The Time of New Weather
Sean Murphy
New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.
326 pp.; $13.00 (paper)

In his fourth book, the writer and longtime Zen practitioner Sean Murphy gives us a vision of America that is at once familiar and bizarre, a world where even time and gravity are no longer reliable, where diseases like “On-To-The-Next-Thing Syndrome” and “Too-Many-Things-At-Once Disorder” are ravaging the land. An intriguing but sometimes frustrating novel of spiritual search and political revolt, The Time of New Weather tells the stories of Buddy LeBlanc, a strangely precocious boy with a gift for minor miracles, and Bibi Brown, a “reluctant sage” and erstwhile spiritual teacher who lives under a bridge and can meditate himself into near transparency.

Although Murphy avoids the B-word throughout, the Buddhist influences in his work will be unmistakable to anyone familiar with the dharma. Like the historical Buddha, Buddy LeBlanc is propelled on his quest for self-knowledge by three early experiences of suffering, which in his case take the form of an old woman, a sick child, and a dead man. Bibi Brown practices “ancient Mongolian mind-clearing exercises” that sound a lot like traditional Buddhist meditation techniques, and with similar effects, as Hubert, a former Presidential aid and eventual Bibi student, discovers:

At times, Hubert felt as though his mind had been placed in a forge—and, having been heated to impossible new temperatures, was now being twisted into impossible new shapes. But something was happening. Hubert felt old tensions slipping away, habits of mind, worries and preoccupations. And he started noticing the blue of the sky, the shape of a flower, the movement of clouds. He began to feel a part of things, in a way he’d almost forgotten was possible, for the first time since he was a child.

This is one of several strong passages that echo the Buddhist experience. The “new weather” of the book’s title refers to one of several ways the material world has become unhinged in the novel, and this distrust of the physical is another recurring theme. Buddy tells us he has “seen wind blow up from the ground and straight down from the sky, seen snow fall in July and tulips bloom in December.” There are even more bizarre storms, in which “a minor fluctuation in the earth’s increasingly unstable gravitation field would move through an area,” causing “the clatter of whatever was not fastened down.” In the midst of all this chaos, even the President starts meditating.

The intersecting plots are too complicated to summarize, but those who know Murphy’s work may experience deja vu. In fact, The Time of New Weather is very much a sequel to Murphy’s first, award-winning novel, The Hope Valley Hubcap King. (He has also published another, unrelated novel, and the nonfiction One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories.) Almost all the elements of this newest book are introduced in the earlier one, from Bibi Brown and several other characters to the notions of time and gravity pushed out of whack. For some reason, the connection between the two novels is never alluded to, which seems an odd marketing decision, and a disservice to those who might prefer to read the books in order. Although The Time of New Weather can stand on its own, its dramas are heightened by knowing what came before.

The Time of New Weather is unabashedly allegorical, and there are moments in which Murphy seems to describe our own troubled times with uncanny precision:

There were those who claimed that time was not really running out at all, but had merely changed, somewhere along the line, without anyone noticing the shift; that a new sort of time had been inaugurated—a crueler sort of time, a time that moved so quickly it was impossible to keep up with, and this was why the pace of contemporary life had become so frenzied.

Yet despite such sharp, lucid writing, elsewhere Murphy’s portrayals of modern life are cartoonish. While there is much to bemoan about corporate influence in America, having a company literally acquire the U.S. government reduces the political debate almost to self-parody. Worse, everyone involved in what Murphy dubs “The America Corporation” is such an absurdist caricature that they detract from what is no doubt intended as real social commentary. And while there are probably readers who will enjoy Murphy’s barrage of bad puns, I hope never to meet them. There was a bit of this in Hubcap King (like a prison called “Hum-Hum Penitentiary”), but New Weather includes so many—a magazine called Strolling Bone, a government propaganda officer named Orville Georgewell, a plan to conscript the elderly as “In-Dentured Servants,” an evil chain of sausage restaurants called “What-A-Weenie”—that we quickly exceed the toxic dosage. All this over-the-top humor, as well as a more muddled plot, results in a sequel less strong than the original. This ambitious and imaginative novel would have been well-served by taking the rhetoric down a few notches, painting the satire with lighter strokes. Sean Murphy is clearly a writer with a unique, creative voice, and a lot to say both about our modern world and about Buddhist practice. Let’s hope he doesn’t stop here.

Temple
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