Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz became a breakout sensation in 2003, for a number of very good reasons. For starters, the memoir—subtitled "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality"—was splendidly written. But it was also zeitgeisty in the best sense of the word, capturing the emerging momentum of the Christian hipster set: the 20- and 30-something demographic of post-Religious Right evangelicals for whom the hip/irreverent Relevant magazine was launched (also in 2003). The book was a breath of fresh air for many young Christians seeking less corny ways to express their faith. It was a pretty big deal.
It makes a lot of sense, then, that six years, four books, and untold sales later, Miller's latest—A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Thomas Nelson)—uses Blue Like Jazz as a starting point.
You see, this book is (ostensibly) about the process of turning Jazz into a movie. Two filmmakers come calling, Miller agrees to have his life scripted for the screen, and the three men collaborate on a screenplay. It's a chance for Miller to "edit his life," to make it more structured, compelling, and, well, movie-like. Does his life, like Casablanca, have purpose in every scene and every line of dialogue? Will his life leave observers with a beautiful feeling as the credits roll?
These questions stand at the heart of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which is essentially a stream-of-consciousness meditation on story, how our lives are like stories, the theory of narrative, God as a writer, and so on. It's a movie-like book about a book becoming a movie. The prose alternates between episodic, cinematic "scenes" and philosophical ruminations about story. It's all very meta and postmodern and layered in an Adaptation sort of way.
Gimmicky though it may be, Million Miles feels very much of the times. A central tension is the burden of making one's life meaningful—meaningful in the sense of living life theatrically, in dramatic ways and for an audience. Meaningful in the sense of cutting out the boring parts and focusing on conflict, climax, and resolution. In the shallow age of YouTube and The Hills, the expectation to live public, drama-filled lives is simply presumed. Miller's longing to live a more engrossing story is par for the course in an era of digital exhibitionism.
There is a decided undercurrent of narcissism here, but Miller is largely transparent about it. "Who thinks they are so important they need to write books about themselves?" he wonders, later admitting that in writing himself into a movie, he wanted to create the person he wishes he were, the one worth telling stories about—not necessarily his true self. He could just as easily have been describing the "create yourself as you want to be perceived," avatar world of Facebook.
The particular Donald Miller we get in this book is a mix between Indiana Jones and Forrest Gump. He's a globetrotting, backpack-wearing, truism-speaking adventurer who always seems to be on a trip, traveling, or otherwise in motion. Travel, as one might guess, is a major theme. The title hints at this, though its origins in the book are a tad less eloquent than one might expect from the author who once described stars as "silent mysteries swirling in the blue like jazz." This time, the title comes from a strange description of heaven as a sort of airport, where new arrivals are shuttled by angels who have to drive "a million miles in a thousand years." I didn't really get that image.
But whatever, it's still a good read. As we learned from Jazz, the guy is a good storyteller. Who can forget the reverse confessional scene from that book? It's a lasting image with significance beyond itself.
To be sure, Million Miles has its share of memorable "big idea" stories. This volume's vignettes include going to find Miller's estranged father, hiking the Inca trail in Peru, riding bikes coast to coast across America, attending Robert McKee's screenwriting seminar in Los Angeles (famously depicted in Adaptation), and documenting a failed romantic relationship. And those are just what I can remember offhand.
If only there were more passages of memorable storytelling and less theoretical talking about storytelling. It feels disruptive and unnecessary when Miller follows an eloquent story with a comment like, "And that's the thing you realize when you organize your life into the structure of a story," or, "The reason stories have dramatic tension is because life has dramatic tension." He might have benefited from a more thorough commitment to that maxim of cinematic exposition: "Show, don't tell."
Still, the writing here is above average and frequently exceptional. Though occasionally it strains to be clever (like in describing Nietzsche as "the Justin Timberlake of depressed Germans"), more often than not it's crisp and alive with a voice that fans will recognize and understand. Miller's tone is earnest, largely lacking the cynicism and snark of most of his generation's writers (not to mention the incredulity of memoirs like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, at which this book's title possibly winks).
Sometimes Miller's writing is downright Fitzgeraldian, as in this particularly lyrical description of surveying the lifeless "props" and "stage" setting of his living room:
It's an odd feeling to be awakened from a life of fantasy. You stand there looking at a bare mantle and the house gets an eerie feel, as though it were haunted by a kind of nothingness, an absence of something that could have been, an absence of people that could have been living there, interacting with me, forcing me out of my daydreams. I stood for a while and heard the voices of children who didn't exist and felt the tender touch of a wife who wanted me to listen to her. I felt, at once, the absent glory of the life that could have been.
Miller is a good writer who's at his best when his depth is woven into his descriptive narrative rather than in didactic, on-the-nose obfuscations. Not that his idea-oriented passages aren't insightful. His treatment of God's sovereignty, for example, is interesting, especially considering the book's strong bent toward "we have to live better stories" autonomy. In some spots, Miller seems to suggest that God is the ultimate, sovereign author, orchestrating every scene and setting, saying, "Enjoy your place in My story. The very beauty of it means it's not about you … ." Miller notes that he "feels written" as a character in God's book, and that each of us is just "a tree in a story about a forest."
But elsewhere he puts the emphasis on human agency, writing that God gives us "a little portion of skin and a little portion of time and allows us to tell whatever story we want." Inconsistent? Maybe, but logical consistency is just a relic of modernism, right?
This is a postmodern book. It loudly proclaims itself as such (if not in so many words). Miller is a Gen-X, pipe-smoking, bourbon-drinking, Annie Dillard-referencing, literary Christian, and he makes it clear that meaning is elusive, rational explanation is a dead end, and that King Solomon was right when he said we should mainly work and find love and not fret too much over the fact that all is meaningless. God does not want us to understand him, Miller asserts, only to know him in a relational way. We can't fathom much in this world, anyway. Epistemological ambiguity is so hot right now.
Or we should just write books about the importance of all this.
Brett McCracken is a reviewer for CT Movies and author of the forthcoming Hipster Christianity (Baker Books).
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See also today's interview with Donald Miller
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers. Tour dates and tickets for Donald Miller are listed at amillionmiles.com. The Blue Like Jazz film project has raised about half of the money needed to start shooting a movie.
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