This week's Sunday Guardian column.
In a blog post for the New York Review of Books last week, Tim Parks voiced a concern that many, in various ways, have recently expressed. Speaking of conventional, character-driven novels, he asks whether “the whole exercise has become largely irrelevant”. “More and more,” he goes on, “I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned”, referring to the typical structure and intent of such works, with their dilemmas, crises and portrayals of overcoming suffering. Despite digital distractions however, as he writes, such novels are clearly still preferred by many, perhaps because they create the illusion that life can be given a definite and reassuring shape.
Dissatisfied with such “reinforcement of a fictional selfhood”, he holds up the work of Bernhard, Beckett and even Lydia Davis as an astringent counterpoint. For his own part, he’s tried to express a different vision of self and narrative in his new novel, Sex is Forbidden. (That, at least is the title of the paperback; originally, it was the rather more sedate and appropriate The Server.) So, how well does Parks succeed in his aim?
The novel, written in the first person, deals with ten days in the life of Beth Marriot, a young woman at the Dasgupta Institute, a mindfulness meditation centre. (Much of the observed detail seems to be drawn from Parks’s own experiences, written about earlier in his memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still.) “Most people’s worries are about the future,” feels Beth, “but the longer I stay at the Dasgupta Institute the less certain I am about what happened before.” Parks makes her feel this way because, of course, the point of such vipassana practice is to stay focused on and aware of the present moment’s thoughts, sensations and emotions. And because human beings are story-telling machines – our minds join the dots and create causation – to lift ourselves out of such habituated ways is easier said than done. (One could almost say that the Buddha taught that one must transcend stories by becoming aware of them.)
This, then, is a disingenuous stream of consciousness narrative in which the present is continually being interrupted by the past and future. Beth has spent close to ten months at the retreat as “a server”, one who attends to cooking, cleaning and other chores, trying to forget her past life as a singer in a band, her devoted band-mate and her affair with an older painter, ending in a tragic accident. As she puts it, “I gave up everything for the band and I gave up the band for nothing”. Such thoughts continue to intrude no matter how much she tries to stay present: “The breath crossing the lip. The in-breath. The out-breath. Right effort. Right concentration. Right understanding.”
She finds further distraction when she appropriates and reads the diary of a fellow meditator; both of them are bending the rules, which do not allow reading and writing during the retreat. (“One thing leads to another when you think and write your thoughts down. False empty fantasies, painful formations of the mind, sankharas.”) The diarist, a publisher with a troubled personal and professional life, sometimes seems to echo Parks’s own thoughts: “What do stories do but glamorize pain?...all the pretentious sagas…They glamorize suffering.”
In various ways, we see how Beth’s relationships with those at the institute mirror those that she’s left behind. She hasn’t escaped her stories, just changed the context. Parks’s narrative, then, doesn’t become an anti-novel or anything like it, being constrained by the strictures of the form. This is something he himself ruefully confesses in his NYRB piece: “the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel…inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies.” For a novel that resists narrative, we’ll have to turn again to Beckett and a different sort of meditation, that of Murphy in his armchair.