I have always wanted to strangle reviewers who, rather than evaluate what a book is, lament what it is not. And yet, I'm about to do that here, because "Flowers of Emptiness" might have been a significant, even a widely read book.
The external evidence: Sally Belfrage is an insightful journalist, as she proved in her 1958 account of daily life in Russia, "A Room in Moscow," and her 1965 record of participation in the SNCC voter registration drive in Mississippi, "Freedom Summer." But these subjects were current when Belfrage tackled them and, what is more, neither was trendy in the way that the subject of "Flowers of Emptiness" as presented is trendy. To make matters worse, the trend -- as told in the subtitle, "Reflections on an Ashram" and even more precisely in the discarded subtitle, "Travels to an Indian Guru" -- has long since passed. Mention such a topic to anyone in any age bracket, and what you'll get is a wide-eyed, "Oh, are people still doing that?"
The very diary which comprises all but a brief fore- and afterword or "Flowers of Emptiness" is more than four years old, offering us Belfrage's deliberations from June to August 1976.
Given this delay, why the diary form? Belfrage's earlier books undoubtedly required a diary as a starting point. Why wasn't this book crafted as those books were, using the text we've been given as a basis for the text we ought to have had?
There is gold here, but we are left to pan for it. We are asked to do what Belfrage should have done, the sifting and sorting and discovering and discarding. If this were diary qua diary, diary written without an audience in mind, diary found in a musty dresser drawer, that would not be too much to require of us. This, instead, is diary as cop-out.
Belfrage argues that she retained the diary form because "the way I looked at [the people and events considered] kept changing." Since when is reliance on actual chronology the only way to portray ambiguous feeling or complex insight or shifting perspective? Wouldn't an author who has shown herself able at such portrayal in the past know better? Wouldn't she see that adhering to a presentation governed by the calendar at least dates but ultimately obscures the real book, the aforementioned gold?
What gleams here is the friendship between three woen: the author, 39; Dinah, a novelist, 40; and Judith, a psychoanalyst, 32. We are plopped into "Flowers of Emptiness" when this friendship, of eight years' duration, is ending, threatened by Belfrage's skeptical approach to Guru Bhagwan Shree Rejneesh, to whom Dinah and Judith have already sworn fealty. These two women don't want to let go of Belfrage, though , and they book her a passage to India. Thus she begins to chart her sometimes comic, sometimes cryptic attempt to cross into that faith which already has begun to separate her from her friends.
We can see why it does set her apart, too. Belfrage can't close her reporter's eye, and tells us, for instance, when the guru finally appears, that "here he is in his sleek white robes (synthetic: alergies), smiling and nodding a namaste ( his sleek white robes (synthetic: alergies), smiling and nodding a namaste (palms together) in greeting, a towel over his arm in the manner of a waiter, except his towel is monogrammed YSL."
Dinah and Judith would hardly approve such description, and yet Belfrage can't shake her sarcasm even given what is at stake, "our friendship. I came out here to chase its future, pursue the promise of continued camaraderie, loyalty forever, linked arms in the sunset, the gang of three."
Belfrage talks herself into taking the guru's vows, though we cannot but suspect her conversion when she has already confided to us, "Maybe if I could just go through with it . . ." It doesn't work anyway, and in the afterword, Belfrage is left yearning for "the three of us laughing together." The ashram, in the real book, is mere setting. Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is just a character who sets the real book's central conflict in motion. The real book is the women and the dissolution of their love.
But internal evidence suggests that Belfrage was afraid this theme might be misread, and took pains to conceal it, to wit: She wonders mid-book if she might be pregnant. Far too many pages later, she tells us in oh-by-the-way fashion, Whew! false alarm! Never a clue about daddy and never any real energy or woe expended on what could not, for a divorced woman Belfrage's age, be a matter of passing concern. How can we not get the point? Belfrage is telling us she is sexually involved with a man and, therefore, this friendship which propels her to another continent is not a Lesbian friendship.
Has Sally Belfrage ever considered fiction? She has every necessary skill and it just might be, for her, the perfect out.