The Shack (2007)

My initial impression “this must be a popular book.” was based on the number of blurbs on the back cover, the front cover, and the first three pages following the cover. And “THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER” along with “OVER 20 MILLION COPIES SOLD”. However, I suspected The Shack was not going to be a fun read.

Here’s the first paragraph of the back cover.

Mackenzie Allen Philips’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.

Yes, while digging through the bins of my local Goodwill Outlet, that paragraph stuck out enough for me to buy. (One of four I bought that day.)

No, I didn’t enjoy the first five chapters of The Shack, but for a reason you may not expect: Mack’s The Great Sadness twisted my stomach, made me feel uneasy. It was such a deep hurt. His hollowness is the sort that artificially ages a soul by decades.

Perhaps because I didn’t pick this book off the shelf of a library or a bookshop I didn’t anticipate the harsh 90° turn into religious fantasy. I couldn’t help but feel “Oh, we’re doing this now? Oh-kay.”

And technically, I had the exact same reaction to the Children of the Corn (movie, 1984) when the corn slightly parted to allow Burt through. The transition from reality to a new reality was so much punchier.

In the context of a horror movie the juxtaposition of what’s happening and what ought be possible is the scare. The kind of environmental transformation in Chapter 4 – snow melting from grass in seconds and animals gathering – doesn’t happen in real life. I don’t think the writer considered this because of his own religiosity.

Even worse, if a few key events in The Shack were rearranged, you could pull a Final Fantasy 8-esque fan theory: Maybe after Mack slips in the driveway and cracks his head in Chapter 1?; Or maybe after the car crash on his way home from the shack in Chapter 17? Instead, he falls asleep. As it stands, The Shack is a religious fantasy with only a soft out, at best.

A weird criticism: there’s too much winking. I’m not going to go back and read it a second time to count, but if someone has a digital copy, could you get a count for me? On second thought, I’ll save you the time: Too many. That’s how many.

And it’s done by God, mostly. Usually to soften a verbal lash to Mack. Here’s an example. –

“… My love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” Papa [God] said with a wink.

There’s tons of that! – Little stings to break up the dialogue. The length is ~78K words because God convinces Mack of every metaphor-ladden latitude first try. Given Mack’s attitude in the early chapters this a total surprise. He transforms from …

“So where are you? I thought you wanted to meet me here. Well, I’m here, God. And you? You’re nowhere to be found! You’ve never been around when I’ve needed you – not when I was a little boy, not when I lost Missy. Not now! Some ‘Papa’ you are.”

… To …

Mack settled back in his chair, surveying the view from the porch. “I feel so full!”

[Says God:] “Well, you’ve eaten most of the scones.”

“That’s not what I meant.” He laughed. “And you know it. The world just looks a thousand times brighter and I feel a thousand times lighter.”

… And I can tell you after reading, yes, this character change is as jarring as it reads.

Stranger still, that second passage is before God leads Mack to Missy’s hidden grave and berates him into forgiving his child’s murderer. Unconditional love wins out against homicide of your loved ones? – another weird turn I wasn’t sure belonged. I was afraid in that moment: “Is Mack not going to lead the police to the grave when he gets back to reality?” (He does.)

Ooooo, but there’s a hidden spice throughout the story. Did the writer truly intend to give Mack these sick fourth wall knocks? They ought to have been deleted, because immediately after my eyeballs crossed them I was skeptical of everything God said for a couple pages each time.

“But if she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here right now…”

“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t even assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

“Actually that’s a relief. I couldn’t bear to think that my pain might have cut her life short.”

Brief aside – Did you know you can break a hammer with a nail? Tempered steel tools are great because you can hit things really hard provided there’s a wide surface area. The head of a nail works great with this. However, if you smash the tip of the nail, the head of the hammer could explode because the force is concentrated in such little area.

Mack was so on point he smashes the hammer. It stunned me. Because, yes, in terms of meta-narrative, “… If she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here right now…” is, yeah, that’s why you’re here at all. I think you’re supposed to leave the snark in the drafts? (He says without a trace of self-awareness.)

Once Mack gets to the shack, dialogue takes over and we don’t get many of his thoughts without the omniscient God 1 (capital-G God or “Papa”), God 2 (Jesus), or God 3 (Holy Spirit) stepping in. In short bursts early on there are entire paragraphs of quality observation. Below is an example.

There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine. Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from expectations, performance demands, and the tyranny of appointments and schedules. And unlike illness, it is largely a corporate rather than individual experience. One can almost hear a unified sign rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview. All those affected this way are united by a mutual excuse, and the heart is suddenly and unexpectedly a little giddy. There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some commitment or other. Everyone understands and shares in this singular justification, and the sudden alleviation of the pressure to produce makes the heart merry.

Even commonplace activities become extraordinary. Routine choices become adventures and are often experienced with a sense of heightened clarity.

I want the entire book to sing to me in this way. But alack and alas, it’s not so.

(If you want more good/fun/bad examples, read this post.)

Several hours into the book there are two almost twist endings that I did not appreciate. After the Dragon Ball Z hyperbolic time chamber style nap, Mack is on his way home. He is brutally t-boned by a drunk driver running a red light.

If the book were formatted better (i.e. having employed a masterful blank page so I wouldn’t know the outcome immediately?) perhaps this would have been heart-stopping? But it wasn’t, and I was annoyed the character was almost assassinated after a weekend with God.

The second almost twist, he wakes up, and fears he has lost his memory. Of course he was fine after a couple days in the hospital. But don’t fuck with me like that! He alone had been gifted, if nothing else, the whereabouts of his daughter’s grave.

Pardon me if I’m overreaching in my critique, but there is no justification for a double tragedy fake-out in this book. In fact, The Shack will be going on my list of Stop at Episode X for this stunt. Read until the end of Chapter 5 and close the book.

Dammit, I was hooked by the premise; I wanted God’s conversation with Mack to be the how’s and why’s of his daughter’s murder to end The Great Sadness. A poor example of a Come To Jesus Moment was not on the itinerary.

The Shack gave me plenty of questions to ask myself to discover more about my lack of religiosity, but the book’s conclusions were in no way any help. All of this writing and most of my pondering was done after the book was closed.

And as I close the book I notice the ladybug on the front cover has two dots on it’s wings, not five.