Books and Book Reviews: February 2003 Archives

Title: Lying Awake
Author: Mark Salzman
Recommendation: Yes, recommended for all, with small qualifications

Kathy the Carmelite mentioned this book in a comment about literature. She likened it to Mariette in Ecstasy, which I enjoyed very much. And indeed the two share some similarities. Both are divided into chapters whose titles are based on the liturgical calendar. Both are about nuns in contemplative orders undergoing some manner of crisis. Both are short, dense, and beautifully written. I prefer Hansen's book to Salzman's in terms of both style and content.

Salzman's novel chronicles the tale of Sister John of the Cross who has become a poet of some talent. Sales of her work have allowed the small Carmelite congregation in the heart of downtown Los Angeles to restore their convent buildings. Many people appear to be coming to the Lord, and her work has attracted at least two new postulants to the convent. Sister John seems also to have intense mystical visions and experiences.

As the story continues we discover that these experiences are, in fact, symptoms of TLE (temporal lobe epilepsy) which carries with it a phenomenon called "hypergraphia." The author of this book advances the theory that Dostoevsky may have suffered from this disease and Teresa of Avila as well (she is, after all, the patron of those with headaches--another symptom). The crisis of the novel revolves around Sister John's need to make a decision about what to do with regard to this problem. Simple surgery to remove a benign tumor will stop the TLE and presumably both the visions and the writing.

Without going further into the story, I can stop here to give my strongest reservation about the book. Salzman seems to describe the routine of contemplative life fairly well, but I do not know that he has capture the interior life of the true contemplative. What is more, one could read the book as suggesting that religious experience is largely the result of a diseased brain or mind. Unlike Hansen's book, in which, while ambiguous, it seems fairly obvious that Mariette is genuinely a contemplative of some degree, Salzman's book is the testimony of an agnostic or atheist who seems to be trying to be sympathetic to faith, but in actuality presents a fairly dismal picture.

All that said, it really is a minor point, because one can ignore authorial intent and purpose and make up one's own mind about what is going on in the course of this novel. The character of sister John is intensely sympathetic and well drawn. The crushing agony of decision is well done, and the routine of life well described. The writing is without flaw and the author is obviously sympathetic toward his character if somewhat dubious of the reality of her experience.

It is a beautifully rendered work, and with the small caveat noted, well worth the reader's time and attention.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from February 2003.

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