New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006
507 pp.; $26.00 (cloth)
Anyone doubting that Buddhism has become mainstream in America—or at least on our coasts—need only read the recent novels of author, screenwriter, and director Bruce Wagner. Take, for instance, his description of the guests at an imagined celebrity get-together in Brentwood, as recounted in his newest novel,Memorial: “the screenwriter Melissa Mathison, the architect Steven Ehrlich, the gardener Nancy Jones, the actress Phoebe Cates, the editor of Tricycle, the editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun . . . ” Wagner has to explain Tikkunto his readers, but Tricycle apparently needs no introduction.
Memorial follows four principal characters: Joan, a struggling architect obsessed with the far more successful Zaha Hadid; her brother, Chester, a small-time film location scout; her aging mother, Marjorie; and her estranged father, Ray. Set in and around the often seedy outskirts of Los Angeles, Memorial brims with the pressing issues of email spam, reality TV, and the peculiarities of the ridiculously rich, along with more serious topics like elder abuse, drug dependency, and heart-wrenching loneliness. As he did in his five other novels, Wagner liberally blends real-world characters into a wonderfully multifaceted story. In addition to Joan’s nemesis, Hadid (an actual Iraqi-born architect living in Britain who had a show this summer at the Guggenheim), the daughter of comedian Don Knotts has a minor role as Chester’s landlord.
Wagner is first and foremost a keen chronicler of Hollywood and its sordid bit players, but in his fictional explorations of the unique subcultures of southern California, references to Buddhism and the mystical East abound. His characters are “Zen humble” or feel “woozily Zen.” They meditate now and then, and can quote the Lotus Sutra. They may not be Buddhists per se, but they inhabit a modern America clearly shaped by Buddhist influences.
The novel’s title comes from a memorial commissioned by the California billionaire Lew Freiburg in honor of his brother, who drowned with his girlfriend in the 2004 South Asian tsunami, the “Big Wave.” Joan is bidding to design this cenotaph, for which Freiburg has set aside four hundred luxuriant acres in Napa County. Her increasingly desperate efforts to win the project, and her eventual romantic entanglement with Freiburg, form the basic narrative glue for the book. But at the same time, and largely unbeknownst to Joan, the lives of the other three main characters are in turmoil: Chester is injured in a Candid Camera–style prank gone wrong, Marjorie may have won the lottery, and Ray has a frightening run-in with the local police. One of the great joys of this often very funny novel is watching these characters gradually rediscover each other as their stories begin to intersect in very unexpected ways.
Buddhism seeps into Memorial largely through the sides. India looms as a sort of Promised Land for all four characters, though in each case for very different reasons. Chester’s best friend is described as having “a hippie girlfriend called Laxmi, pronounced Lakshmi,supposedly the name of an Indian goddess,” who is “always talking about karma.” When Laxmi unexpectedly drops by Chester’s apartment, we get a typically penetrating portrayal of our modern L.A. sangha:
She was braless. She wore all kinds of layers and carried a bumpy, red rubber mat. Her nipples popped the fabric like pebbles, and she had post-yoga breath, like a dog. She watched him limp to the couch before bursting into tears.
Wagner’s 2003 novel, Still Holding, was even more infused with dharma references. The final installment of his “cell phone trilogy” (along with the cleverly titled I’ll Let You Go and I’m Losing You), it centered on the fictional character Kit Lightfoot, a Richard Gere–like “lapsed Buddhist” actor who “meditated at least an hour a day for nearly a dozen years without fail.” Kit’s conversion to Buddhism was beautifully described early in that book in one of the great fictional accounts of the call to practice:
His career as an actor had barely been launched when a friend turned him on to Buddhism. He took up meditating and, a short while after, visited a monastery on Mount Baldy. It was freezing cold, but there was a wordless beauty and a stunning quietude that pierced him to the core. That was the week, he used to say, where he got a taste of stillness. Monks and dedicated laypersons came and went like solemn, dignified cadets amidst the ritualized cadence of drums, chanting, and silence—his unthinkable siren and dangerous new friend, for silence too had a cadence. (The hard poetry of silence, his teacher once said.) He watched a man being ordained and later found out he had once been a powerful Hollywood agent. Kit grooved to that kind of convert. He loved having blundered into this magisterially abstract Shangri-la of the spirit, a flawless diamond-pointed world that might liberate him from the bonds of narcissism, the bonds of self.
To say that Wagner’s writing is wholly devoid of reverence is to understate the full measure of his occasionally caustic iconoclasm. “I hate Buddhists,” Joan exclaims at one point inMemorial, “I’d rather get raped by a Getty conservator than be invited to another Steve Ehrlich Zen brunch.” Even Buddhist magazines (like Tricycle) are singled out for some not-too-gentle ribbing. As Joan describes, “Here’s what’s on the covers, every month: Robert Thurman Robert Thurman Robert Thurman, Pema Chödrön Pema Chödrön Pema Chödrön. Robert Thurman in conversation with Robert Thurman in conversation with Pema Chödrön in conversation with Robert Thurman . . .” The remainder of the passage is unprintably obscene.
But while some such outbursts do degenerate into the gratuitously obscene, there is a clear respect behind Wagner’s profanity. As he told The New York Observer in 2003 about Still Holding, “I’m sure that the book is going to be misread on different levels as something satirical that is denigrating Buddhism or spirituality, but it’s the opposite of that.” Read carefully, most of Wagner’s jabs are targeted at the insincere hangers-on of today’s trendy faiths, the kind of practitioner whose motto Joan summarizes as “Just sit—on your Prada meditation pillow.” Although the four protagonists of Memorial do not reach nirvana, all find a level of equanimity by the end of the novel. Even the hapless Chester stumbles onto a true guru and discovers that “seeking enlightenment is like crying fire in an empty theater,” one of several examples of Wagner succeeding in capturing the essence of practice in a single pithy phrase.
At times, Wagner seems to go out of his way to shock: no fewer than three of the four protagonists soil themselves at some point during Memorial, a highly unlikely statistic for otherwise continent adults. And Wagner sprinkles his prose with some distracting affectations. In what is likely an homage to the emerging syntax of email and texting, he insists on combining numerals and written numbers in bizarre ways, as in “one-point-3,000,000,000” and “a-hundred-and-13-point-7,000,000,” which can be very difficult to parse.
But these are minor complaints. On the whole, Wagner’s writing is immensely, even compulsively readable. The plot carries us through this family’s spiral of calamities at a brisk pace, and Wagner’s clear, authoritative voice has us believing even its most unlikely twists and turns. Memorial—like the earlier Still Holding—combines passages of touching beauty and disturbing violence, jolting readers with both its surprising seriousness and its over-the-top vulgarity. The two books are not just enjoyable novels, but wonderful artifacts of Buddhism in America, and deserve to be read by anyone who is curious about the dharma’s long, long reach.
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