At this point, Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake may need little introduction. Even before its recent paperback publication, the slim, often stark novel had earned national bestseller status and had been named a New York Times “notable book” of the year. It has been praised in newspapers ranging from the New York Post to New Orleans’ Times-Picayune to the Seattle Times. And during his November signings in the Triangle at Quail Ridge Books, McIntyre’s and the Bull’s Head Bookshop, Salzman regaled sizable crowds with entertaining stories about writing the book and bringing it to publication.
What a pity, then, to find the novel itself such a disappointment.
I recognize that I am in the minority with this opinion, though many other critics have placed qualifications on their own praise of the novel. And I understand the appeal that the book possesses. Its story is both engaging and thought-provoking: Sister John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun and a respected author living in modern-day Los Angeles, discovers that her visions about God are actually the result of an epileptic disorder, and she finds herself faced with the difficult choice between curing her ailment and sustaining her relationship with God. Issues of faith and responsibility are explored, and Salzman contextualizes them in ways that will resonate with Americans who are perhaps seeking some respite from their own ambitions or empty materialism: “Many successful people go through periods when they wonder, ‘Is this all there is?’ and think about giving it all up for the spiritual life,” he writes. But he also points out that “such vocations rarely last, however. Life in the cloister quickly becomes just as prosaic as life in the world–perhaps even more so.”
This time of the year may still be perfect for this book, as the holidays generally deepen people’s thinking about religion, and in the wake of Sept. 11’s tragedies, the focus on faith, inspiration and community have proven more timely. Even the publicists at Vintage Books have (tactfully) used national events to frame their presentation of the novel.
But despite such timely resonance, the book’s faults are many. Salzman occasionally indulges dialogue so stilted that it would almost surely be called into question at any respectable fiction workshop. A sense of contrivance persists as the novel’s events gear themselves toward the author’s thematic points about faith in the modern world. And the book edges toward didacticism in both the author’s teachings about the nuns’ rites and rituals (explanations of the Living Rule, the Divine Office and the Chapter of Faults, for example) and in his implicit preaching about the virtues of such a life in contrast to a world where “people in their cars, the cars themselves, the buildings, the signs–even the sky, which was turned into a thoroughfare by all of the air traffic–looked squeezed up against an infinitesimal future, like a crowd trying to escape a burning building through a pinhole.”
It’s a great passage, admittedly, and it’s easy to find other compelling turns of phrase and insightful images. Salzman writes of an “algorithm of longing,” for example, and of “spiritual aridity,” and he describes a parish priest whose eyebrows “patrolled his forehead like gray battleships, ready to meet any threat to his parishioners’ souls.” Remembering how a nun’s habit was adopted in the Middle Ages in order “to make them inconspicuous in the world,” Sister John considers that “a true habit now would be a nylon jogging outfit worn over tennis shoes.” In another passage, someone sending a letter to the Order of Discalced Carmelites mistakenly addresses it to “St. Joseph’s Disgraced Carmelites”–a memorable mo- ment of humor.
But though such pleasures enliven the text, Salzman ultimately seems less interested in artful language than in spare prose, and less engaged by humorous asides than by his dogged pursuit of some greater philosophical weight. Which again brings us back to his didacticism and to questions which seem unavoidable when discussing works of contemporary fiction with religious concerns: At what point does sanctity become sanctimoniousness? Or piety become preachiness? And, in the case of this book in particular, when does starkness seem slight instead of stately?
Salzman, perhaps inadvertently, makes a pair of references himself that question the success of his project by calling to the reader’s mind superior works with religious themes. Sister John’s temporal-lobe epilepsy also afflicted Dostoevsky, and when Salzman quotes the Russian author’s own exquisite commentary on the visions afforded by the malady, it’s difficult not to reflect on how Dostoevsky’s writings penetrate the mysteries of life and faith much more deeply than do Salzman’s more tightly constructed analyses.
Similarly, the parallels that Salzman draws between the life of his character Sister John and the real-life Thérèse of Lisieux–a Carmelite nun and author who died of tuberculosis in 1897 and was elevated to sainthood in the 1920s–may remind readers of Alain Cavalier’s 1986 film Thérèse, a film with which Salzman is likely familiar. Marvelously austere, stylistically pure and spare to the point of minimalism, Thérèse is similar to Lying Awake both in its concerns and its tone. But where the film–a persistently provocative work of art–provides no simple answers to questions of spirituality, Lying Awake is often a little too pat in its assessments of similar issues.
And patness may finally be what’s most palatable to the many fans of this book. Quite simply, Salzman condenses the right questions in the right way, provides perspectives that are effortlessly understood, and offers a sample platter of spirituality as an antidote to the emptiness of contemporary life. It’s a likable enough parable, with not just a message but a moral. And not only is it short enough to digest in an evening but– despite the title–it’s also easy enough on both the intellect and the emotions to let you still enjoy a good night’s sleep afterward.