A brief review of two very contrasting novels written by ordained Buddhists.
Neither of these writers has their work marketed as anything to do with Buddhism. Nevertheless they they both show awareness and imagination deriving from their practice of mindful engagement with the breadth of human experience.
The Lost Sessions
by Sebsastian Beaumont
Myrmidon, hb £18
This is Beaumont’s (his Buddhist name is Maitrivajra) third published novel. Thirteen, about the adventures of taxi driver in Brighton, and a disappearing house, established him as a story teller of depth and imagination with a touch of magical realism. This novel similarly has an apparently supernatural or certainly magical dimension, but it is set in a very different contemporary world, that of therapists and therapeutic process. The protagonist Will has a serious accident which not only scrambles his brain but also seems to scramble the temporal structure of his world. While unconscious he appears to have seen clients and made some remarkable interventions with them. They have the scars or the emotional breakthroughs to prove it and yet he recalls nothing at all of what he did. Things get stranger and stranger as the narrative progresses. There are many intimate details of therapeutic sessions here, and much sensitive emotional engagement with the details of how therapy actually works. There is magic and realism. And some subtle insights arising from their interplay as Will learns some hard truths about himself and his relationships with his partner and his family. For me, while apt and engaging in its portrayal of the therapeutic world, and the very human struggles of therapists to deal with their own material, I was not as excited as I was by the previous portrayal of the world of taxi drivers. There is much more material nitty gritty in the world of a taxi driver, in a particular city – colourful Brighton in this case – and I missed that. At times I felt that I was floating in an ungrounded world of emotions here, but that may just reveal my own biases..!
To be sure there was a sense of mysterious transcendence towards the end of the novel, as we find out more about the enigmatic presence known simply as Emma, who has been intervening in Wil’s personal and therapeutic lives, perhaps from beyond the grave. With Emma’s help Wil’s very sense of self is scrambled up and called into question in what turns out to be a most fruitful manner. This novel’s strength is a focus on insightful emotional process without distractions, but with a sense of mystery.
by Simon Okotie
This novel is not in the tradition of Dickens, Flaubert or Proust. It is a modernist novel, but hardly reminiscent of Joyce, perhaps a touch of Virginia Woolf but not really. The best point of reference is probably Samual Becket. This and Okotie’s (his Buddhist name is Manjusiha) previous works, Whatever happened to Harold Absalon and In the Absence of Absalon share a protagonist who is a detective – of sorts. Okotie’s Marguerite must be literary fiction’s most ineffective detective. In his first outing he takes most of the book simply to walk down the stairs. In fact these are novels not about detection at all but about the average human stream of consciousness in all its muddled, mundane proliferation. They are novels focussed on prapanca, to use the Buddhist term for the thoughts that distract us in meditation and in one’s life generally.
This new novel is also very much about the rules and workings of language itself. In the opening of one chapter the word swept is used to describe the detective ascending some stairs. Then the rest of the chapter concerns itself with the way that ‘swept’ has been used here, how it does not connote a broom, but, digression, digression, brooms might or might not be used in other investigations. And so we dawdle on, getting nowhere, but enjoying a dry, ironic humour in exploring pedantry, not to mention out and out literalism, at work and play.
This is fiction for the patient, for lovers of digression and delay. The nearest thing to a narrative arc is provided by Marguerite’s descent of a ramp in pursuit of a mysterious woman in a pin stripe suit. He also feels that he is being pursued, maybe… More pertinently his thoughts are being monitored from above he suspects, by you the reader in fact, self referential meta fictionalising is constantly in play here, but nevertheless we remain grounded in the material facts of a particular city with ramps and road-side trees. Meanwhile we observe our hero spending chapters pondering that noise just behind him – is it some sort of skateboard? Could he commandeer it to speed his progress down the ramp towards the pinstripe lady…? The central insight, perhaps, is just how much possibility and ramification bifurcates away from even the simplest perception or movement in the everyday world. The infinite choices available in each moment. Even the most powerful chess computer can’t investigate all possible outcomes, the possible moves pile up into billion-fold factors of ten beyond the number of atoms in the universe. Effectively infinity is in just that small board with its strict rules. How much more so in life and consciousness as it unfolds moment by moment. Infinite choices… Okotie has not been afraid to try and show us some sense of this, whilst remaining light and playful. All the same this is not a journey for the faint of heart.
That both of these novels so different arise from people in the same Buddhist Order is illuminating. It shows us that a dharma response to our lives and worlds now is wide open. It will be aware and value driven, but could be anything, literally anything. If you want to taste that sense of possibility get both of these novels and read them slowly.