Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: The Loser Letters

Mary Eberstadt's new book, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism, has been receiving a great deal of Catholic media attention, and for good reason. This clever satire, in the style of Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, creatively addresses the New Atheists' many flawed arguments about Christianity.

The book contains a series of ten letters written by A.F. (A Former) Christian to her new "BFFs": Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of the new atheist gang. A recent convert to atheism, she is eager to share her inside knowledge about how the "Dulls" (her name for believers, taken from the atheists' use of "Brights" in reference to themselves) really view the religious world. With incredibly well-meant criticism, A.F. points out the numerous problems with the New Atheists' arguments, including everything from those about sex ("when we Atheists say with a straight face that deep-sixing the old sex rules will make everybody happy, we're dissing the experience of most people . . . under the age of fifty") to those about good works ("it's not as if hospitals and soup kitchens abound in our inner cities in Darwin's name"). Her arguments are simple, factual, and thought-provoking, but it is only when they are combined with the fictional element of the story, A.F.'s personal history, that the book becomes truly compelling. As the letters unfold, A.F. gradually reveals the heartbreaking circumstances under which she left the Church, and it is this tragedy that makes The Loser Letters an ironic testimony to the harmful effects of atheism's hold on humanity.

The Loser Letters is everything the critics describe it as. It is clever, witty, funny, and at times, poignant. As a reader, however, I have two major criticisms. First, the narrator's language, intended to reinforce A.F.'s youth, ends up being a distraction. Her use of modern slang, although often amusing and important for character development, is excessive and I sometimes found myself backtracking to reread and "translate" passages. My second criticism is similar: Many of the references in the book rely on knowledge of current pop culture, which, again, contributes to character development and overall humor, but in the end will serve to severely date the story. For example, Eberstadt makes several references to Paula Abdul and American Idol. Readers today may understand, but ten years from now? Probably not.

The Loser Letters is well-worth the read for its logical arguments, brilliant use of satire and irony, wonderful humor, and emotional (but not sentimental) plot line. Unfortunately, the overdone modern references and slang prevent this book from ever being a timeless classic like The Screwtape Letters. All in all, I recommend buying a copy and sharing it among friends.