Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: "The Empty Chair: Two Novellas" by Bruce Wagner

"If it were possible to hold all of the people's stories all of the time in one's head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end, each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail."

In The Empty Chair, Bruce Wagner tells of the Buddhist spiritual journeys taken by two utterly disparate people. Both stories, which happens years apart from each other, are linked in a tenuous way which might strain your memory a little bit, and are told to a fictional Bruce Wagner.

The first novella is the story of an aging gay Buddhist in Big Sur, California. He has led a difficult life, having been repeatedly molested by a priest in his local church, which led him to experience panic attacks as an adult. But he pursued a somewhat romantic relationship with a woman who was enchanted by Buddhism, and had a son, who was the center of their universe. As his wife taught a basic form of Buddhism in prisons (including San Quentin) and then in schools, he raised their son as a stay-at-home father. But their lives were rocked when their 12-year-old son committed suicide, and he has been unable to settle down since that tragedy, traveling in a Volkswagen bus.

The second novella follows Queenie, a larger-than-life woman who was a wild child, sleeping around with dangerous men and taking drugs. She met Kura, a criminal who longs to become a saint, when he saved her life after she was attacked by a boyfriend outside of a nightclub. Kura rescued her, took care of her, and brought her to India on his search for his spiritual guru. Although she ultimately left Kura to follow his own spiritual journey, she always thought of him, and when he calls her 27 years later to ask her to join him in finding the guru again (who has disappeared), she doesn't blink an eye.

I just didn't get this book. Admittedly, I don't know much about Buddhism, but while the book is upfront about its subject matter, I expected the religion to be touched on in a more superficial way, more an Eat, Pray, Love-type of journey than one that delves so deeply in its details. Buddhist terms and figures are used repeatedly without any real background—I honestly felt like the book should have come with a prerequisite that you know a certain amount first.

Wagner's literary device of a narrator recounting the stories he is told as if they're being told to him at that moment didn't work for me either. The narratives were tremendously stream-of-consciousness, which made them difficult to follow. In the first novella, for example, the main character went on extended riffs about the Beat poets and his relationship with the widow of Beat figure Neal Cassady, which detracted from the meat of the plot. And while his son's suicide was tragic, the way it was told, and the details he used, made me uncomfortable at times.

I've never read any of Wagner's books before, but I recognize his ability to give his characters strong voices, so I may try a different one. All of the reviews I've seen of this book have been tremendously positive, so it may be my lack of spiritual awareness buffered me from the book's appeal.

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