In his signature tone of carefully modulated bliss, Bach, now 77, leads us through the mental journey that began Aug. 31, 2012, when he was about to land his single-engine plane at a small airport in Washington State. Forty feet off the ground, his wheels caught on power lines, sending the craft into a fiery crash. Emergency vehicles arrived almost instantly, but Bach remained in a coma for a week with a range of life-threatening injuries.
But that’s not how “Illusions II” begins. Instead, Bach writes, “The landing was perfect, a word I rarely use for my flying. A few minutes before the wheels touched the land, they brushed the tops of the grass, the soft gold whispering.”
This, we later learn, is a dream or an illusion or an alternative reality. As it continues, Bach finds himself on the gondola of an old dirigible, where he hears the question, “Would you prefer to stay, or return to your belief of living?” Despite his long-held curiosity about death, he knows that his wife is praying for him, and he can’t bear the thought of leaving her. At that moment, he wakes up in the hospital room and asks his wife to call a cab. Only then does he learn what happened.
But “what happened” is a slippery concept in this meditative memoir about the ultimate nature of reality. As his recovery continues for months in the hospital — a sickly, enervating place that he insists on leaving early — he continues to experience vivid dreams. His spiritual teacher, the reluctant messiah Donald Shimoda from “Illusions,” confers with him about the deceptive quality of human experience. They fly their planes together. They touch their wings. They have a moment. “An idea, an expression of love, can’t be destroyed,” Shimoda affirms.
“I know there’s a principle of spirit,” Bach says. “It works without space-time. I am subject to that principle, in spirit and in belief of body. Learn how spirit works, a few simple rules, living a perfect spiritual life is easy.”
If, like me, you were raised as a Christian Scientist, all of this has a certain warmed-over familiarity. Again and again, we hear Bach’s wife pray, “You’re a perfect expression of perfect Love, here and now. You will have a perfect healing. There will be no permanent injury.” Bach reportedly studied Christian Science for years, although I have no idea if he’s still a member of the church. In any case, his theology in this book tastes like a cotton candy version of Mary Baker Eddy’s metaphysics with all of her Calvinist rigor and emphasis on reformation boiled away.
Characters from Bach’s other books visit, too, after his reluctant messiah explains that every one of those figures continues to live: Jonathan Seagull, the bird that put Bach on the bestseller list for years in the early 1970s; Boa; Stormy; even Tink, his “little Idea Fairy.” (Not so “little”: Bach has more than 60 million copies in print.)
“Love is the only power in the universe,” a ferret tells him. “You made us real when no one had done that before.” (I kept hearing Marianne Williamson speaking in the voice of Stuart Little.)
In another vision, Lucky, Bach’s late sheltie, tells him, “I’ve always been with you,” reaffirming what a pet psychic had told him years ago when the dog died. “I was the size of the universe,” Lucky says/barks. “I knew I was everything.”
All this grows sillier when Bach recovers and is reunited with his “healed” airplane, a machine with the unfortunate nickname “Puff.” She’s reluctant to talk at first, but “not to worry. She said to give her time while she gets used to consciousness again.” That happens all too quickly, and pretty soon Bach and Puff are trading affirmations in the clouds from their own course in miracles.
In the book’s most unbearable section, Bach falls into the dark trap of the New Age movement: the metaphysical recklessness that implicitly blames victims for their illnesses and misfortunes. Chatting with his messiah, Bach learns that the plane crash took place because he wanted it to, even prayed for it, as a kind of test of his mental abilities. “I needed to know whether my beliefs would overcome every one of the problems,” he says.
Ick. Try hawking that that New Age goo to children dying of cholera in Haiti.
“Living a perfect spiritual life” is not, in fact, “easy.” Neither is writing an inspirational book. I’m truly grateful that Bach has recovered from this ghastly accident, but I wish he could articulate his wisdom in fresher, sharper, more insightful ways.
UPDATE: On Feb. 14, Scribner will publish an updated e-book version of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” that includes the “never-before-published Part Four.”