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Prescription for a Superior Existence
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Prescription for a Superior Existence

by Josh Emmons

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Jack Smith is your average single thirtysomething businessman. That is, his life revolves around work, failed relationships, alcohol, painkillers, and pornography, and he sees no reason to change. But when he unwittingly comes into conflict with a burgeoning new California religion called Prescription for a Superior Existence, his routine is shattered and put back


Jack Smith is your average single thirtysomething businessman. That is, his life revolves around work, failed relationships, alcohol, painkillers, and pornography, and he sees no reason to change. But when he unwittingly comes into conflict with a burgeoning new California religion called Prescription for a Superior Existence, his routine is shattered and put back together so fantastically that his actions could impact the whole world.

Against a backdrop of environmental cata-strophe and postmillennial tension, Jack's troubles begin when he is fired from his job and falls in love with Mary, the daughter of PASE's founder, and they reach an apex with his ab-duction and installation at one of the religion's spiritual training centers near San Francisco. As he is forced to learn about PASE's ascetic practices, his aversion and skepticism are challenged by a sense of community and purpose previously unknown to him. In the context of PASE, Jack discovers that he might not be average, that he might in fact be extraordinary, and the discovery is intoxicating. Nothing is as it seems, however — not PASE, its enigmatic founder, his comrades, or even Mary — and the question of whether he and those around him are headed toward group transcendence or its opposite takes on global significance

A thrilling and timely novel about a flawed, ordinary man who is torn between love and the appeal of a powerfully seductive cult, Prescription for a Superior Existence explores the bounds of faith and human connection, and showcases the spectacular imagination of one of our most talented young writers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons has created a wholly original, brave, and disturbingly plausible novel, an existential, theological, fin du monde thriller about star-crossed orphans, twenty-first-century cults, environmental angst, and the extremes and consequences of desire." — James P. Othmer, author of The Futurist

"In Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons' hero Jack Smith — a man of questionable appetites, high skepticism, and touching vulnerability — falls through the rabbit-hole of new-fangled California religion. The result is an acidly hilarious, tightly plotted adventure that folds big themes, romantic moments, and a little thing called the end of the world into its pages. Both a wicked skewering of religious cults and a finely wrought testament to their power, this novel reads like Raymond Chandler rollicking through the house of L. Ron Hubbard. It's as probing and smart as it is moving, hopeful, and sweet." — Alix Ohlin, author of Babylon and Other Stories

Publishers Weekly

The title of this book by second-time novelist Josh Emmons (The Loss of Leon Meed) is taken from the fictitious (but perhaps Scientology-inspired) cult around which much of the ideas and action spin. The PASE handbook, written by creepy messiah Montgomery Shoal, combines pseudo-science, self-help and religious fervor, while advocating abstention from sex and addictive substances. The novel's protagonist, Jack Smith, works in finance and has a penchant for painkillers, alcohol, junk food and pornography. An indiscreet after-hours visit to a strip club paid for by a company credit card leads to an ultimatum from his boss: become a "Paser" or be fired. At the same time, Jack finds himself repeatedly running into Mary Shoal, the daughter of the PASE founder. His dalliance with her results in his kidnapping and "re-education" at the hands of the PASE organization. Jack's resistance is gradually replaced with acceptance, but the blithe PASE way of life is darkened by apocalyptic predictions, forcing Jack to question his conversion. Emmons's yarn is engaging, but he can't seem to decide whether PASE is a force for good or evil in Pasers' lives, and the book fails to fully consider the ramifications of the issues it raises. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Emmons (The Loss of Leon Meed) rakes a herd of sacred cows over the coals in this unusual novel. Jack Smith's mundane life takes an absurd turn when he's kidnapped by the fringe religious group Prescription for a Superior Existence. Known as PASE, the group forbids most pleasures, including sex, and emphasizes union with a deity called Ur-God. Though hostile at first, Jack slowly warms up to the PASE party line, which complicates matters when he is suddenly kidnapped again by what appears to be a group of countercult deprogrammers. Readers with a penchant for satire and the absurd will relish the novel's outrageous premise and knowing jibes at popular culture's sacred and secular excesses. Those who enjoy character development, however, may be disappointed by the flat, didactic speech-giving caricatures who people Jack's world. Emmons's attempt at creating a modern-day Pilgrim's Progressis a noble effort but one with limited appeal. An optional purchase for most collections, save where satire is popular.
—Leigh Anne Vrabel

Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious businessman becomes the target of a Scientology-like organization in Emmons's second novel (The Loss of Leon Meed, 2005). On the eve of an assured promotion, Jack Smith gets fired, falls in love with a mysterious woman and is shot by an intruder. Hours later-or is it days?-Jack wakes to find that he has not been shot, but rather tranquilized, and he is now an involuntary patient at a Wellness Center run by the Prescription for Superior Existence, or PASE. Members of PASE include the famous, the powerful, the meek and the mild, each of whom follows PASE's command to renounce all desire for sex, alcohol, drugs, money and worldly success. PASE is recognized by the IRS as an official religion, with all attendant tax relief. But many nonbelievers-including Jack-call PASE a cult, an elaborate brainwashing hoax. Insisting that he has been kidnapped, Jack demands his release. His disruptive behavior is swiftly quashed by security guards and peer pressure. Eventually he begins to read PASE founder Montgomery Shoale's bestselling book, The Prescription, which, it is said, was revealed to the author by the one true UR (Ultimate Reality) God. After a few days of vegetarian food, exercise, PASE counseling and a blissful stint in the Synergy Device, Jack becomes PASE's latest convert. That's when his troubles really begin: The woman he fell in love with turns out to be Montgomery Shoale's defiant daughter, who wants Jack to murder her father; a radical group of deprogrammers spirit Jack from the Center to make him their star witness in a class action suit against PASE; and the UR God is calling all PASE followers "home." Will Jack prevent a worldwide mass suicide of PASE followers-orinstigate it?Neither ironic nor suspenseful, this novel, narrated by Jack mostly in summary flashback, fails to introduce convincing characters, let alone compellingly relay their plight. Agent: Susan Golomb/Susan Golomb Agency

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

In this part of the world it is light for half the year and dark the other half. Sometimes at night I look at the halos around the window blinds and breathe in salty air redolent of afternoon trips to the beach I took as a boy, my hands enclosed in my parents', my feet leaving collapsed imprints in the sand, my mind a whirl of whitewashed images. I remember how the shaded bodies lying under candy-cane umbrellas groped for one another, and how I pulled my mother and father toward the ice-cream vendors, and how I fell in love with the girls who slouched beside their crumbling sandcastles. The sun an unblinking eye on our actions. The waves forever trying to reach us. From the beginning there was so much longing, and from the beginning I could hardly bear it.

I used to think that with enough scrutiny I would discover a moment to explain what happened later. Not anymore. Now the idea that a Big Bang in my youth caused the events that have sent me here — or that with enough focus I could recall the incident, like an amnesiac witness during cross-examination recollecting how and where and by whom a murder was committed — seems absurd. Now I know that I was always on a collision course with Prescription for a Superior Existence, that it couldn't have been otherwise.

To pass time I walk around this nightbright Scandinavian village, past seafood grottos and tackle and bait shops and thatched Viking ruins with pockmarked, briny walls blanched the color of dead fish. Bjorn Bjornson, a cod oil wholesaler who joins me sometimes in order to practice his English, though it is already better than most Americans', says that the village has changed radically since he was young, noting that the citizens didn't have cellular phones, personal audio devices, satellite receivers, or sustainable fishing laws, that as always in the past many indispensable things did not exist.

He imagines that growing up in California I witnessed even more incredible developments. "Your state is rushing ahead of everywhere else," he says. "In Europe the conviction is that this is terrible, and we are expected to fear and disdain it. But I have met your countrymen and seen your films and read your literature, and I want to visit to make up my own mind. Consensus is sometimes no more than shared folly."

Given more time in each other's company, Bjorn and I might become friends. He is a patient, thoughtful man who considers every angle of a problem without being paralyzed by indecision. If it weren't dangerous, if information didn't travel so quickly and unpredictably, I would explain to him why I'm here and ask for his advice; instead I've told him I'm a tourist, come to take pictures of the glaciated fjords before they disappear.

And so I have to decide without his or anyone else's counsel if the past month, and before that all of history, justifies my presence in a remote northern village where it has been decreed that at midnight on Sunday I will, after delivering a eulogy that is both inspirational and absolute, with a solemnity great enough for the occasion, conduct and preside over — I am choosing my words carefully and none other will do — the end of the world.

This is as strange for me to say as it must be to hear, and I should add that I'm not yet certain that the end is coming; it could be a grand deception, or sincerely but wrongly delineated, like the edges of the world on a fifteenth-century map. There are compelling arguments for and against each possibility, and I change my mind about them so often that on Sunday, instead of having discovered the truth, I may be as confused as a pilot with spatial disorientation, in danger of mistaking a graveyard spiral for a safe landing, when up is really down, sky is really earth, and life — suddenly and irreversibly — is really death.

Copyright © 2008 by Josh Emmons

Meet the Author

Born in 1973, Josh Emmons was raised in Northern California and received an MFA and teaching fellowship from the University of Iowa. He recently won the James Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, which counts Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken, Ethan Canin, Nathan Englander, Adam Haslett, and Ann Packer as former winners. He lives with his wife in New Orleans.

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