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The Empty Chair: Two Novellas Hardcover – December 20, 2013
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Wagner (Dead Stars, 2012) seemingly breaks down the fourth wall, inserting himself in these linked novellas as both author and participant, doing for the world of overzealous mysticism and its misguided followers what he has done in previous works for Los Angeles and the entertainment industry. In “First Guru,” a chance meeting in a hot tub at a gestalt retreat in Big Sur puts narrator Wagner in the position of listening to the confessions of Charley, a gay Buddhist who is channeling the lifestyle, if not the spirit, of Jack Kerouac as he takes to the road to escape the tragedy of his son’s suicide.“Second Guru” finds Wagner summoned to Manhattan to help a middle-aged former hippie relive her glory days in India, pursuing nirvana in the company of a ruthless killer and a charlatan shaman. While Wagner’s trademark scathing satirical skills are in full force thanks to his sprightly word play and jaundiced observations, his purposeful exploration of the nature and importance of storytelling takes him in a subtly nuanced new direction. --Carol Haggas
Praise for Bruce Wagner:
“Wagner shamelessly writes with his heart on his sleeve . . . daring his readers to be so callous as to question fiction’s ability to imagine the impossible.”—John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“There are few writers capable of escorting us more convincingly into a character’s tender, gnarled mind...Every page contains something statically electric enough to scorch the hair from your arms.”—Tom Bissell, GQ
“[He] takes great pains to endow his . . . creations with detailed and vivid inner lives, in which even the shallowest circumstances are transformed into high-stakes questions of spiritual life and death.” —Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post Book World
“He is a visionary posing as a farceur.”—Salman Rushdie
“Wagner delineates his characters with such sympathy and verve, such a sharp eye . . . that they become palpable human beings, real in their griefs and yearnings and illusions.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Casting himself as a story collector, Wagner links two novellas, two narratives separated in time yet bound by a common motif: the empty chair, where loss, grief and death are seated.
Known for his gorgeously acerbic dissections of SoCal and Tinseltown, Wagner (Dead Stars, 2012, etc.) turns his eyes toward the spiritual, examining the wreckage of two souls. A self-labeled gay Buddhist tries to tell the story of his son’s suicide, looping back through memories and tangential details to avoid the final scene. Lushly embroidered with allusions to the Beat Generation, his tale takes on the rhythms of Gary Snyder’s poetry, the patter of Jack Kerouac’s prose. While awaiting the settlement of a lawsuit (he was one of the altar boys caught in the Catholic priest sex scandal), he joyously raised his son, Ryder, and watched his wife delve deeper into her practice, bringing Buddhism to schoolchildren and death row inmates alike. Ryder’s death sends them reeling, as they try to make sense of it through spiritual beliefs or storytelling itself. In the second tale, aging hipster Queenie examines her relationship with Kura, the man who saved her life after her affair with a gangster turned deadly in a 1975 Chicago nightclub. A master criminal intent upon becoming a saint, Kura longs to experience satsana at the feet of the Great Guru. Their pilgrimage to Bombay, however, wrests Kura away from Queenie, setting him on a path toward disappointment rather than enlightenment. Twenty-seven years later, a single call from him reunites the pair on a ruinous quest to find the guru who disappeared.
Wagner meditates on our fundamental cravings for connections—both human and divine—and meanings—both personal and cosmic—with wit, compassion and a sharp eye for the lies we tell ourselves.
—Kirkus Reviews, starred
In this new collection of two novellas by the author of Dead Stars, a fictionalized Wagner sits down with two disparate characters who have undergone traumatic spiritual journeys, interviewing them over the course of a few days. In “First Guru,” a gay man explains his love of Jack Kerouac, and narrates the story of his life, from being molested in a Catholic church to marrying a woman and having a child with her, to finally ending up where Wagner finds him, sleeping in and operating his book-van lending library. “Second Guru” concerns a woman, Queenie, on a trip to India, as she reconnects with her old flame, Kura, after battling with depression and the aftermath of an abusive relationship, in search of his former spiritual guide. The collection is aptly named, as the metaphor of the empty chair comes to mean radically different things for each of the protagonists and their journeys toward and away from Buddhism. Throughout the interviews, Wagner interjects descriptions of his subjects, lending believability to the format, and the dialogue is spot-on—especially when Queenie ruminates on her fantasies of self-obliteration. Ultimately a quiet, brooding collection, Wagner’s book deftly illustrates how the quest for spirituality and self-realization underscore one’s understanding of the purpose of life.
“[R]emarkable…[The Empty Chair] would make a fine fictional companion to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s writings on spiritual outrage…The soul’s cry beneath that rage is the gold Wagner has mined here, and he delivers it to us with a beneficent and magisterial touch.”
—Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review
“[The Empty Chair] demonstrates Mr. Wagner’s range as a writer, reminding us…that he possesses a fluent ability to move back and forth between the satiric and the sympathetic, the scabrous and the tender….The strange and terrible connection between the two tales that is eventually revealed not only reminds us of Mr. Wagner’s love of coincidence but also makes us ponder, as his characters do, big existential questions about fate (versus randomness), destiny (versus free will) and the patterning (or lack of patterning) in the universe.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The novellas are absorbing on their own, but what really makes The Empty Chair a gem is how two people from completely different backgrounds could tell two true stories that are extraordinarily intertwined.”
“Few things make a story more difficult to tell than having a listener expecting to hear it….It's this contradiction, among so many others, that Bruce Wagner captures so elegantly in The Empty Chair. The book, split between two novellas, teems with gurus and neurotics, martyrs and perverts, but whatever their differences, nearly all of them are storytellers, too. What a shame for them, then, that someone is always listening—and what a joy for us to read.”
—Colin Dwyer, NPR
“[The Empty Chair] dare[s] to enter a sanctuary that few contemporary authors are willing to set foot in….what seems like witty digression about his beatnik idols is really self-conscious delay…Wagner’s real subject here is spiritual pride among the devout struggling toward Nothingness…His narrator has a wry sense of humor about this world of competitive enlightenment, but there’s no smirking when he finally arrives at what it costs a child to be infected with his parents’ metaphysical shtick.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
“The sentences that run through [Wagner’s] fiction—including the two novellas paired in The Empty Chair— are supercharged with exotic phrases, twisted puns, far-flung idiom, and endless name-checks from Beat literature to Wile E. Coyote to “Soul Train” to Mark Twain. He’s got a crazy-brilliant command of language and culture….his verbal agility is mind-blowing….Wagner does a masterful job of letting his novellas harmonize with each other, one gaining resonance when compared to the other….And as much as The Empty Chair is about the impossibility of true and thorough enlightenment, it is also about the power of voice and storytelling.”
—Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe
“These interwoven tales made me think, about Gurus, spirituality in the West, and the quest for enlightenment vs. nihilism, heady topics indeed, and well worth taking on. Ultimately, even the empty chair is full – full of all the life that has passed through it….I do recommend the book, particularly to anyone interested in Eastern spirituality and Buddhism.”
—Ravi Chandra M.D., Psychology Today
Top customer reviews
In my opinion, the first novella is by far the better story, one that should be read as a cautionary tale for parents who attempt to transmit their religious passions to children. The book's mostly silent, listening author (Bruce Wagner) is the perfect medium to elicit our patience and trust as the tale unfolds; we feel we are being let in on something important. But in the second novella, the storyteller is not the main character but only a witness to the events she talks about. Behind a second layer of narrative the story became too distant for me. I got impatient in spite of Bruce's listening ear and wished he'd done a lot more editing. The stories link up at the end in a way that justifies their pairing, but the conclusion is empty, if not downright bleak.
Full disclosure: I have been fascinated by Buddhism for a long time, but lately my interest has started to fade. I thought this book would help me recover some of my former sense of purpose in the quest for enlightenment, but instead it has confirmed my disillusionment.
"If it were possible to hold all of the people's stories all of the time in one's head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end, each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail."
In The Empty Chair, Bruce Wagner tells of the Buddhist spiritual journeys taken by two utterly disparate people. Both stories, which happens years apart from each other, are linked in a tenuous way which might strain your memory a little bit, and are told to a fictional Bruce Wagner.
The first novella is the story of an aging gay Buddhist in Big Sur, California. He has led a difficult life, having been repeatedly molested by a priest in his local church, which led him to experience panic attacks as an adult. But he pursued a somewhat romantic relationship with a woman who was enchanted by Buddhism, and had a son, who was the center of their universe. As his wife taught a basic form of Buddhism in prisons (including San Quentin) and then in schools, he raised their son as a stay-at-home father. But their lives were rocked when their 12-year-old son committed suicide, and he has been unable to settle down since that tragedy, traveling in a Volkswagen bus.
The second novella follows Queenie, a larger-than-life woman who was a wild child, sleeping around with dangerous men and taking drugs. She met Kura, a criminal who longs to become a saint, when he saved her life after she was attacked by a boyfriend outside of a nightclub. Kura rescued her, took care of her, and brought her to India on his search for his spiritual guru. Although she ultimately left Kura to follow his own spiritual journey, she always thought of him, and when he calls her 27 years later to ask her to join him in finding the guru again (who has disappeared), she doesn't blink an eye.
I just didn't get this book. Admittedly, I don't know much about Buddhism, but while the book is upfront about its subject matter, I expected the religion to be touched on in a more superficial way, more an Eat, Pray, Love-type of journey than one that delves so deeply in its details. Buddhist terms and figures are used repeatedly without any real background—I honestly felt like the book should have come with a prerequisite that you know a certain amount first.
Wagner's literary device of a narrator recounting the stories he is told as if they're being told to him at that moment didn't work for me either. The narratives were tremendously stream-of-consciousness, which made them difficult to follow. In the first novella, for example, the main character went on extended riffs about the Beat poets and his relationship with the widow of Beat figure Neal Cassady, which detracted from the meat of the plot. And while his son's suicide was tragic, the way it was told, and the details he used, made me uncomfortable at times.
I've never read any of Wagner's books before, but I recognize his ability to give his characters strong voices, so I may try a different one. All of the reviews I've seen of this book have been tremendously positive, so it may be my lack of spiritual awareness buffered me from the book's appeal.
The stories are so well written that I often found myself entering the 'stream of consciousness' of the narrators, an effect that the beat writers so aspired to, when you forget everything around you and you are fully immersed in the flow of the story.
I was also delighted and intrigued how the 2 stories, their themes and imagery started to syncopate, bouncing off each other, creating a wonderful dual story universe that is inexplicably intertwined.
Hidden in the stories is something else, a message or feeling that is woven through it all. It is what stays with me, long after the end. I can only recommend to read it, notice how it stirs and re-awakens something inside.