Religion usually doesn’t have a prayer in literary fiction. From novels, you’d never suspect that tens of millions of Americans attend services every week and pray every day. Sure, there are lots of religious books published in the United States, from sacred texts to inspirational tracts and even sizzling Christian romances, but ascend into the heavenly realm of Serious Fiction, and you’ll find that Nietzsche was largely right about God. Marilynne Robinson, Alice McDermott, Bob Shacochis — the authors who take matters of the spirit seriously could barely fill one pew.
It’s striking then to find this month two very different novels that focus on spirituality and — even more rare — the challenges of devotion. They both dare to enter a sanctuary that few contemporary authors are willing to set foot in.
Bruce Wagner is a parishioner at the holy church of Hollywood. He’s written and directed screenplays, and his name-dropping novels, such as last year’s “Dead Stars,” sacrifice the Beautiful People on a glitzy altar of satire. He’s also long been drawn to mysticism, both for his own enlightenment (he was a disciple of the late Carlos Castaneda) and, weirdly, for his acidic comedies (see “Still Holding”).
“The Empty Chair,” his new book, has nothing to do with Clint Eastwood’s speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention (although it’s easy to imagine that unhinged moment of our political history as something Wagner would dream up). Instead, “The Empty Chair” is a pair of thinly conjoined novellas presented as two long, unabridged interviews with practitioners of “diet Buddhism” — “seekers slouching toward spiritual redemption.”
The first novella — by far the better one — is a monologue delivered by a 50-year-old gay man at a monastery in Big Sur. Wagner forces himself and us to adhere to the book’s fictive form: The interview wanders, skips and misfires in a way that reminds us that, in contrast, almost all the interviews we see on TV, hear on the radio or read in the newspaper have been trimmed and arranged as artfully as this Sunday’s floral display. For many pages, Wagner’s narrator chats around, offering up his mildly assuming patter of literary allusions and self-deprecating asides: “If the Buddhists call sitting meditation ‘zazen,’ I call my theosophy ‘vanzen’ because I live in my van,” he says. “I can’t conceive of a life without the ol’ Greater Vehicle.”
It’s the illusion of rambling that makes this section so remarkable. But what seems like witty digression about his beatnik idols is really self-conscious delay, the nervous stalling of a man skating around something too painful to approach headlong. Soon we learn that he was sexually abused as a child by a Catholic priest, an ordeal that sent him searching for peace in Buddhism. But even darker traumas lurk in this extraordinary confession. As he begins to describe the woman he married and the spiritually precocious little boy they raised together, the story slips into unimaginably tragic territory.
Wagner’s real subject here is spiritual pride among the devout struggling toward Nothingness to prove who shall be least. 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. Can a young boy subsist on “the wheatgrass and tofu of passive-aggressively homicidal Zen platitudes”? No matter where you are in the 31 Realms of Existence, you’ll feel shaken by this devastating story.
Speaking of nothingness, don’t bother with the second novella of “The Empty Chair.” It’s the maundering tale of a woman recalling her affair with a wealthy criminal who was determined to find his guru in India. Tedious and convoluted, this story offers no emotional impact whatsoever, and, worse, its last-ditch effort to connect with the first novella feels like an act of desecration.
Roland Merullo’s last few books have been gently comic novels about faith and spirituality, from “Golfing With God” to “Lunch With Buddha.” Although those cloying titles may sound like purgatory, the stories themselves are redeemed by Merullo’s winning sweetness. Of course, if you need your religious figures frozen in dark stained glass, you should probably pass by on the other side, but if you’re hip to a little irreverence and humor in divine matters, you might like him very much.
His new novel departs from such recent comedies as “American Savior,” which presented Jesus running for president. In “Vatican Waltz,” we meet a young, Catholic nursing student in Boston named Cynthia Piantedosi. Bland and unusually devout, she spends hours every week in prayer, even as she acknowledges how out of style that is nowadays. “We’re a society of doers,” she says, “people who believe contemplation is suspect, the province of the lazy and foolish, but that stillness always lit a fire of pleasure inside me, and it does so even now.” She might have continued with this private practice indefinitely if she didn’t frequently experience moments of spiritual transcendence. “Visions would be another word for them, though that sounds pretentious,” she says. “I felt I’d opened a door into another room in the enormous castle or mansion I was being given glimpses into now and again. I felt that I had traveled to a part of the stratosphere where fear couldn’t breathe.”
Encouraged by a liberal priest to nurture this spiritual sense, Cynthia realizes that she’s being led to consider something impossible: becoming a priest. But behold, Church officials already embroiled in the Boston sex abuse scandal don’t meet her radical proposal with hallelujahs.
Weirdly, “Vatican Waltz” feels lifeless whenever the plot moves but vibrant whenever it just stands still and reflects on the church or the nature of prayer. The best parts are Cynthia’s simple descriptions of grace: “The God I imagine and worship, the Being I give thanks to for every breath and pulse,” she tells us, “doesn’t care as much about labels as about love; and my style of prayer isn’t so much about asking for things (though I sometimes ask) as it is about searching, in an interior silence, for my truest self, my reason for being here.” She also offers a wise, sympathetic critique of an organization that, like most, finds it difficult to distinguish its hurtful enemies from its inspired reformers. “Being a loyal Catholic,” she says, “was starting to feel to me like being friends with someone who’s doing something hurtful and refuses to listen when you try to talk about it. . . . The Church I loved and cherished was shrinking down to a place where it would no longer have the power to remind people of that other dimension.”
But unfortunately, Merullo has dressed Cynthia and her pillowy theology in the vestments of a thin religious thriller. A cabal of Catholic conservatives is pushing back against reform with divisive policies that Cynthia abhors — and they may even have killed her spiritual adviser. As she wends her way toward Rome to plead the case for female priests, “Vatican Waltz” keeps exhaling little gasps of Da Vinci Codesque intrigue — Secret meetings! Veiled threats! Vast conspiracies! God save us!
None of this adventure seems even remotely plausible — and the novel’s final revelation is a corny bit of deus ex machina that only further obscures the story of a simple woman trying to find her way. But if you can overlook these clanging notes, you’ll find here a sweet exploration of the purpose of church and the true function of prayer — “to align ourselves with His will.”
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter” @RonCharles.
THE EMPTY CHAIR
By Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider. 285 pp. $26.95
By Roland Merullo
Crown. 293 pp. $24