On her 28th birthday, with a newly minted MFA in nonfiction from Bennington College, Hannah Tennant-Moore set off on a two-month backpacking journey in Sri Lanka to spend some time exploring her interest in Buddhism before launching her writing career.
The reflections from that journey set the stage for her daring debut novel Wreck and Order (Hogarth, Feb. 9), an unconventional coming-of-age tale in which the reader follows a damaged woman named Elsie on a decade-plus quest for meaning that takes her from small-town California to New York City, Paris, and Sri Lanka.
But make no mistake: This is no Eat, Pray, Love journey, and a silent retreat in the lush tropics of Sri Lanka does little to enlighten Elsie. Tennant-Moore is too savvy to give in to the empty platitudes of the spiritual journey genre. Instead, she presents a raw and honest exploration of a complicated woman whose suffering is uniquely of her own making—and challenges her readers to honestly confront their own preferred brand of suffering.
Our narrator, Elsie, is a complicated person. She is both wise and ignorant, emotionally intelligent and self-sabotaging. Her depth and perceptiveness are paired with an inability to find any shred of happiness or meaning in her life. Reckless and without ambition, her aimlessness has for years been financially supported by her father, who sends her checks on an as-needed basis from his generous endowment.
Elsie seems unable to find her place in the world. She chooses travel over college, only to spend a miserable year alone in Paris, where she begins working on a translation of an obscure French novel about a man who owns many cats. She finds herself writing obituaries for a small-town California newspaper, and later, stocking books at a New York City Barnes & Noble. For the better part of her 20s, she’s in and out of an abusive relationship with Jared, her philandering, alcoholic drug-dealer boyfriend, whom she ultimately tries to escape by running off to backpack in Sri Lanka. Elsie meanders through life, self-soothing through sex, drinking and drugs, and more sex. (The many descriptions of Elsie’s sexual encounters are explicit and often uncomfortable.)
“It was lonely to be both spoiled and blue collar, just one more way I was a stranger to what most people considered the real world,” Tennant-Moore writes, calling to mind what Shambhala teacher Ethan Nichtern refers to as our modern “commuter mentality”: the feeling of never being at home in the world; moving through life trying to get somewhere but not really knowing where.
Even though she is completely out of context in Sri Lanka, it’s perhaps here that she is most at home, and certainly where Tennant-Moore’s writing shines most. Why Sri Lanka? Elsie was attracted to the country because of its lush beauty and the suffering of its people.
“I liked the idea of going to a tropical paradise that was also a recent war zone,” she says. “I wanted to believe my attraction to other people’s suffering was compassion, but more likely it was a twisted need to justify my own unhappiness.”
Elsie is deeply concerned with the suffering in the world—war, torture, terrorism, poverty—and is preoccupied with suffering that seems much more justified than her own. But we learn that pain and hardship are not the same as suffering. Elsie’s new Sri Lankan friends endure much more pain than she has, but they do not seem to suffer in the same way.
For Elsie, the way out of suffering isn’t simple or straightforward. Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is a beautiful section on Elsie’s time spent at a silent retreat center in the Sri Lankan countryside—although, of course, Elsie’s explorations of meditation and Buddhism in Sri Lanka don’t seem to yield any insights that actually change her behavior. She experiences “a new kind of perfect peace, one that quickly dispersed,” leaving her “still entirely at a loss as to how to be a human being.”
There’s no question that Tennant-Moore is an exceptional writer, and the book is a beautiful—if at times frustrating—meditation on the nature of suffering. Wreck and Order is raw, insightful, and sometimes profound.
The book loses some momentum in its second half, and as the reader I began to tire of Elsie’s self-destructive binges and slowly give up on the possibility that she would find any sense of meaning or purpose in love, life, or work.
The book avoids tidy solutions or lessons in favor of something much more real. Ultimately, Tennant-Moore’s raw account of Elsie’s delusions might encourage you to look at little more honestly at your own. And while we learn that there is indeed no easy way out of suffering, she hints at the possibility of a way out of the commute—a glimpse at what Nichtern refers to as “the road home.”
As Elsie describes a rare moment of peace during her silent retreat: “When I had sat still long enough that … the heavy, wet sorrow of effort was suddenly, mysteriously replaced by the brightness and gratitude of this same effort—so this is sitting; this is walking; this is breathing; this is lying; eating; shitting; seeing; drinking; feeling wind and heat and cold—and sensing finally that this was enough; to pay attention was enough.”
Read Hannah Tennant-Moore’s feature, “Buddhism’s Higher Power,” in the Spring 2016 issue
More from Carolyn Gregoire:
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.