From the Savior’s ‘Image,’ the Stones Cry Out
BOOK PICK: Steven Faulkner’s novel moves us beyond mere mosaic to the very Savior the stones invoke.
A Novel in Pieces
By Steven Faulkner
Beaufort Books, 2021
175 pages, $17.75
To order: beaufortbooks.com/the-image/
Strange how, even in an era oversaturated with images, a single well-made one can still speak the transcendent. More: A mere picture, inanimate as ever, can seem to solicit something from us.
W.J.T. Mitchell gives voice to this paradox in What Do Pictures Want? Why, even outside of the “so-called ages of faith,” do we “behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own,” as if mere matter were “demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray”? This is the question that flickers through Steven Faulkner’s The Image: A Novel in Pieces.
Faulkner sets the first “piece” of his novel amidst the iconoclastic controversy that divided the Byzantine Empire: Doesn’t Exodus 20:4 clearly prohibit graven images, thereby protecting the People of God against idolatry? In 726, Byzantine Emperor Leo III answered “Yes,” banning men from making and venerating icons; an artist who continued to construe “idols” courted persecution and capital punishment until the seventh ecumenical Council at Nicea (787) condemned the Iconoclasts in a dramatic reversal.
The novel follows the fate of an icon that is considered “illegitimate” from its conception in eighth-century Lebanon. In The Image, the icon that serves as a site of the controversy is forged by a boy named Kostas who stumbles across a Maronite monastery equipped with no more than a satchel of dubious stones. His father received an imperial execution for joining “monks who were protesting the new laws against ikons.”
When the abbot explains that divinity “cannot be pictured,” that “a lifeless image records only a physical shape of the Christ, not the divine,” Kostas is flustered into a defense: “My father’s images are not lifeless,” he argues with eyes that are “suddenly fierce.” The boy’s soul squirms. He can’t keep his questions contained: “Did not our Lord himself say that if the people would not praise God, the very stones would cry out?”
The abbot sides with the iconoclasts’ ban, projecting a nefarious power onto the boy’s inherited trade. Outcast, Kostas takes up residence in a nearby cave, where he coaxes an icon of Christ from the “beautiful rocks” he has been carrying around. The boy’s mother had bequeathed him a rare ruby, which “your father gave me on our wedding day. He told me it was his heart written in stone.” Mixing sandy mortar with water, Kostas thumbs the piece into place, “pushes the ruby into the wounded hand.” The image demands all kinds of riches — from the weight of family legacy to a halo of gold that we register as lavish against the ascetical backdrop.
And “the centuries walked on” until the story arrives at our own — the second main shard of this novel in pieces. Since the Lebanese Civil War of 1975, Yusuf has been exiled from the land of Kostas. Safe in the States, managing carwashes around Dearborn, Michigan, he lives oblivious to the icon until his uncle tasks him with a return home.
A dying man, his Uncle Ibrahim admits that he stole from Christ, took the “gold pieces that go around the head to buy the bakery”; it was by bartering chunks of the icon that he won capital for his daily bread. On the verge of surgery, knowing the tubes will soon leave him as speechless as the abbot, Uncle Ibrahim betrays his bad conscience. He begs his nephew Yusuf to make recompense to the Most High whose halo he had thieved. Yusuf protests, justifies the deed, strives to salve his uncle’s soul. But his orbit around the satellite of carwashes is lonelier than ever. Yusuf’s daughter had promised not to disappear when she went off to college, but he has barely seen her since her schooling started. A grand mal seizure stole his wife. And so he boards a plane home to do his uncle’s bidding.
The quiet hole where Kostas once worked is soon visited by a foreign invader: Philip, a photographer for National Geographic, stumbles into the cave in search of something else. When he pulls out his flashlight and illumines the icon, he finds himself shoved against the wall, a bleeding skull for a souvenir. Yusuf tells the intrusive “American” to exit the “private property” at once. Philip doesn’t take No for an answer. In spite of the wounds he has already weathered, he negotiates his way into a photoshoot with or without Yusuf’s tacit consent. Yusuf is not to be swayed by a promise that the magazine will give him “a cut” of the pay. The cave, he claims, is sacred.
If Philip is baffled by appeals to the “holy,” the incredible artistry is not lost on him: Kostas’ image is the “best ikon I’ve ever seen. ... Better than anything in Rome or Istanbul” — so good he can’t shake the photos he had taken of the icon from his consciousness long after he has come back home to the States.
But masterful artistry isn’t all that disquiets Phillip. He had promised Yusuf he would not reveal the cave, had said “Yeah, I get it,” it’s “more than art. It’s, like, some private space for you or something,” proffering a postmodern characterization of individualist spirituality. Yusuf, desperate to explain, gestures toward the puzzle of stones: “I look at him, and he looks at me, and I am lost in the looking.”
It turns out Philip is short on cash and is young and in love to boot. He wants to marry Izzy and maybe have a baby, but his trade is less lucrative than a carwash. The old image continues to conjure controversy.
“Babe. This could make your career,” Izzy begs. Beyond this, “doesn’t the world have a right to see such a historic discovery?” Would he “sacrifice our future to your jumpy conscience, to a twingey feeling”?
Conscience, Phillip counters, is more than a twinge; it’s rooted in principles that transcend feeling. Yet more than guilt puzzles the photographer. Perhaps the pictures can’t do Jesus justice. Perhaps if Izzy had been there with him, in the presence of the ancient icon, she could start to conceive the faith that affronts him. “It looked at me. At me, Philip. Not surprised at all to see me, like he was expecting me these thousand years and more.”
French philosopher Roland Barthes may speak for many moderns when he regards the image as “an area of resistance” to rational meaning “in the name of a certain mythical idea of Life: the image is re-presentation, which is to say ultimately resurrection.” Whereas Barthes hoped that a “science of signs” could demystify the “animist, primitive” posture that steeps mere particles in superstition, Faulkner, instead of progress into pixels, narrates a blessed regress.
The Image moves us past mere mosaic to the very Savior the stones invoke. You’ll sense, by the end, that even in our age of mechanical reproduction there is more than matter mixed in with the mortar — and more than happenstance in these disparate lives arranged in a strange and mysterious union. Left in the final scene, in the light of a laptop screen that flickers prized pictures of an ancient art, you’ll recall the original on the wall, where mortals pressed their mouths against Kostas’ ruby wounds, mutely praising the Christ.
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA program at the University of St. Thomas. His books include the short-story collections This Our Exile (2018), In the Wine Press (2020), Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: Tolkien and Political Philosophy (2018) and How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic (2021). Hren’s chapbook, Last Things, First Things, and Other Lost Causes (2021), and novel, Yourrick’s Fall (2022), are forthcoming.