Diamond Sutra

Colin Hester 
Counterpoint: Washington, DC, 1997 
338 pp., $25.00 (hardcover) 

Colin Hester is “a former Zen student,” according to the dust jacket copy of Diamond Sutra, his first novel. Judging by the immediacy of his prose, which snares everyday reality and pins it to the page, he has learned at least some of his Zen Buddhist lessons well. His story of a man propelled by the acknowledgment of death into a desperate search for meaning runs riot with compelling observations—seeming sprouts of mindfulness—that are keen and fresh:

“The zendo was in the rectangular front room. It had hardwood floors smooth as ivory. Along each side wall a single round cushion—a thick brown disk—was tilted up by a small pillow wedged under its back half …. The light was absent here and at the far end wall Tsuruoka plucked from a tall dark vase a long wooden match and, striking it, lit a candle. On the shelf beside it was revealed a Buddha that seemed hewn from a block of frozen sea.”

The flap copy of Diamond Sutra says nothing about Hester’s being a former student of creative writing, however. In any case, his storytelling lacks the verisimilitude and vigor of his descriptive prose-a serious failing when what’s between the covers isn’t just a succession of word poems but a novel. In brief:

Rudyard Gillette endures a Toronto childhood scarred by the alcoholism of his father and the early death of his mother. He grows up to work as a textbook salesman. As Rud enters middle age, his father commits suicide and Rud’s love affair with a South American woman falls apart, but at the same time he renews contact with a highschool flame, Gale Harmon, who has written a book about suicides. She vanishes into an unknown Zen center. Rud takes to the open road to find her, crossing America until he tracks her down at a disbanded Zen center in Washington State.

There’s inadequate originality and drive to the narrative up to this point, about twothirds through the book. The blows that cascade on Rud seem not organic but artificial, author-rigged to illustrate the central Buddhist idea that all life is suffering. When a writer spends 200 pages on setup, the payoff had better be worthwhile, and for a time it seems as if the one Hester offers will be. The book gains energy when Rud moves in with Gale and her former roshi, Masao Tsuruoka. Rud’s encounters with himself while sitting in the cold, dark zendo of the abandoned center read true, including both his growing awareness of his monkey mind and his momentary spiritual breakthrough one night. Tsuruoka, meanwhile, threatens to steal the novel away from Rud. He’s the most vital character here, one well worth meeting, an energizer bunny of a Zen master who, despite living as if enlightened, has lost his faith for the rather peculiar reason of having read an iconoclastic (and real) book, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which, as Gale puts it, posits that “even the awakening of the Buddha himself was just a mirage, a hallucination.” Will Tsuruoka regain his faith? Will Rud attain enlightenment, or at least some measure of peace? Will Rud and Gale finally get it on?

There’s an undeniably soap-operatic aspect to Hester’s novel and, as in a soap opera, a thuddingly earnest air to its proceedings, which eventually dissolve into maudlinism. As the Buddha said, all life is suffering and suffering arises from attachment; and as Gurdjieff added, human beings are attached above all to their suffering. Certainly the characters in this novel seem to be, and they’re for the most part a dour, self-absorbed lot, making the reading of Hester’s novel, despite the crystalline lucidity of his word-work, a doleful affair.