Embracing the Dark Dark

If God is light, is there value in dark?

Children learn early to separate the good guy from the bad guy in a story. Darkness is a north star, navigating them toward the happy ending, the triumph over evil. These norms make soothing promises, and indeed we serve a triumphant God. We identify the hero early and map ourselves on to them.

Yet from my youth, I’ve been drawn to the tragic ending, to the promise broken. Sad stories are my savored sweets, drawn out, extracting every drop. I’ve found that this taste has not dissolved through 13 years of growing closer to the God of joy and comfort. It was inevitable that I would pick up Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark—the title alone wooed me.

The promise of the title asserts itself quickly. The themes weave in and out of death, infidelity, infertility, futile love, abandonment, loneliness, and even getting trapped under an ocean tanker in the dead of night. The epigraph from Eudora Welty quarters the work and shows us its organs: “Then she raised the hoe above her head.” There is violence, drama, female protagonists, and if you’re willing to admit it, humor.

All of the laughing I did surprised me. LOL is rarely literal, but there I was, cackling on my couch over Hunt’s perfect delivery, her ridiculous, obvious metaphors. But what won my heart was how everything she wrote felt real in the way that only fiction can. Even when holding up the absurd—a perfect sex bot designed to explode a terrorist, teenagers riding a horse to Walmart, a resurrected dog ruining a sexual encounter, a husband and wife becoming deer—Hunt feels in control. She’s telling you the truth.

We all know how real fear and anguish are, how real are betrayal and regret. We dream of framing our lives on the sure boards of success and happiness, but the truer studs are frequently our failures, the secrets we will never tell. Hunt doesn’t describe the dark dark for its own sake, a published voyeur. She presses us to acknowledge that sometimes the most universal story is expressed in the specifics of exquisite loss.

How can I pull out just one gem for you to look at in this embarrassment of riches? Perhaps you’ve never conducted an affair with your professor, and then yelled out at an academic party that everyone is “just angry because of what I do with my queer vagina.”  Hunt uses language we may avoid and find uncomfortable, but it is not gratuitous.  She is framing the outburst as pathetic, childish, and desperate -  an attempt to dress up sin in words that are both smug and insecure, which we are all guilty of. Hunt’s narrator recalls the yelling woman and ponders: “‘Queer’ once meant strange. ‘Queer’ once meant homosexual. ‘Queer’ now means opposition to binary thinking…How did common, old, vanilla adultery ever become queer?” Why is it that we always try to cover our evil, even to ourselves, by giving it a bold name?

Perhaps you’ve never stood, spade in hand in your backyard, ready to kill a homeless woman who has the audacity to share your name and be carrying a child while you menstruate, unwanted, again. But we’ve all felt the rage of deciding that we deserved a thing more than someone else who got it, especially if that someone else is poorer, dirtier, or less educated than we are. Suddenly we can imagine how it could be us in the afternoon sunlight, contemplating coldly how to best hide a woman’s remains. Our real selves are exposed in fiction, and it makes us shiver. We can’t resist mapping ourselves onto the antihero.

Therein lies the value. It’s common to complain that we need to slow down, we need to notice, we need to put down our smartphones and be mindful. If nothing feels particularly urgent, it’s easy to ride our habits all day long, lulled. But a story wakes us, shaking our sleeping shoulder. The darkness asks frightening, urgent questions, and doesn’t supply the answers. Suddenly we’re paying attention.

This is what keeps Hunt’s work from being simply bleak. She allows the questions to linger, and a hope that they can be answered hovers—is it just within reach, or just outside? There is no moralism here, no tied bows. In this way, The Dark Dark recalls the excellent short stories of Flannery O’Connor. They share a spiritual connection despite the distance in the personal piety of the authors. Both women demand that you look, that you reckon. They will not be pleased until you relinquish your easy answers.

How shall we respond? Jesus Christ is the yes and amen of every one of God’s promises. His unconquerable life is our great joy, our forever wealth. He is the answer, but never the easy one. We betray his person if we use his presence in the world today by his Spirit as a reason to look away from the dark. The response of God to thick pain was to enter it, touch it, be overcome by it, and only then to rise. Jesus demonstrated the strength of his answer by becoming vulnerable. He knew the magnitude of what was against him; and the magnitude of who was behind him.

We have an invitation to this same Spirit empowered vulnerability. All of us can pretend that strength is conquering the dark by our own spirit, or by a well-placed Bible verse, or by ignoring the pain. But this is garbage. Our light is not enough, and trying to contain God’s light into a package that we can control will never do. Let’s enter in to each other’s dark questions, and invite the Spirit to show us himself, to show us Jesus. While this dark dark persists, it can serve as a path to the one who knows its reality, acknowledges its power and breaks it with his own body. Not easy, but won.