The author of LILY SNOW has as much to learn about good writing as he has already learned about it. He has as much to develop as an artist as he has already developed as one. He has many excellences; and many faults. But the excellences as well as the faults of this writer may be inherent in his unique outlook on the world. I suppose what I am saying here is that he is an author sui generis. You must take him on his own terms and measure him by a yardstick specially made for the purpose.
As in any piece of creative writing, LILY SNOW, has flaws. Let us deal with these first. The problem that Iacovelli has in this novel is twofold: he is, here and there, short on the facts of a given subject, and, second, there is, despite the apparent invention, a singular sameness in characterization and plot. For instance, in a chapter entitled the "Light of Santa Marta," a supposed place in Colombia, one is tempted to ask: "Santa Marta? Where is that saint to be found in the hagiology?" The answer is: Nowhere. Such a saint never existed. Indeed, there is some question about whether the author is really conversant with much of Roman Catholicism, especially insofar as Church practices are concerned in the allocation of "human resources," since Lily Snow, a nun, is sent here and there by common parish priests. Would not someone higher up in Church hierarchy be responsible for such assignments? ó a bishop, for instance? From a purely factual point of view, Iacovelli would have done well to do more research for his novel.
The author also has a potential problem with characterization. I say "potential" because sometimes his characters are unique and distinct from all others; but, in this novel at least, many of the characters are too much the same. One is inclined to ask whether the unique personalities were taken from people he knew, or whether they were the products of imagination. However it was, the reader will find many characters speaking dialogue that is easily interchangeable among many of them. And that leads us to the next problem with the book. Despite the apparent multiplicity of her misfortunes, the heroine is essentially undergoing the same misfortune. After the third or fourth adversity Sister Lily suffers, the reader suspects -- or rather, knows -- that she is "in for it" again. Granted that these misfortunes are somewhat different; that they seem to get worse and worse; but they are, to begin with, so horrible, and the human body after all has only so many parts to be damaged, that, after a while, the reader parses these descriptions of mayhem as though in a trance.
All of these things are shortcomings, and some of them are considerable. But there is a saying that "only a great book can have great faults," and if there were a somewhat less extravagant saying, which however meant pretty much the same thing, it could be applied to LILY SNOW. For the very shiny other side of the coin about this book is that its shortcomings pale by comparison with its excellences. Foremost among these is the fine language. Here is a writerís writer! Despite the occasional typo or obvious absence of a word (was proofing done on this manuscript?), Iacovelli has a gift for expression. Though there is, here and there, a slight tendency to overwrite -- a lushness of language that is a tad overdone -- on the whole the tone and syntactic balance are perfectly realized, and the poetry of the prose never intrudes on but rather finely embellishes the sense. In this we are reminded of the writing of Melville; but that writer was always looking for the lilting phrase whereas Iacovelliís lyricism is intermittent only to heighten the sense or sensibility of a passage. The very first paragraph of the book gives the reader a hint of this, of whatís in store:
"Glory be to God! Without Whom the sun would not rise, nor the earth turn, nor the winds blow, nor even the meanest being have the breath of life. God alone."
This note of piety informs the whole work, in keeping with the character of the religious protagonist. In defense of Iacovelliís occasional lapses into overwriting, it might be said that these happen most frequently when his heroine is in an "exalted state" of religious fervor. In that case, it might be claimed that the tone is but another tool by which the character of the memoirist is evinced.
More than anything else, however, LILY SNOW is a comedy. It is a black comedy. It is slapstick. From a purely literary point of view, this novel has severe faults; but from the point of view of its comic intent, it hits the mark perfectly and repeatedly. It may be the funniest book the reader will ever pick up. It is very likely that Iacovelli himself didnít realize how funny this book was when he wrote it, because some of its comedy derives from its very constructional flaws, such as the "surprise" turns of plot that are quickly no surprise at all, but rather quite expected and obvious, yet the funnier for being so.
What is book "about"? On the face of it, this: LILY SNOW, a nun, whose view of her Faith is absolute, even to the point of being hypocritically narrow-minded, finds herself cast into a faithless world where it seems no one respects her religious status. Everyone is too busy making or stealing money to have time for her. Drug dealers abound in the book. Sister Lily comes across any number of them who are impatient of her moralizing sermons, or whose profitable illegalities she threatens to expose, and who have no bad conscience in getting rid of her. She takes a beating more than once. Not a few large, heavy objects fall on her. The poor woman nimbly goes from one injury to the next. She is rushed to several hospital emergency rooms. In fact, she is always on her way to one "emergency room" or another. (Is the author obsessed with this part of a hospital?) And yet she never seems permanently injured. No matter how bad the accident that befalls her, the violence set upon her, Sister Lily, evidently protected by the Lord whom she serves, always survives, and not only survives but springs back, after due painful recuperation, into health sufficiently good enough to be a nuisance to some other unscrupulous character.
Now, that is the plot on the surface; but it is, as the author hints in the opening chapter, "I Am Called," a metaphor. The book deals in an exaggerated way with the age-old dichotomy and antagonism between living a "spiritual" life and getting by in "the world." Sister Lily is on the side of the "good," the "spiritual," and so necessarily comes across a lot that is "bad" in the workaday, material world following the maxims of profit and loss. Iacovelli is right in thinking that, for Americans at least, the theme is more pertinent than ever. In this, LILY SNOW might almost be a long metaphor for that schizophrenic dichotomy in modern society between the need to "live well," and the price we have to pay in our personal growth in order to do so. In sometimes very touching prose, this notion raises its serious head above the comedy of the book, and acts not only as a foil and balance to the comedy, but also as a reminder to the reader of how much in his own life is very sad and desperate.
There is a real feeling for Christianity, for true Christianity, in this book. Sister Lily is a very devout if narrow-minded woman. Though she too easily discounts the validity of other religions (and of course here Iacovelli is making a "statement"), the reader feels that she genuinely cares about the state of other peopleís souls. Her struggle ultimately is against materialism but against this because it is, ultimately, the shadow for the substance: the brief mortal existence for the Eternal one.
Though there are, as discussed above, some characterization problems with the book, there are also several vivid portraits, such as Mr. Bumjingle, Agatha Pupton, and (is the reader ready for this one?) Dr. Schlong. They are absurd characters, yet they come across as real. Certainly they come across as fitting for the time and place in which they appear in the book: not plucked out of the blue and summarily put in any one place, so much as in keeping with the circumstances of the protagonist. Itís a strange thing how naturally the author has cobbled together these people and their conversations. It goes to the very heart of the creative process: the way it all just Ė happens.
On scale of one to ten, I rate this novel a 7 or 8. It is not in the first ranks of imaginative literature; but then again only a handful of novels are in that rank, and it would be unfair to expect an author to rise to that almost impossibly high standard. Also, it should come as no surprise that this book is published by an independent publisher, and a POD publisher at that. (POD stands for Print On Demand -- a fairly new technology that enables the publisher to print only as many as are ordered). For this is not the kind of material that a major New York publishing house would or could have accepted for publication. It is too far off the beaten track; it does not and cannot fit into the standard molds. It is brilliant -- and it is bizarre. And all this is aside from what is probably the more important factor of the authorís anonymity. Quite simply, and with rare exceptions, the major publishing houses are not willing to take chances to publish unknowns in a day when so much of sales depends on name recognition.
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