2015, 259 p.
The blurb on the back of this book describes it as “a pilgrim’s progress for the here and now”. I can see the likenesses: Pilgrim’s Progress has Christian, its everyman character not unlike the eponymous Richard Kline in this book; Christian and Richard are both on a spiritual journey and quite frankly, just as with Bunyan’s book, not everyone is going to want to go along the path with Richard Kline either.
Richard Kline starts his memoir by explaining that he is recording” a strange event that intervened in my life at the age of forty-two”. He is Australian and married with a young son. He has grown up and the computer industry has grown up alongside him, providing him with an affluent enough lifestyle to travel, eat out and go to conferences. He is healthy. Yet
…I confess that for most of my life I was bored. It’s an unattractive word, boredom, and I flinch from it now, but for a long time it was the only word I could summon to describe my condition. Today I would say that for much of my life I suffered from an apprehension of lack, but one that I found difficult to put into words. In essence it consisted of a feeling that nothing was ever quite right; something was always missing. How many of us have been dismayed by that feeling? And ashamed of it at those very moments when we ought to feel happy? We ask ourselves: what is the flaw in our being that gives rise to this discontent? (p. 3)
Peggy Lee once sang “Is that all there is?” and this book is almost that song put into prose. He’s a dessicated man, and no wonder he never cried. He is aware that he’s not feeling what other people do, and he feels cheated by that. He turns to antidepressants in a desultory fashion, he dabbles in psychotherapy and holistic therapy. He takes up a free program in stress management offered through his work where he’s given a mantra and begins meditation. It is only when he stumbles into the Chatswood Community Centre on a Saturday morning that he encounters a Hindu saint and spiritual teacher from Tamil Nadu, Sri Mata, that he starts to thaw and to see reverence and meaning in the world around him. He retains his scepticism and his empiricism, but he’s also confronted by what he has experienced from meeting Sri Mata.
Am I uncomfortable with this? Yes, and no. I am myself a Unitarian Universalist, a spiritual tradition that is firmly based on the idea of lifelong searching. Therefore, I’m open to exploring meaning- but I’m not sure that there really is ‘truth’. I liked this distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘faith’:
Belief is clinging to a set of doctrines, usually based on what someone else has said. Faith is opening the mind, without preconceptions, to whatever comes along. Faith is a plunge into the unknown. Faith is what underpins any science that’s not dogmatic. Faith accepts that we cannot know everything and can control only a little. We surrender our need for certainty (p. 210)
But I found myself squirming at this confessional genre, which evoked for me memories of ‘witnessing’ in my born-again Christian past. It’s all there- the elation; the waves of emotion; the backsliding; the doubts. The book itself is quite simply written with short sentences. The chapters alternate between first and third person, taking the reader into Richard’s interiority then moving back to a more observational, externalized perspective. Lohrey kept me reading quite happily enough for 3/4 of the book.
At one stage the Richard character wondered if only men felt the way he did, and I wondered that too. The book is a nuanced exploration of middle-class, white, westernized, educated masculinity, and I gaze at some of the men that I know well and wonder if they, too, are like Richard. I think they might be.
Was he ever going to extricate himself from this quicksand of self-absorption and pique that he might be ‘missing out’? Was his wife going to leave him? Would the book take a very dark turn? The last 1/4 is where the thread broke for me. In meeting Martin Coleby, his spiritual guide, all of a sudden the book turned into Sophies World – a didactic text draped with characters who were merely devices. It seemed, in the end, such a me-centred quest. I closed the book, disappointed. I really don’t know what to think about it. It’s a brave thing, to write about meaning, emptiness, searching- or maybe that’s the easy part- the really brave thing is to write about the answer without smugness and to take your reader along with you.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers has written a thoughtful review that I encourage you to read. There’s another review by Deborah Stone at ArtsHub too
My rating: 7
Read because: Lisa’s review and because I’m interested in Amanda Lohrey’s work
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Thanks for the mention, Janine:) I really like your review, I think you’ve expressed very well the inherent tensions that arise in reading this for anyone who doesn’t share the same sense of spirituality as Lohrey does.
Good review; I’ve been thinking about reading this book and you’ve heightened my ambivalence. Could you explain some more about what it is that “only men” might feel?
I haven’t got the book here, but I think that he was reflecting on his ambivalence towards fatherhood and commitment and being ensnared by domesticity and the social relationships attached to parenthood.
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