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Lying Awake Paperback – October 9, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 129 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706062
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706066
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #92,324 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I read this book in one sitting, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. It is perfect, amazing, hard to believe it's only 192 pages. Like Kazuo Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day," this novel finds suspense and emotional drama in the smallest details, and it is just as beautifully written. The life in this Carmelite monastery, where speech is almost completely forbidden, comes to life with such full, tactile detail. Most importantly, Salzman manages to write about a crisis of faith without becoming touchy-feely or vague. He goes right to the heart of the matter -- to the heart of this character -- and writes about her dilemma in a way that makes it universal, whether you're religious or not: the search for grace. I was incredibly moved. Salzman continues to amaze with his range. This is his most transcendent work.
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Salzman's wonderful novel will haunt you. In sparse, cloister-empty language, he tells the story of Carmelite Sister John of the Cross, a woman whose long hunger for God has finally been filled by three years worth of profoundly changing mystical experiences. One day she's forced to ask herself if the ecstatic episodes for which she yearns are what she ought to be seeking--whether, in short, the great spiritual hunger that's like a "hole in the center of her being" (p. 115) should be stuffed with comforting content or embraced for the resplendent absence it is.
It's significant that Salzman's heroine takes the religious name of "John of the Cross," the great Carmelite mystic who writes of the "nada" of God. Her crisis is John's dark night of the soul, and it also faces all of us who search for God. Sister John's final discovery about the soul's hunger for the Divine is one that may surprise you. But in Salzman's artful hands, it rings absolutely true.
Five stars isn't enough for this book. Nothing short of a National Book Award can do it justice.
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Format: Hardcover
Mark Salzman's LYING AWAKE is the story of one woman's test of faith. She is Sister John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun living in a monastery surrounded by the hubbub that is Los Angeles. She has given most of her life to the service of God, and she has been gifted with wonderful, ecstatic visions. Words have poured out of her into her journals -- her poetry has inspired seekers within and without the Order. Now in middle age, she suddenly discovers that the headaches that have accompanied these visions could threaten her life -- and, more devastating than this, they could be indications that her visions are nothing but hallucinations brought on by a medical condition. Her choice is plain but difficult -- if she agrees to the surgery that could correct this condition and possibly save her life, she risks losing the one aspect of her religious life that she has seen as a validation of her Vocation. Not an easy choice.
Salzman's prose is as spare and delicate as any I have read -- and yet it conveys so very much. Life for the cloistered Sisters is revealed to the reader without romanticizing -- in all of its simplicity, hardship and beauty. His descriptions of the nuns' cells, the chapel, the monastery garden all shine with a gentle but firm light -- they all seem so present and real. The emotions that pass through Sister John are just as real -- this journey she is taking is one of the soul, and it is not an easy one. Her journal entries are so spiritually evocative --
'an invisible sun
a shock wave of pure Being
swept my pain away, swept everything away
until all that was left was God.
God awakening.'
In another entry, she describes the dissolution of the Self to the Eternal Will:
'You were here all along.
I pierce the universe.
God pierces me.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading in one sitting Lying Awake. I am a Benedictine Monk, and I have never been so impressed by a novel of religious life. Mr. Salzman has written a classic - a spiritual and psychological novel that everyone should read. I don't know how he did it but he captured magnificently the whole of the contemplative life. I have his memoir and two of his previous novels. I knew he was an excellent writer, but this blew me away. I felt as if he got into my mind. The characters are human, but always treated with respect. They are strong women who struggle with their vocations. I hope someone informs Mr. Salzman of the greatness of his work and his ability to capture such a delicate subject with such insight. I am a poet and I felt even as a man as if the book were about me.
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Format: Hardcover
I heard Mr. Salzman on NPR talking about this book one day last week on my drive in to work. I thought to myself, "A disease with the side effect of ecstatic visions then prolific writing? Surely this can't be true?!" As soon as I got up on Saturday morning, I headed to the library to see if they had this book in. As luck would have it, there it sat on the new book shelf right inside the front door.
I read this book straight through in one sitting just like Anne Lamott did which she relates in her blurb on the back cover. I also plan to read it again today, much more slowly and contemplatively. What blew me away was the spiritual depth of the book, the slow, painful dawning of enlightenment (much like watching a magnificent sunrise that takes the silent landscape from total blackness to a sparkling kaleidoscope of color and birdsong), that Sister John experiences.
The clincher for me was that I heard the author relate that he is not a spiritual person. Well, Mr. Salzman, whether you know it or not, you ARE a spiritual being (as we all are) and God has used you to pour another little pitcherful of light into this dark, thirsty world. And I thank you!
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