Whether a novel can tell the truth about the power of meditation better than a self-help book is still unresolved, despite this valiant attempt.
Powerful controlled studies now provide extensive evidence of the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation in improving both mental and physical health.There are brain scan comparisons of Tibetan monks, validated studies of skin conditions and rigorous studies showing depression recovery is much better in patients who learn to meditate.
But the truth of a transformational experience is not effectively expressed in scientific papers. The endless stream of self-help books with their greeting card mantras and commercial seminar series are making a killing for a reason: they translate the experience into a simple and popularly accessible form.
Self-help books, though, have their limitations. They are no more explorations of human experience than a recipe book can evoke the pleasure of eating.
Readers interested in the complexity of human experience, often find reading self-help books an unsatisfactory experience, even if they fundamentally accept the premise of the work. The transparent agenda and gloss of the genre cannot capture the many dimensions of experience which contribute to mood and ultimately to our sense of a meaningful life. This is the territory of fiction.
Amanda Lohrey, an accomplished and elegant writer, attempts a difficult but important task in making this transformation the subject of her new novel, A Short History of Richard Kline.
The eponymous hero is an ordinary man who has never quite managed to find joy in ordinary life. He is what a psychologist would call dysphoric – not exactly depressed but never really contented either. Like many such people, he does not realise there is a hole in his heart until a crisis moment. In his case, it is a team-building abseiling exercise that leaves him blank – neither thrilled nor fearful – despite the emotions that ricochet around him.
Kline travels the path of many an unhappy person, trying medication and New Age remedies, holding down a job and an unsatisfactory marriage in which he is never fully engaged. Then he discovers a guru and learns to meditate. The resulting transformation gives him a path to peace and contentment for the first time in his life.
The smallness of his life (surely the closeness to the German word for 'small' is intended) is opened up into an awareness of universality and bigger themes of awareness and compassion for himself.
It is a simple story, almost a fable, and it is skilfully and genuinely written. At its best, it comes close to evoking the shift in Kline’s internal life. Close, but not there. The novel never quite succeeds in taking us into Kline’s experience. We are always at a distance, told what he is feeling but not quite feeling it.
We are periodically jolted from our interest in Kline by the difficulty of describing his internal transformation. At times, Lohrey’s enthusiasm for her subject matter overwhelms her storytelling skill and the New Age tang of preachy parable seeps into the telling of the character’s journey.
This is a novel about inner life and that is both its strength and its weakness. More of Kline’s interactions with his wife, child or work colleagues might have allowed the novel to display Kline’s transformation without so much navel-gazing. The novel moves between a third person narrative and Kline’s own accounts but additional voices might have contributed to a more rounded story and avoided the repetitive passages each time he feels a peace like never before.
The enlightened are often painful in their enthusiasm to bring light to others. There is, as the saying goes, nothing as virtuous as a reformed whore. A Short History of Richard Kline glides just under this pain threshold but to my mind it’s too close for comfort. In the end, I had not come to care enough for the man at the centre of the novel and felt instead that I was being sold a bill of psychological goods; a bill of goods worth buying, but goods nevertheless.
3.5 stars out of 5
A Short History of Richard Kline
by Amanda Lohrey
Published by Black Inc