I’ve been thinking a lot about history lately, and how the stories we tell ourselves about our lives shape who we are almost as much as actual events. What defines us? Where do we fit into a group? More importantly, how do we decide which stories to tell?
Published in The Collagist, “Devotion” by Dolly Laninga is about a cult. And when it comes to crafting narratives, cults have got it down. In “Devotion,” the first-person plural narrator describes the leader’s daughter, a girl named C— , who starts out a normal member of the community, but leaves the group and then returns with an omen. (What the omen is exactly is difficult to discern; a cross between a book and something more interactive, maybe.)
At the start, Laninga’s story seems to be set in our world, although in an indeterminate place and time. The group’s life is rural and removed. They live near the sea and worship there. Laninga describes the leader as “a cudgel of piety who, in directing our mineral scrubs by the sea, rubbed his skin the hardest, groaned the loudest, submerged himself in icy currents the longest. Who subsisted on the least bread, the merest trickle of water. Who ground himself into his belief to uplift his spirit as one pulverizes the seed to release its flavor.” But the story’s focus turns to C—, the leader’s daughter who one day breaks from the script and announces that a visitor will come and “change everything.”
The first-person plural narrator is the right choice for this story. The plural lends the narrator authority—this isn’t the experience of a single person but many. Belief in one idea unites a group, and the stories told about the group become an individual’s history as well. If you were not present in the moment, it doesn’t matter—the story will be repeated so frequently it’s as if you were there in the first place. This happens with groups of friends, families, coworkers, and the devout. In “Devotion” the narrator’s account takes place over a little more than 9 months, but the hive-mind-esque “we” makes the story feel as if the way things are is the way they’ve always been. And when a shift in the community occurs at the end, the reader feels the significance of this change.
The voice itself is rhythmic and rehearsed. I remember going to Catholic mass growing up, and the narrator’s voice reminds me of the rote replies of the congregation—it has the same expansive, echoing pitch, where individual voices are both audible and indistinguishable at the same time. Phrases like “the rigor of our devotions” and “our natural faith” give the story the quality of having been repeated so often it’s been committed to memory.
The narrator is also verbose and articulate. The description of the community gives the impression of a simple people in a simple place, yet instead of saying “maybe we decided to follow the wrong person” the narrator opts for “perhaps we were not sufficiently cautious in choosing a spiritual custodian.” The narrator is overly specific—instead of telling us they worshiped whenever they could, the narrator lets us know that “we performed rituals on days when the elements would not drown out our expressions of spiritual ecstasy.”
The sincerity distances us from the narrator—we wouldn’t describe their rituals this way, which intensifies the sense that we are not a part of the group. The narrator’s earnestness is comic without being precocious. Most importantly, the voice is dynamic, particular to this group of people, and it’s what I admire most about “Devotion.” It can be difficult to sustain a voice so distinct, but Laninga does.
I’d also like to take a moment to praise Laninga’s sentences. I’ll resist the urge to copy and paste all of my favorites here, since taken out of context they may not make you react the way I did—but they are astute and lovely. They move and surprise. And I will say that “Devotion” opens with one of the best first lines I’ve read in a while: “The omen appeared in the ninth month of the girl’s melancholy and so naturally it was thought she had birthed it.” (Doesn’t that just make you want to head over to The Collagist right now?)
“Devotions” eventually takes a turn toward the supernatural; without spoiling the ending, I will say that things get pretty weird. I’d love to hear what you think. So go check out Dolly Laninga’s story.
“The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.