In his third novel, Lying Awake
, Mark Salzman breaks the primary rule of fiction by creating a protagonist who has virtually no external life. Sister John of the Cross, a middle-aged nun cloistered in a Carmelite monastery in contemporary Los Angeles, languished for years in a spiritual drought--"her prayers empty and her soul dry"--until she suddenly received God's grace in the form of intense mystical visions. So vivid have her visions become that they burn a kind of afterglow into her mind that she transcribes into crystalline (and highly popular) verse. The only downside is that they are accompanied by excruciating headaches that cause her to black out.
The story hinges on Sister John's discovery that her visions are in fact the result of mild epileptic seizures. As she learns from her neurologist, temporal-lobe epilepsy commonly brings about "hypergraphia (voluminous writing), an intensification but also a narrowing of emotional response, and an obsessive interest in religion and philosophy." Dostoyevsky, the classic victim of this condition, wrote of his raptures: "There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of eternal harmony.... If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear." An exact description of Sister John's visions. The question she now faces is whether to go ahead with surgery--and risk obliterating both her spiritual life and her art--or cling to a state of grace that may actually be a delusion ignited by an electrochemical imbalance.
Using a very limited palette, Mark Salzman creates an austere masterpiece. The real miracle of Lying Awake is that it works perfectly on every level: on the realistic surface, it captures the petty squabbles and tiny bursts of radiance of life in a Los Angeles monastery; deeper down it probes the nature of spiritual illumination and the meaning and purpose of prayer in everyday life; and, at bottom, there lurks a profound meditation on the mystery of artistic inspiration. Salzman made a highly auspicious debut in 1986 with Iron and Silk, a memoir of his years in China, and since then he has dramatically changed key in every book--most recently from the absurdist American suburban chronicle of Lost in Place to the artistic-crisis-cum-courtroom-drama novel The Soloist. Lying Awake is quieter and more sober than Salzman's previous narratives, but it is also more accomplished, more thought-provoking, and more highly crafted. --David Laskin
From Publishers Weekly
Mysticism meets modern medicine in this intriguing r?cit of a nun's dark night of the soul. It's 1997, and Sister John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun in a monastery just outside Los Angeles, seeks treatment for epilepsy, although the remedy threatens to diminish her formidable spiritual powers. The Carmelites place heavy emphasis on prayer, and over the years this discipline has helped Sister John to develop miraculous visionary gifts. When severe headaches precipitate a collapse that requires medical intervention, Sister John finds the process starkly juxtaposed against her centuries-old traditions: she discovers it's almost impossible to discuss infused contemplation with a neurologist. Is her continual prayer "hyperreligiosity"?; her choice to remain celibate "hyposexuality"?; her will to control her body "anorexia"? Although she accepts a CT scan and its diagnosis, Sister John determines that faith offers a more substantial, meaningful reality. Written with simple elegance, alternating narrative and prayer, the tale is engaging yet maintains a curious emotional elusiveness. A drama centering on the realm of mysticism is bound to be difficult to describe and, like Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy, this story doesn't aim to render the nun's spiritual life and psyche in accessible terms for lay readers. What Salzman conveys with perfect clarity is that momentary, extraordinary mental state in which physical pain becomes pure, lucid grace poised between corporeal reality and eternity, a state that Sister John desires to prolong for a lifetime. Salzman's talent for calling forth the details and essence of unfamiliar realms is well known: his memoir, Iron & Silk, was acclaimed for its deft rendering of life in China, no less authentic for being written by an outsider. With this third novel (after The Soloist), the author continues to surprise with his unorthodox choices and consistently challenging themes, story lines and characters. Eight illus. by Stephanie Shieldhouse. (Sept.) FYI: The Soloist was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
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