Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"You Are Not Here": Book Review

Compared to its predecessor, "Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree," this 2006 anthology blends little-known with established names in the Buddhist realm in the West. Its editor, Keith Kachtick, provided his strong opening chapter from his novel, "Hungry Ghost" to the collection of "Nixon" edited by Kate Wheeler, and Kachtick returns the favor with room for her long story, "Ringworm." It's not the only one among the twenty entries to feel semi-autobiographical (at least), but it works as one of the best, as it evokes Burma through a Western nun's eyes---feeding a sick kitten--before one of many military crackdowns.

Other promising tales skirt Buddhist themes rather than, as the weaker ones do, take them literally or ploddingly. The stories which touch on the ideas and concepts instead of placing characters into obviously Buddhist settings appear to better capture the spirit of exploration and an open-ended approach suiting the uncertainty of many seekers. For instance, Dan Sigmond's "Humans" in the first Zen Mission to the Apes, Jake Lorfing's spare natural parable "Distant Mountains," and arguably (I remain uncertain) Pico Iyer's "Abandon" which does not mention any dharma explicitly somehow may belong.

Some names in this collection obviously were shoo-ins for their marquee draw, but they tended to disappoint. I liked Anne Donovan's "Buddha Da" for its outsider's view, and her subsequent novel (as with Kachtick's) developed the initial premise effectively. Andrew Foster Altschul's "You Are Not Here" in San Francisco, Jess Row's "For You" in Hong Kong, and Anh Chi Pham's "Mandala" in wartime Saigon capture their edgy, jittery places effectively, to give moods and perspectives that suit their restless themes. A sense of unease, fittingly for a Buddhist collection, succeeds more than the stories that come from the insiders already established from within the Buddhist community, I hazard.

Sean Hoade's "Samsara Suite" more literally applies this condition, but its sadness and scope encompasses its theme poignantly. The best line out of the whole book comes from another unsettled narrator, Samantha Shoech's "The Good People of Lake George." The narrator, at the end of an affair, challenges wearily the previous generation of complacent, purportedly practicing boomers who all think they live the way of the Eightfold Path. Celeste asks her hosts at their vacation rental: "How are you supposed to be good if nothing is bad?" "'Your problem is vocabulary,' her father says. 'Good and bad are not particularly helpful words.'" (67)

Words here may help to solve such predicaments, at least for careful readers. This is a fitting counterpart to "Hungry Ghost" and "Buddha Da," and while the MFA-small magazine tone of the anthology dominates for better or not depending on your predilection for such character studies and set pieces, it's a sensible follow-up to "Nixon." If a third volume appears, all the same, I hope it shakes up sensibilities more than soothes them, as many of these inclusions do too well. (Amazon US 6-15-12)

No comments: