Write What You Know, Know What You Write: A Review of Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries”

On my way out to Utah last week to attend my sister Melyngoch’s farewell and see her off on her mission to Sweden, my plane was delayed in Denver, and I violated the budget my husband and I agreed upon just hours before and bought the Atlantic’s summer fiction issue. (The Zelophehad family is not noted for the ability to delay gratification.) After a hilarious story by Marjorie Kemper about a priest who gets into massive debt trying to help his poverty-stricken parishioners entitled “Specific Gravity” and Tobias Wolff’s excellent “Bible,” I flipped to Bradford Tice’s rather tiresomely predictable story about Mormon missionaries. (Religion is clearly in the air, even among the secular MFA crowd.)

As a returned missionary, I found certain aspects of Tice’s story pretty implausible. It seems evident to me that the author either never served a mission or else deliberately altered certain basic realities of mission life so drastically as to make the experience unrecognizable. The story features two elders–Case, a smooth-talking cynic who baptizes by manipulation and evidently believes in nothing except his own power to make district leader, and Joseph, his earnest, socially inhibited companion. The familiar pairing of innocent and cad could have been interesting, but it wasn’t.

Elder Case sheds his garments, goes swimming, samples a joint, sells real estate in heaven (God has a condo for you!) and in the story’s predictable final scene, has sex. Elder Joseph, on the other hand, is conflicted for most of the story, torn between his memories of his parents’ devotion and his discomfort with his companion’s suave, relentless scorn for the slightest show of piety. But Elder Joseph’s a greenie (a term that appears nowhere in the story); he’s been in the field only three months. After reading about the baseball baptisms and ice-cream baptisms and even mental-hospital baptisms, and recalling the most cynical elders and sisters from my own mission, I can well believe there are missionaries who trade their garments in for Fruit-of-the-Looms, jump naked into water-filled quarries and all the rest of it, but what I can’t believe is that their greenie companions stand idly by while they do. Fresh from the MTC (also never mentioned) and devout as he obviously is, Elder Joseph’s first impulse should be to call his mission president and rat his ratty companion out. (And for that matter, if Elder Case has been engaging in excommunicable offenses for the past year, word of his behavior has certainly been circulated by his former companions and has likely reached his evidently nonexistent mission president.) The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on the author to explain why such an obvious and clearly prescribed course of action never even crosses Joseph’s mind. But Tice has stranded Joseph in a world without a larger context; he is evidently entirely alone with his companion in a way that seems difficult to believe of a mission in the late-twentieth-century United States. The only mention of the mission home (incorrectly called “mission headquarters”) is the observation, “As long as the convert puts out his cigarette on the way down to the water, he is worthy.” That’s all the instruction Elder Joseph can recall from his arrival in the field? Not likely.

The story is marred by small errors that make the whole ring a little false. Joseph wears a “temple garment,” but a nineteen-year-old in 1979 or later should be wearing two pieces. Joseph recalls “the perfume his mother wore on Sundays when she attended chapel,” but a character raised in Salt Lake would refer to “church” or “sacrament meeting.” And for that matter, he recalls his mother addressing him as “Joseph”; is Joseph his last name or his first? Joseph asks Case why he never calls his parents on p-day; has any mission in recent memory permitted such frequent contact? Case’s determination to make district leader is itself a problem; the only criterion is evidently the number of baptisms one produces. I can well believe that numbers might be the only criterion for leadership positions in certain missions, but I doubt the fact would be so baldly acknowledged. (And Case aspires to be district leader of the Knoxville branch, another slip-up; a missionary is district leader of an area or a zone, while a branch is a geographical division of members, not of missionaries.)

The story’s inconsistent temporal setting is a problem that shouldn’t have required any particular knowledge of Mormonism to correct. An investigator has a son in the Vietnam War, and just a few lines later, the priesthood-granting revelation of 1978 is mentioned, while in the next column a Goth girl plays a CD. Unless we’re meant to understand the investigator’s son or his presence in Vietnam as a hallucination–and while the investigator is a somewhat forlorn and shabby character, nothing suggests that we are–the time frame is clearly contradictory.

But in my view the most implausible aspect of the story is Case’s complete lack of cynicism about his own cynicism, his utterly undisguised salesmanship, exhibited in obvious remarks like, “The ends always justify the means.” Tice doesn’t give hypocrisy nearly enough credit. In my experience, anyway, hypocrisy and evil rarely acknowledge what they do in such stark Machiavellian terms. Anyone who’s as good a salesman as Case would be good enough to sell his companion–and to some extent himself–a religious version of what he’s doing. Case should couch his manipulative ploys in Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants or Missionary Guide language as he explains them to his companion. Ida, the forlorn investigator whose son is in Vietnam, should be “special,” not “soft in the head”; the poor should be “humble” not “pliable”; the way to baptize is by “boldly following the Spirit” not by “force of will.”

And then there’s the final sex scene that evidently converts the voyeuristic Joseph to Case’s hard willfulness. So much of contemporary secular culture has evidently never recovered from its delight in the violation of Victorian taboo. The sexual revolution has not really embraced sexuality as a part of adult life; what it has done is popularized the repeated violation of what it can only understand as prudery, the expose of sexual reserve characteristic of seven-year-olds giggling at forbidden body parts. The trouble with Mormons and Mormon missionaries is that, like nuns, we are such irresistible fodder for this kind of pointing and tittering; for a sexually immature society, the most salient fact of missionary life is the law of chastity. What’s really unfortunate that Tice has elided all of the rich, contradictory aspects of devotion for such an unoriginal exposure of the sexual transgression a secular world is compelled to find at its root. Joseph’s corruption by proxy sex could have been a searing conclusion had the story actually engaged the complexities of the religious life. But with every religious impulse flattened into slack-jawed idiot piety by the Machiavellian voice of Case, it’s hard to see why Joseph’s ultimate corruption even much matters. A fall like the one Tice wants Joseph to take requires a far more robust religious life than he seems able to imagine or portray.

27 comments / Add your comment below

  1. great review. Will you send it to the Atlantic Monthly as well?

    It gets my goat when they get the fact-checkable stuff so wrong.

  2. Sounds like they don’t hire their editors enough? I mean, someone should have at least caught the timetable stuff. Yep, you should send this to them.

  3. Outstanding review. They should pay you to preview their magazine before it goes to press in order prevent themselves this sort of embarassment. And the guy who wrote this probably has no problem calling the Book of Mormon a fabrication. Duh.

    Something else that doesn’t ring true – elders as nakedly ambitious as Case don’t try to be DL. That is setting the bar far too low. They are always gunning for AP, with perhaps a brief stop at ZL on the way.

  4. Eve, I think if you send in this review they will want to hire you.
    Nice work, I love the way you write.

  5. I’ve heard people argue that working to get all the details exactly right is a waste of time as it distracts the author from the business of storytelling. (Does anyone really care if Watson’s war wound was in his arm or in his leg?)

    I disagree with that view. I think that making sure the story is plausible and consistent is vital for drawing the reader in. In my review of Kirn’s Mormon Eden I’ve made some of the exact same points you’ve made here regarding how the accuracy of the details affects the story (sometimes down to the phrase: “It rang false”).

    As you suggest in your title “Write what you know, know what you write,” when the author is getting that many little points wrong, the problem isn’t necessarily just a question of fact-checking, it can point to a more serious lack of familiarity with the subject or setting. Your observation about how the cynical missionary would be selling himself and his companion on his techniques points to a significant flaw in the story. Similarly in Kirn’s story the girl’s attitude towards her own sexuality doesn’t make any sense, and (as I pointed out in the comments of my review) as a consequence she not only doesn’t seem like a real Mormon girl, she ends up seeming like she’s not a real person at all.

    On some level it seems like “write what you know” is a pretty severe limitation. Yet I almost always get more pleasure from reading works where it’s clear that the author knows the setting/mileu well — and includes realistic details effortlessly — than I get from stories with a generic setting filled with wrong or inconsistent details. If you want to let your imagination go wild and invent every aspect your setting, then go with it: invent your own cultural setting and/or write speculative fiction.

  6. I agree with other comments, Eve, nice review! This does sound just like something the Atlantic might publish as a letter to the editor.

    I’m particularly interested by this comment you made:

    So much of contemporary secular culture has evidently never recovered from its delight in the violation of Victorian taboo. The sexual revolution has not really embraced sexuality as a part of adult life; what it has done is popularized the repeated violation of what it can only understand as prudery, the expose of sexual reserve characteristic of seven-year-olds giggling at forbidden body parts.

    Your description certainly matches my experience. I wondered, though, whether there’s any difference here between Americans and Europeans in general. I haven’t been to Europe, but I know the stereotype is that they’re much more matter-of-fact about sex than we are. Since you have been to Europe, I was wondering if you think that’s true. Also, given that Europe is less religious than the US is, I wonder if the phenomenon you describe might somehow be associated with religious culture rather than (or as well as) secular culture. I wonder if it requires the two to butt heads, as they do in the US perhaps more than Europe, where secular culture is perhaps more dominant.

    I’m just tossing out random ideas here; I would be very interested to hear what anyone with more knowledge has to say on the subject.

  7. At least the inconsistencies are relatively minor. 150 years ago, missionaries were portrayed as luring British women to Utah harems.

    Some of what you point out is still plausible. Once the sanctity of baptismal covenants are glossed over (as in baseball/ice-cream baptisms), it’s easy to slide into an ends-justify-the-means mentality.

    And, a junior/greenie companion is often no match for a senior/trainer with a strong personality and manipulation skills, so not tattling is plausible.

    I agree with your over-all point. Even short stories should be fact-checked, as glaring errors detract from them.

    I’m not a reader of the Atlantic. I don’t know what the standards for their fiction stories are. But that one sounds like schlock.

    As for a “fallen man of God” story, I think nothing matches Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

  8. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I hadn’t thought about sending this in, but maybe I will edit it for length and context and submit it as a letter to the editor. I really doubt I could get a job writing for (or proofing for) the Atlantic, but thanks for the kind words, Mark and Jessawhy (if my blogging actually lead to paid employment, my husband would leap around the house in ecstasy. He’s always dropping hints like–just ONE Danielle Steele novel, and we’d be set for life!)

    Mark, very good point about the aspirations of aspirational missionaries that I hadn’t thought about–no one desires with all his heart to be DL! It’s small potatoes. Elders like this one want to be AP. Ziff, good questions about Europe and the variations in sexual mores between here and there. My experience in Europe’s been so limited I don’t feel very qualified to answer, but your suggestions seem quite possible.

    Bookslinger, I’ve probably way overemphasized the negatives here. I wouldn’t say the story’s schlock, actually, although I can see that I’ve probably portrayed it that way. It’s actually quite good in many respects. It just doesn’t sound like an LDS mission I think any returned missionary would recognize. I wholeheartedly agree that an ends-justify-the-means mentality can very easily take over a companionship (or an entire mission)–I just think the language we couch it in tends to be more overtly religious. I’m thinking, for example, of John Dehlin’s own story on Mormon Stories, in which he describes his APs pressing strangers into baptism in very much the way Case does in the story, but they call what they’re doing “receiving miracles from the Lord.” And I also agree that not tattling is very possible–I just wanted to see Elder Joseph, fresh from the MTC, at least consider the idea, which I think would have to have crossed his mind.

    But thanks very much to you and all others for your remarks.

  9. Yes, there are many ways that the story comes up short in terms of its facts. Maybe that’s why they published it as “fiction”. A story needn’t be plausible in order for it to be a good story.

  10. It seems evident to me that the author either never served a mission or else deliberately altered certain basic realities of mission life so drastically as to make the experience unrecognizable.

    Does Tice have a Mormon background?

    Like C.L. Hanson, I thought of Kirn’s “Mormon Eden” (plus Eugene England’s review of the same) in this context.

  11. “A story needn’t be plausible in order for it to be a good story.”

    I edit fantasy, so in the sense of something being realistic as opposed to magical, yes, a story needn’t be plausible in that sense. But within the world of the story, the story does definitely need to be plausible to be a good story. This story was set in a Mormon world, and therefore, for me as an editor, it would have to be plausible within a Mormon world for it to be a good story.

    See the YA book by Ellen Hopkins, Burned, for a YA example of a book written by a non-Mormon, who only interviewed ex-Mormons, as an “expose” of what she calls the abusive culture of the church–plausible that this one family may have been that abusive and thus given the girl such distorted views of what it means to be Mormon, but not plausible that overall the church teaches such things. But then you get into questions such as unreliable narrators, and a book/story not being able to show a whole spectrum of attitudes all the time, etc.

  12. Yes, Stacy, but isn’t what seems plausible to one audience likely to be different from what seems plausible to another? Not that it should be this way, but standards or expectations change from one audience to the next. It seems to me that the fact that the Atlantic finds this a worthwhile representation of Mormonism says more about our place in the broader culture than anything else. Like it or not, we’re still a misunderstood minority and much of the public still expects us to be polygamous, racist clods. Sorry, I should have said it better the first time.

  13. I should add that I am a fish out of water here. I like to read, and I read whenever I can, but y’all know more about this than do I. I certainly don’t mean to exemplify Twain’s idea that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt… 🙂

  14. Joseph wears a ‘temple garment,’ but a nineteen-year-old in 1979 or later should be wearing two pieces.

    Not necessarily. Some people continue(d) to wear one-piece garments well past 1979 because they preferred them to the two-piece style. It’s also possible that a companion might try to work with the missionary who switched to FotL’s quietly rather than calling for the attention of the MP. I saw some non standard behaviors in my mission that weren’t reported. There may be some ambivalence about being a snitch or not working things out with others on one’s own.

    It’s fiction. Authors can deviate from norms in describing actions of some characters. Hyperbole can be a literary device. I doubt the author’s intent was a starkly realistic portrayal of typical Mormon missionary life. I think the author was trying to speak about something else.

  15. Dathon, sure, it’s possible–I just don’t think it’s highly likely. From what I’ve seen people, particularly younger people, rushed to embrace the two-piece garments. If Elder Joseph is still wearing a one-piece, I would propose that Case, who makes withering comments about virtually everything sacred, make a withering comment about that, too.

    I saw some non standard behaviors in my mission that weren’t reported. There may be some ambivalence about being a snitch or not working things out with others on one’s own.

    Oh, undoubtedly there is, or would be. I don’t think most of us reach would reach reflexively for the phone the instant a companion listens to forbidden song or takes the rest of the day off of tracting. But removing one’s garments, going swimming, sampling marijuana and sex? Perhaps Elder Joseph would decide not to snitch; again, it’s certainly possible. My point was rather that there’s no way he could witness such egregious violations of mission rules so recently out of the MTC without at least contemplating calling his mission president. I’m all for ambivalence about snitching, actually, but ambivalence is precisely what’s missing from the story. Joseph never even seems to remember that he has a mission president (and perhaps he doesn’t; no mission president is ever mentioned).

    It’s fiction. Authors can deviate from norms in describing actions of some characters. Hyperbole can be a literary device. I doubt the author’s intent was a starkly realistic portrayal of typical Mormon missionary life. I think the author was trying to speak about something else.

    I think Stacy spoke to this issue pretty well. Certainly hyperbole and symbolism and extreme situations are the terrain of fiction, and certainly fiction can deal in the outright impossible. But, paradoxical though it may sound, even the impossible has to be plausible. When my writing students want to know why Hemingway can write fragments and E. Annie Proulx can use comma splices while they can’t, I tell them that when you break a rule, the burden of proof is on you. If you’re going to take a risk in your writing, whether with your characters, your plot, the laws of physics, or the conventions of grammar, you have to break rules so elegantly, so masterfully that there’s no question in anyone’s mind that it wasn’t simply a mistake.

    When a writer gets detail after detail wrong, in most cases seemingly to no greater purpose, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he just hasn’t done his homework.

  16. I hope it is okay to jump into the discussion. I’ve been a lurker for a few months and have appreciated the excellent discussions and insights. I really appreciated the review on the story and the ensuing discussion. If I may, I would like to respond to the question in comment number 7 about the attitudes toward sex and religiousity in Europe. Attitudes about sexuality vary around Europe from very liberal to very conservative. I have lived in Sweden for 5 years so hopefully, I may add an insight. My comments about sexuality will be limited to what I have observed in Sweden.

    First, I think the approach to sex in Sweden is matter of fact. People treat it as a normal part of life. Perhaps this is no more evident than in the way sexuality is treated with teenagers. It is very common for teenagers to date one person exclusively and have a sexual relationship with that person. This sexual relationship is usually sanctioned by both parents. So most teenagers go home to have sex with their partner instead of sneaking around. Random partners are discouraged and fidelity is encouraged.

    Even the body isn’t viewed as completely sexual. For example, a topless woman at a beach isn’t shouting out a blatant statement of sexuality. She’s just a woman, on a beach, sunning herself without her top. That’s it.

    I would agree that Swedish culture is much more secular than religious. But I wouldn’t tie in being a “prude” with being religious. The Swedish State church (although it is no longer officially the State church) has tried very hard to disassociate itself from any type of sexual prudery. Most Swedes I know find the idea of abstaining from sex on moral grounds strange.

    I apologize if this sounds disjointed. Hopefully, this gives a little idea of view of sexuality in Europe–at least in Sweden.

  17. Sometimes a story is not written by mormons for mormons, so can it still be enjoyed?

    The author obviously threw in enough to get readers to realize what we’re dealing with character-wise, but if every fact is not exactly correct, it’s not detracting from the story. If it is, I think you’re missing the point.

    Some of the elements you touched on in your review are exactly the intent of the author. This is a story about the relationship between two individuals.

    Does the reader not get a sense of isolation from this story? A sense that these two young men have mainly themselves to rely on in this situation? Sure, having to check in with a mission president would be more true to life, but what does that do to the actual story?

    These interactions do not get at the crux of the situation, so they are ommitted. At the heart of this is the way the two men feel about each other, themselves, and their lives at this time. There is disgust, confusion, respect, love, betrayal, faith, and just overall humanity.

    I think once you stop seeing the characters as mormons, and realize that they are people with feelings you can appreciate the interactions within the story.

    So why the framework of mormonism then? I believe the author used it as a device with which to automatically establish the strict environment of this coming-of-age story. The reader can instantly see the conflict in the character behaviors and we get a good amount of unspoken exposition for free.

    I did not have a problem with the timeframe of the story, as I assumed the Vietnam comment was the delusions of a poor old woman, which made her a very sad character indeed. I didn’t think the story was offensive. It was certainly intense, but it worked for me in the sense that it was reminiscent of the overall intensity of life at that age.

  18. Tice’s story is more about how we are confined by our innate nature than it is about mormonism – or religion in general. Joseph, at the end, begins to wish he was Case, but because of who he is – even, hinted at, the way he was raised – he really never will be. That’s a perfect idea for a story this length, and to do it as Tice did, to make the reader “feel” that truth rather than just understand it in an intellectual way, is at least eighty percent the goal of any SHORT STORY, not simple accuracy. And, if you read the author’s notes at the end of the book, Tice says he was inspired by seeing mormon callers. He says the story was not intended to be about mormonism.
    I just finished the story today. It is the best from the book so far. I’ve read five or six – and I read Missionaries with no preconceived feelings about – what truly is only – the most obvious subject matter.

  19. Wow! you caught all of those mistakes. This is a very good bashing of the story, it’s almost like you weren’t even trying to read into the metaphors or anything… Impressive.
    Because (for example) the fruit of the loom underwear couldn’t have possibly been a representation of case taking fruit from the forbidden tree, going from the orthodox cloth to the materialistic comfort-underwear that people usually buy.
    Or the ever-so-obvious representation of Satan that Case was. “Tice doesn’t give hypocrisy nearly enough credit.” Or is it that Tice might have related the temptation that Case entice people with to the temptation that was the very definition of Satan… It would be Case’s job to define people differently than a normal person with typical morals, and to think only of how he could sway them to think his way.
    All these missions trips you’ve been on, I’m assuming you’ve been offered marijuana, made someone consider faith because of your good-looks, AND been in a situation where the only way to convert someone was to take advantage of the senile thoughts of an old woman who has lost a son and been in denial about it… No, because you don’t prey on the weak, easily manipulated, and worldly people that are represented in this story.
    The missions trip i went on, to Managua, Nicaragua, had the fairly straight-forward task of building another room onto a small house to double the size. I wasn’t required to be a salesman of the christian faith, I simply showed that there are people in the world who give a crap about those with less wealth than themselves. I do not feel quick to judge a boy who is partnered with someone who does whatever they can to change someone. That would be a very difficult situation to tell someone they should stop because you would be immediately ridiculed for stopping someone find faith, even if you were doing it for the right reasons.
    I agree that the editors of the story could have caught the flaws in naming of things, but that does not take away from the overall quality of the story.
    The first reaction to this comment itself will undoubtedly be “this is a hypocritical review of my review,” that may be. But I like to look into the meaning of the story rather than to see if the author dotted their i’s or crossed their t’s.

    -A fan of Missionaries as well as B. Tice

  20. Austin, the issue is that the story claims to present itself with LDS characters, but is as true to what it is doing as someone doing a skit in Blackface.

    would be more true to life, but what does that do to the actual story? … what does authenticity have to do with it?

    Or, perhaps, what does the complete lack of authenticity have to do with those whose culture is stripmined for the story feeling the author completely abused the context.


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