A Book from the Brink
Joshua Hren’s Infinite Regress will linger on the margins of mainstream literary attention as the best “Catholic novel” of the past two years.
Infinite Regress: A Novel by Joshua Hren (Angelico Press, 2022), 296 pages.
Something is rotten in the state of academia—especially at St. Marquis University. Joshua Hren’s new novel Infinite Regress shows vividly the failure of the old corporate conservative “wisdom” about campus radicalism, that we just have to wait things out and allow the cold, hard reality of the market to correct the social-justice warriors. Rather, as his story of the Yourrick family reveals, the intellectual and moral corruption that too many students learn at elite colleges, including too many putatively Catholic universities, has deformed both souls and our republic. Thankfully, as Flannery O’Connor once said, hopeless people don’t write novels, and Hren’s novel presents a vision of grace amidst suffering, suggesting that even the horrors of the present moment are not beyond redemption.
As a post-campus novel, Infinite Regress treads new ground. Unlike other works within the campus-novel genre, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, we witness the “Catholic” St. Marquis University only briefly through Blake Yourrick’s flashbacks. The story follows Blake as he seeks some way to pay back his college loans, first as a temporary worker in the Bakken oil fields, and then as a security guard at a graveyard. Above all, Blake is seeking to avoid a proposition made to him by his former professor, the defrocked Jesuit Theodore Hape (whose crimes in a lake-house with seminarians might remind church-watchers of a certain former cardinal). Hape has offered to pay Blake a tidy sum of $50,000, about half of his loan debt, for one simple consensual act (sodomy, in whatever manner Hape prefers).
Hape’s attempted seduction runs deeper than his desire for a pound of flesh from Blake. This is to be the final act of his teaching, the performative aspect of the postmodern dogma of gender ideology, the lesson Blake recites but to which he can’t fully commit: “gender is nothing essential, is a set of manipulating and manipulated codes, is a symbol or a signal rather than a body, ergo all uses of what we happen to call ‘sexual organs’ should be permitted and even championed.” Blake’s capitulation, according to Hape’s design, ought to overcome the reason that combats Blake’s own skepticism, namely, his sense of the human body’s reproductive purpose. By grasping that this intellectual surrender is the villain’s aim—in moral terms, that despair is a greater sin than lust—we more easily understand the novel’s structure, which maintains a driving pace even after its first climax takes place about halfway through the story.
One might be surprised to find such vitality in a novel that both begins and ends in a cemetery, but Hren vividly depicts the various members of the Yourrick family and the villainous Hape in such a way as to clarify a point from Caroline Gordon’s The Art of the Novel. Gordon’s novelist friend Mr. X claimed that there was no such thing as a novel of ideas, because novels deal with life, with action, but Hren reveals within the lives of his character the power of both truth and sophistry.
Hren’s novel has been astutely compared to those of Dostoevsky for precisely this reason, that it shows the weight that ideas have in the choices its characters make. In Blake’s father, Garrett Yourrick, one meets again Fyodor Karamazov, albeit none the less buffoonish for being more intellectual. In the Yourrick siblings—Max, Blake, and younger sister Dymphna—we see a reconfiguration of the The Brothers Karamazov. Each sibling is as intellectual as Ivan, and Dymphna has something of Alyosha’s spiritual purity, and yet Dmitri’s passionate nature seems missing. Blake, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, has, as a student, published a transgressive essay; rather than justifying murder by the Übermensch, Blake’s essay published in the Daily Queer justifies a seminarian sleepover scandal similar to that of which Hape was accused. This early allusion to Dostoevsky’s novel helps us ascertain the larger structural similarity between the two stories, and helps explain the comic drift of Infinite Regress despite its tragic intertexts.
The action of this novel should be seen as akin to an intersection between the parable of the prodigal son and the raising of Lazarus (Dostoevsky’s chosen action in Crime and Punishment). Yet, as a novel, which Mikhail Bakhtin famously called a polyphonic form, this action is repeated in several different registers. Blake must find a way to fully return to his father Garrett, as must his brother Max, and yet Garrett must find a way to return to himself. Each return is in an inextricable way connected with the characters’ return to God the Father, manifested through acts of charity to each other, tied together by a final moment in a graveyard where we feel conclusively that the novel has plunged past the abyss into the terrain of comedy. The experience of moving through Infinite Regress is something like opening a series of nesting Russian matryoshka dolls, but the reader, like the skeptical Garrett and Blake, find a more conclusive certainty at the novel’s end.
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Hren has certainly apprenticed at the feet of David Foster Wallace, as seen in his extreme attentiveness to narrative detail, surpassing even other models of realism such as Honoré de Balzac in his ability not only to notice such details, but to use them meaningfully within his story. A principle purpose of Infinite Regress is to show the seriousness of a world consumed by a sense of meaninglessness only numbed by constant entertainment. Max, in one of the novel’s pivotal moments, urges Blake to remember that “life isn’t a joke,” and in a clever reference to Wallace’s magnum opus, the Benedictine Fr. Sarto castigates Garrett for his “infinite jest.” Marshall McLuhan once said something to the effect that in our digital age we’re awaiting a new, albeit very different St. Thomas Aquinas—someone who, like Aquinas figuratively baptized Aristotle, would reorder new technological developments towards human flourishing.
Hren, in a McLuhanian manner “Thomistically,” has baptized David Foster Wallace, but while the Catholic tradition generally sees grace as perfecting nature, that perfection doesn’t normally require liposuction. Infinite Regress weighs in at less than a quarter of the mammoth Infinite Jest, but the reduction in page count does not correlate to comparatively less weight per page. I asked my mother to try the novel on a recent beach trip, and she made it about five pages in before informing me that “it was rather dense.” The erudition on display in Hren’s pages make its best audience autodidacts and graduates from those few liberal arts colleges and universities still devoted to reading literature, philosophy, and theology—perhaps Hren’s former students from Belmont Abbey College or his current students at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. It might not suit a more casual reader on a beach vacation, but this novel wants those readers who turn to fiction for wisdom as a hermit turns to silent prayer on a mountaintop.
With Infinite Regress, Hren has reached a new peak of his artistic vocation. He previously published two well-crafted collections of short stories, In the Wine Press (2020) and This Our Exile (2017), but this new book reveals that the depth of his vision simply surpasses the possibilities of the short story’s form. It would be a rare professor who could manage teaching this brilliant novel, with its allusions not only to Dostoevsky and David Foster Wallace, and to Wallace’s major intertext, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“alas, poor Yorick—I knew him well, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest”), but also to Albert Camus, Aristotle, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and more. One worries then, that given the state of the Infernal Emporium for Revolutionary Ideas (to repurpose for the university something from Borges), Hren’s novel will linger on the margins of mainstream literary attention as the best “Catholic novel” since Glenn Arbery’s Boundaries of Eden (2020). If Toynbee was right that the death of civilizations comes not by murder but by suicide, one hopes that Infinite Regress would have the reach to help pull us, like Blake Yourrick, back from the brink.