Thursday, January 23, 2014

and then, he levitated while explaining my past lives

As an example of how dead my brain is before 10 a.m., I submit that last post (which I started writing at about 9, even though it didn't get posted until later). I was blearily considering the theoretical pros and cons of following your body's inner clock vs. making yourself conform to the schedule that would be more useful to everybody else, and didn't even realize how much like a spoiled brat it would sound. Woe is me, I have to figure out how to schedule my lazy ass. Not that I am lazy, but it must sound that way to someone who has to get up and go to work every day no matter what their internal clock says. So, apologies for that. I do realize how lucky I am, I truly do.

Moving on. A long time ago, I read Life of Pi, the story of a young boy who survives for months on a lifeboat. I was struck at the time by the oddness of a fictional survival story. The reason non-fiction survival stories are so amazing is because they really happened--somebody really climbed Everest or trekked across Antarctica or whatever.

But what is the point of a fictional survival story? The author could make poor Pi float around the ocean for two weeks or two dozen weeks or two years. What difference does it make, if he's just making it up? Of course, the ending of Life of Pi takes the book in a whole different direction, which is beside the point at the moment, but it got me thinking about how a novel can present a fictional tale that depends on lifelike veracity, and when and how that can work. (and how is that type of lifelike veracity different than say the lifelike-ness of Barchester Towers or Tenth of December?)

That train of thought came back this week because of an audiobook I've been listening to for the past few weeks. I don't have nearly as much time in the car now that I'm not driving back and forth to UTown all the time, so it takes considerably longer to finish an audiobook. Months ago, I downloaded a book called Breakfast with Buddha from Audible. It was really highly rated, and the brief summary sounded interesting. But I didn't get around to listening to it for a long time, and by the time I started, I had forgotten it was a novel, if I ever knew.

It says great things about the narrator (Sean Runnette) that he so fully inhabits the voice of the first-person narration that I was fully convinced for almost the first half of the book that this was non-fiction. Breakfast with Buddha is the story of Otto, a successful, mild-mannered editor from NYC, devoted to his wife and children, who reluctantly decides he must drive back to his childhood home in South Dakota with his sister after the death of their parents to take care of their furniture, etc. His sister, a new age flake, at the last minute tricks him into taking her sort-of-Buddhist guru (Volya Rinpoche) with him instead of her. Otto is a much nicer person than I am, because I would have just flat-out refused to take him, but Otto clearly has a soft spot for his sister, so off they go.

Otto is a fussy sort, but not unlikable. He's obsessed with finding good food and nice inns. He records in beautiful and precise prose their adventures on the road and their halting, slowly evolving conversations about spirituality. I was fascinated and charmed. It wasn't until almost halfway through that I started to think, wait a minute. This can't be a true story.

For one thing, as anyone knows who has tried to search out interesting food on a road trip, you strike gold occasionally, but often you end up eating dreck. On this trip, even though they occasionally end up having to drive an hour or more out of the way, every meal ends up being a treasure. And Otto is just a little too obvious as a straight man for the Rinpoche's teaching. No one can be that obtuse, I found myself thinking at one point.

Finally yesterday I remembered to look up the book when I wasn't in the car, and sure enough--it's a novel, written by a guy named Roland Merullo. I should be clear here that Merullo never claims it is anything but fiction, and in fact it says "A Novel" right on the front cover--but of course, I was listening to the audiobook, so I never saw the cover. It's entirely possible that something was said at the beginning of the recording, but if it was, I missed it.

Knowing that it's fiction has changed my whole interest in the book. For awhile, I even decided not to finish it. This isn't a dense American relaying an interesting travel story as he attempts to unravel what the experience meant to him. It's Merullo's made-up morality tale. He gives Otto the personality he wants him to have, and he puts words in the mouth of the Rinpoche (rin-po-shay is an honorary title for a Buddhist teacher). Why should I care? Knowing it's fiction, the story seems a little too pedantically moralizing, a little too set up, set up to convey whatever spiritual message Merullo wants to convey. It feels manipulative.

But this afternoon, still listening, it occurred to me that Jesus taught with parables, and spiritual lessons have always been taught through stories. There's nothing inherently wrong with it. I guess I object to the implied arrogance, that Merullo can be so sure that his ideas about spirituality are so important that we all need to know, so advanced that they should be put in the mouth of a Rinpoche (see my review of the The Shack for the similar reaction I had to that book). But I'm trying to suspend judgment until I get to the end. So I'm persevering. Partly because I want to find out what happens, and partly because the narration is so good that it's almost worth listening to just for that. And now that I know it's fiction, I'm curious to see how it will play out. I'll let you know.


  1. I have a copy of BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA, and I bought it based on the cover and the blurb. It's been quite some time since I read it, and what I recall now was that it was a little hokey---but one thing stuck with me and made a deep impression: the scene at the miniature golf course, when the "smart" guy (professor?) was really bullying Rinpoche and being patronizing and condescending about the idea that Rinpoche could speak 11 languages. I recall that he taunted Rinpoche to "prove it" and Rinpoche calmly and sweetly replied that Kindness was one of the languages he spoke. That has stuck with me for such a long time---may I be bilingual, and may kindness be my primary language. Happy New Year Aunt Bean!

    1. OK, this time Blogger ate MY comment. Damn blogger. I will try again.

    2. Hi, Laurel! You probably won't believe this but I almost CALLED you this week. Not kidding. I was going to email you, but then it had been so long I couldn't figure out where to start, so I thought I could call you. But then I came to my sense. We would have been so shocked we wouldn't have been able to think of anything to say. I will e-mail soon, though. Happy New Year back, and I'm glad your comment made it through.