tells Mack’s father, who responds by ramping up the abuse. This is an all too common scenario, and I would like to see it better addressed than “forgive everyone involved.” (That part hasn’t been stated yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.) Some things are just unforgivable and deserve hell.

Two weeks later, when Mack could finally put one foot in front of the other again, he just up and walked away from home. But before he left, he put varmint poison in every bottle of booze he could find on the farm.

And this is an all too common reaction as well. However, it brings to mind some glaring questions: was Mack’s father’s death never discovered? Was Mack’s dad thought to be a victim of alcohol poisoning? Was no autopsy done? How did Mack get away with essentially murdering his dad? Didn’t the police think, “Gee, I wonder if the runaway son has anything to do with this?” Is Mack going to have to seek forgiveness from God later for murdering his dad? Did he murder his dad? Was the “varmint poison” enough to kill a man, or merely make him sick? You can’t just drop this kind of thing and then expect me to move on.

I understand the desire of teenage!Mack to do this, and I think it’s very realistic. But I think it should have been omitted from the book. It brings up more problems than it explains, and some people may find themselves incapable of sympathizing with a character who (at least tried to) murder his dad.

After leaving home, Mack traveled around the world for a while. Yes at 13. How he managed to travel internationally at the age of 13 is eyebrow raising. I get that things worked a little differently in the era which Mack was likely raised. I could believe he went around the country working under the table and saving up money to send to his grandparents, but overseas? You’re stretching the bounds of believability with this one.

Eventually Mack marries Nanette. We get a little backstory about Nanette, which might be interesting if I actually knew her as a character. As it is now, it’s just… a slog.

This is terrible writing. When I was a Christian, I kept reading past the introduction because I wanted to like this book, but if I was a normal person I’d probably have put it back on the shelf after the first 3 pages.

See, this detail would be much better if you’d found a way to work it into the story. Have Mack show an aversion to God, because of the whole “god our father” thing. We wouldn’t need to be told the reason for this right away. In fact, it wouldn’t be a good thing if you did. This would create an air of mystery: why does Mack dislike God? What exactly was his father like that made him kind of wary of anyone described as a “father?” It would give me a reason to keep reading, to find out. And frankly, these are the types of details about a character that I don’t care about until I’ve already read the book and decided I care about the main character. Otherwise, it’s just boring backstory that’s necessary for the author to know, but not necessary something that needs to make the final draft.

Having said a little bit about Mack’s wife, the narrator goes back to babbling about Mack.

In a world of talkers, Mack is a thinker and a doer. He doesn’t say much unless you ask him directly, which most folks have learned not to do. When he does speak, you wonder if he isn’t some sort of alien who sees the landscape of human ideas and experiences differently than everybody else.

So, he’s shy, quiet, and socially awkward.

Also, you do not have to be an alien to see things and experiences differently from everyone else. You just have to be…. a human. Because all humans see things differently, especially ones who’ve done a lot of international travel, which Mack has.

The thing is, he [Mack] usually makes uncomfortable sense in a world where most folks would rather just hear what they are used to hearing, which is often not much of anything. Those who know him generally like him well enough, provided he keeps his thoughts mostly to himself. And when he does talk, it isn’t that they stop liking him–rather, they are not quite so satisfied with themselves.

Tell tell tell tell tell….. shut up. Shut up and show me this. If you can’t figure out a way to show this, don’t tell me about it. If it isn’t going to come up in the story as character development, then I don’t care to hear it.

This also sounds like a case of an author who can’t bear to have his protagonist have flaws, so he describes him as having  a flaw, then spins it so that this “flaw” is actually a good thing. You see this a lot in bad writing in general (See also: Twilight).

[Mack] is just about to turn 56, and he is rather unremarkable, slightly overweight, balding, short white guy, which describes a lot of men in these parts.

Sigh. Work this into the text in some way. This entire introduction needs to be scrapped and the author needs to find a way to work all this into the story. How should he go about doing that? I don’t know, that’s not my job. My job is to point out lazy writing when I see it. His job is to not do lazy writing.

After another paragraph about the narrator rambling about how smart Mack is (he’s really smart, ok? REALLY REALLY INTELLIGENT). The narrator tells us that Mack’s favorite topics are “God and creation, and why people believe the way they do.”

Interesting, but again, could have been shown in the text at a later point. In fact, another reason why this introduction is bad writing is because I am now expecting all these things from the main character. If the main character cannot meet all these expectations, I’m going to see Mack’s friend as the unreliable narrator. And that’s only a good thing if that’s what the author is going for. I’m not getting the feeling that the author is intending for Willie to be an unreliable narrator, so this is most likely bad writing.

Mack is not very religious. He seems to have a love/hate relationship with religion, and maybe even with the God he suspects is brooding, distant, and aloof….although we sometimes show up on Sundays at the same local pew and pulpit Bible church (The 55th Independent Assembly of Saint John the Baptist, we like to call it), you can tell that he is not too comfortable there.

Who talks like this? The local pew and pulpit Bible church? We like to call it the 55th Independent Assembly of Saint John the Baptist? How about, “the name of the church is___” or even, “we both go to the same church, ____.” No one says, “we like to call it ____” unless ___ is a nickname. And I’m not sure right now whether it is or not. It’s a bit long for a nickname, but a bit ridiculous for a real name.

Set that aside. Again, this is where the old saying, “show, don’t tell” comes into play. How is the author supposed to show that the protagonist is uncomfortable in a church? Put him in one pre-conversion and let us see how he reacts.

The narrator goes on to tell us that Mack and Nanette have been married for over 30 years, and that in the beginning of their marriage Mack “hurt her something fierce.” It is not clear, from the text, if the narrator means Mack physically hurt her or if he hurt her emotionally. Either way, it’s a very bad sign. Having suffered under an emotionally abusive parent, and seen others suffer under a physically abusive one, I’m not sure you can bring a character back from that.

While Mack struggled in a world with many shades of gray, Nan’s is mostly black and white.

Seeing the world in black and white isn’t something people should aspire to. Because the world isn’t black and white. The world is shades of gray, and while that can make things more difficult, it is more difficult to try and shove everything into this black and white dynamic which doesn’t even remotely mirror reality.

Mack and Nan have 5 children. We are told the children’s names, ages, and what they are up to, but the only one we really need to know about is this:

Then there is the late arrival, Melissa–or Missy, as we were fond of calling her. She…well, you’ll get to know some of them better in these pages.”

This had the potential to be an interesting sentence. It’s a hook. They were fond of calling her Missy? Why? You don’t need to spell it out that we’ll get to know her better in the next pages. That could be omitted. The mystery  has already been created. You don’t need to tell me you’ll explain it.

The narrator goes straight from this to talking about The Great Sadness (yes, it is typed just like that) and it’s not hard to figure out that Missy died. You just spoiled the story and took away any hook you just created.

Willie talks for a while about how Mack was affected by The Great Sadness. (It’s realistic but boringly described, so I’m skipping it.)

But that all changed after a nasty accident with…but there I go again, getting ahead of myself. We’ll get to that all in due time.

This is too little too late. By the time I’ve slogged through the boring parts, I don’t care about whatever hook you’re trying to catch me with. You’ve already lost me.

The narrator goes on to say that Mack isn’t comfortable writing, though his verbal skills are good. Therefore he asked the narrator, who signs off as “Willie,” to ghost write the story. Which, fair enough. Many people who are very good at verbal communication are not good writers. I don’t have an issue with someone finding a writer and asking them to write. Of course, Willie has not demonstrated that he is good at writing, but set that aside for now.

Willie then tells us that what we are about to read is “A little on the fantastic side.” Well no shit. I’ve read the book jacket, I know what this is about.

I confess to you that I desperately want every thing Mack has told me to be true. Most days I am right there with him, but on others…I lose touch and have my doubts.

Yeah, ok, fair enough. I can relate. Sometimes I want to believe Trump won’t really do all the things he said he’d do… but then cold hard reality hits and I have my doubts.

Willie gives us a couple of disclaimers:

  1. This story wasn’t written for us. But maybe it was
  2. This is Mack’s story, as he experienced it.
  3. When the narrator shows up, he’ll refer to himself in 3rd person, because this is Mack’s story.
  4. Memory is fallible, unreliable, and downright tricky at times. This is Mack’s story as he remembers it. Any misinformation that creeps in is not intentional.

I can promise you that the conversations and events are recorded as truthfully as Mack can remember them, so please try to cut him a little slack. As you’ll see, these are not easy things to talk about.

–Willie.

So we do learn the narrator’s name. Finally.

I could accept the explanation of “memory is tricky” if this were a real story. As this is a work of fiction, I expect it all to make sense and be internally consistent. Suspension of disbelief is a thing, but it’s a thing that can only go so far.

When I was a Christian, I wanted to like this book. So I put aside the introduction, hoping that, now that that’s out of the way, we can get to the good stuff.

Is there good stuff to follow? I honestly don’t remember. We’ll find out.

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2 thoughts on “The Shack (Intro)

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