CHICAGO, November 19, 2014 – We may not have yet moved beyond a world run by powerful literary gatekeepers, and we may not entirely want to. But today, the options for aesthetic variety in literature have certainly increased. Whereas previously, major publishers seemed almost entirely focused on the negative, spiritually-neutral (or dead) sphere of relativistic writers, a new school of positivistic literature is increasingly appearing on the horizon.
Wise publishing houses like Ignatius Press seem to be snatching up the best of these emerging voices. Enter Michigander T.M. Doran. He joins the ranks of authors Michael O’Brien and Lucy Beckett in providing searingly human yet intellectually engaging novels to a public hungry for something more fulfilling in their literary pursuits than much of current literary drivel.
Not surprisingly, efforts of authors like Doran were once left by the cynical to stew in the uncertain slush piles of the quirky independent publishing world. But happily, Doran has experienced a different fate, having found a home with Ignatius Press. Now his work is receiving the distribution it most certainly deserves as is borne out in his recent work.
A crisp and organized writer who nevertheless seems to revere the spiritual roots of language – let alone the messy glory of history – Doran’s stories unfold naturally into areas that may, in hindsight, seem at times quite fantastical. His recent effort “Toward the Gleam,” for instance, links modern Europe with the fantasy tales of a certain much reverenced mid-century English author. (Hopefully our summarization avoids a spoiler alert!)
The risk taken in such an approach steers clear of becoming derivative or turning into highbrow fan fiction. Instead, it creates a new world with utterly satisfying results.
Doran genre-jumps into pure historical realism with his most recent effort, a short novel entitled “Iota.” This taut narrative takes place primarily during November 1945, when Prague native Jan Skala finds himself suddenly kidnapped by Soviet operatives and imprisoned for reasons beyond his knowledge or control.
Jailed in a converted hog processing plant along with a colorful international cast of fellow prisoners, Jan’s fellow inmates all seem equally ignorant as to the alleged crimes they’ve committed. As the camp commandant dangles the possibility of release before their eyes, each prisoner fights a private battle of loyalty, integrity and trust while navigating the complex maze of Soviet psychological terror that’s constantly thrown in his path.
We learn that Skala has been wrestling with suppressed guilt long before his imprisonment, having decided during the war to remain on the staff of his Prague newspaper even after it fell under Nazi control. He decided then to choose survival over certain death. The price: authoring and publishing Nazi propaganda under his once-respected name.
As his imprisonment drags on, Skala begins to wonder if he is about to choose dishonor over death for a second time.
Once imprisoned, Skala is convinced that he is suspected of being a Nazi collaborator by the new Soviet masters of Prague. Yet during his repeated conversations with the Soviet major who holds the keys to his survival, he loses his balance as well as his moral certainty. This forces Skala not only to deal with the finely-tuned tactics of Soviet interrogation, but also to confront the demons of his own recent past.
A fascinating sub-narrative takes place around Skala, who enters a fully stocked prison setting with a well-established social order. As Skala’s fellow suspected subversives represent a large sample of the world’s regions and religious-philosophical perspectives, Doran is able to provide powerful commentary regarding how certain worldviews may fare under the harsh glare of unjustified suffering.
Far from being a partisan exercise, this intriguing material provides fodder for serious self-reflection that will appeal to readers of all ideological persuasions.
True to the fine form Doran set in his previous book, “Towards the Gleam,” “Iota” provides us with a surprising yet satisfying conclusion, during which the meaning behind the book’s title is finally revealed. Not all the remaining loose ends are tied up. But they don’t have to be, as what is essential comes quickly to the forefront.
As an added bonus, Doran furthermore illuminates a time in history that will now be unfamiliar to many of his readers, while at the same time educating them about the true nature of the dominant warring ideologies of the time.
Readers who enjoy the Ignatius Press literary brand will doubtless flock to Doran’s current effort. For those who might be unsure about taking this step, a safe challenge may be issued: At a mere 165 pages, even many confirmed skeptics will conclude that reading this book is a small investment to make in return for the possibility of being inducted into an exciting new literary movement.
Rating: ***1/2 (3.5 out of 4 stars)
As an added literary palate-tempting bonus, Ignatius will be promoting this author’s latest by giving away Doran’s first mystery novel, “Terrapin,” as a free e-book up until November 24, 2014.