Thursday, January 5, 2012

Keith Kachtick's "Hungry Ghost: A Novel": Review

A dissolute photographer, well-meaning but wayward, almost forty, falls for a Catholic convert thirteen years younger who's determined to save herself for marriage. Carter Cox's travels take him to shoot glamorous models worldwide for upscale magazines and ads that mirror his own conspicuous consumption in his Manhattan apartment. But--as the title shows with its Buddhist reference to the realm where unsatisfied "pretas" must wander until they gain liberation when they realize that their parched, greedy, tormented existence is an illusion--Cox's own journey will take him for his latest assignment to Morocco, and there, he and his new companion, Mia Malone, confront the meaning of their existence.

Kachtick brings ambition and range into this narrative, as Carter integrates, half-successfully, his growing commitment to Buddhism with his louche bedding of more women in his thirties than the time Mia's been kissed. We find this and all information conveyed in a daring, and initially off-putting, voice in the second person. Carter's taken this on "to fully disassociate" awareness "from the obstructing, lower-self 'I' that thinks in terms of 'me' and 'mine' and 'may I unbutton your blouse now, please?'" (14)

He attempts to desire to be without desire, and this telling of his tale as he tries to overcome his passions shows how he fails, and how he succeeds, in a book combining character studies with adventure, and social commentary with spirituality. This narrative voice, we later find, is the omniscient one we readers recognize, but with a deepened dimension I will leave you to discover.(I found a similar approach in Wilton Barnhardt's novel "Gospel" years ago, and it works as well here as it did there.)

Because of and not in spite of Carter's weaknesses, I cringed at and cheered him on, as a caddish fop, but also a struggling dharma practitioner, engaging with Mia's own formidable belief system. (Even if she claims to volunteer with a "Jesuit nun," inaccurately.) He grew up wondering what many may in a rather worldly, vaguely Christian upbringing: "Where was I before I was born? Why does my body feel like a guest house?" (51) He meets Mia at a Tibetan retreat at a former Catholic monastery upstate. She "possesses the milky-white skin and praying mantis beauty of someone who haunts museum archives and listens to Chopin while baking bread." (65)

Kachtick has a challenge in giving us a twenty-six year-old determined to wait for Mr. Right. She regards sex as sacred, so much that it is worth the wait to make it a sacrament. She disagrees with what she regards as a Buddhist contempt for the world and the flesh: "The work of heaven is material, the work of hell is entirely spiritual." (83) She then bums one of Carter's cigarettes, a sign of her own links to the body. They debate their differences and find similarities. They discuss Thomas Aquinas, cite Thomas Merton, and mull over St. Francis. Then, they make out. "She can't decide whether God has sent you into her life as a test or a gift." (88)

The tension within Carter goes beyond the bedroom, as he courts Mia, to a degree, while after she goes back to school, he beds others more compliant, if less intriguing. Later, as his Morocco jaunt brings him and her into conflict over their relationship, he reflects: "You'd long fancied yourself as a talented juggler of pleasure and ethics" (216)-- but this balancing act fails, as he must face what his teacher, Christopher Wolf (a skillfully depicted, poignantly captured character), warns him of: for bachelors perhaps in particular, the abyss where middle-aged lust leads into fear.

As the Buddha taught, drinking saltwater never quenches one's thirst. Whether in a New York City nightclub or binging on Entenmann's cookies, prowling for porn DVDs or amassing more gadgets, seducing tourists in Mexico or dealing with a temperamental model or vain windsurfer on a shoot, Carter faces his demons, even if disguised as long-legged angels: "you're like an alcoholic who punishes himself by drinking more." (232)

The novel takes a daringly imaginative twist. I feared Kachtick would let me down, but he does a deft fake-out and save and he pivoted gracefully, in more ways than one. If you lack a grounding in Buddhism, some of this novel may stall, but as a committed Buddhist himself, Kachtick's trying to merge his own compassion into a novel that entertains and instructs. He may switch to the former mode, almost as in a script made for Hollywood, later on, as if to make up for the earlier discussions that Mia or his teacher, Christopher, have, but for a thoughtful story that demonstrates right and wrong in scenes that take place in the bedroom or bar as well as on retreat or in meditation, this fairly conveys what a modern urban seeker, Catholic or Buddhist, may face when testing their faith against their works. Kachtick wants a wide audience for this novel, so he accommodates all these elements.

I will leave it for a reader to discover where the plot roams as Mia and Carter arrive in Morocco. The second half accelerates, and the pace moves rapidly. Conflicts thicken as the spiritual collides with the social, the Third with the First World.

Kachtick's to be commended for his energy and his range, and with Christopher as well as Mia and Carter, he creates characters you care about, no matter their own weaknesses, which endear them more rather than make them contemptible. He makes out of our urban, unhinged, dehumanized, web-obsessed, consumer-driven, sex-and-drug-and-media hookups a tale of morals and choices as profound as that of Henry James, if far more fun for me to read, as it's branded in the latest (as of 2002!) fashions, gizmos, and labels. (Posted to Amazon US & 3-6-11. See review by my friend Tony Bailie on his "Ecopunks"blog. )


Tony Bailie said...

I keep thinking about this novel John and am tempted to go back to it. There were parts I didn't get the first time round and I felt I'm missed something. Your review made me go and lift it from shelf. I thought Christopher was a fantastic character and would love to have seen more of him, but then in many ways he haunts the whole novel even when he is dead.

Fionnchú said...

Agreed as usual, Tony. Few modern novels merit a re-read and if so I wait a few years, but this one does haunt--that second person p-o-v does intrigue me, as does Christopher's presence. Mia's a challenge for the writer, but Kachtick manages to make her as convincing as Carter.

While the shift into more of a thriller in the second half was less original, it gave the narrative some needed adrenalin and conflict, and on reflection it plays off nicely against the more contemplative scenes. It also gives Kachtick the opening he needed for his imaginative leap.

Reading "American Psycho" a few months after this (fittingly on a plane to/from NYC), the branding and glitz of the frenzied era does resonate, against the inner loneliness both successful, (more vs. less unhinged!) restless, and acquisitive men articulate.

I want to get the second story collection about Buddhist themes by Wisdom Publications that followed "Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree" that was edited by Kachtick, "You Are Not Here," by the by...but no library has it, speaking of unsatisfied desires in narrative.

Chris Beal said...

I have to wonder if this is a "male" book. As a woman, I didn't identify with this character at all. But this book bothered for still another reason. Kachtick, in an interview with his publisher, says that he chose the second person because he wanted the protagonist to be addressed by his Buddha Nature. But, although I've certainly experienced as much self-hate as this character does, my Buddha Nature has always spoken, by contrast, with a voice of compassion, not judgement. That compassion comes from knowing that karma is empty. "Good" and "bad" and all morality come from ego -- yes ego -- and, at bottom, we don't exist in that sense (as ego). Thus, enlightenment isn't about being a "good" person --although, once ego is seen through, people do seem to become better simply because they aren't "hungry ghosts" anymore.

Anyway, I confess to having a few pages to go (it's very slow going but I will make it through!), so maybe the character will see all this in the end.

Fionnchú said...

Chris, your insight's appreciated. As you can see from Tony's comment above (he's a novelist and poet as well as his day job in the press), this novel does bug us all. I recall the Amazon reviews were all over the place, and the second-person p-o-v remains a bold, unnerving perspective. I admit the novel's uneven, as if written for the screen consciously or not--it shifts mid-plot into far more of a "Locked Up Abroad" as you've found and then takes that detour into a sort of "satori." Protagonist does remind me of Pat Bateman, who preceded this novel, and I wonder how much KK was influenced by him?

I am curious about how you find Mia. KK took a risk with her, as a sympathetic character with faith in Catholicism who's a young woman in the Big Bad Secular City in the brand-name decade (century?) provides an intellectual and spiritual counterpoint, naturally. If you find Carter a turn-off, that may be very intentional; do you react to Mia with more compassion?

About the buddha-nature, you offer a wise perspective that didn't occur to me as I read the novel. I want to "seek out" the anthology KK edited of "Buddhist short fiction," and btw Chapter One from this novel appeared in the "Nixon" predecessor edited by Kate Wheeler. Best wishes.