The Empty Chair: Two Novellas

The Empty Chair: Two Novellas

5.0 3
by Bruce Wagner
     
 

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Composed of two companion novellas, The Empty Chair is a profound, heart-wrenching piece of spiritual storytelling from Bruce Wagner, the internationally acclaimed author of such novels as Dead Stars, I’m Losing You and Force Majeure. In First Guru, a fictional Wagner narrates the tale of a Buddhist living in Big Sur, who achieves

Overview

Composed of two companion novellas, The Empty Chair is a profound, heart-wrenching piece of spiritual storytelling from Bruce Wagner, the internationally acclaimed author of such novels as Dead Stars, I’m Losing You and Force Majeure. In First Guru, a fictional Wagner narrates the tale of a Buddhist living in Big Sur, who achieves enlightenment in the horrific aftermath of his child’s suicide. In Second Guru, Queenie, an aging wild child, returns to India to complete the spiritual journey of her youth. Told in ravaged, sensuous detail to the author-narrator by two strangers on opposite sides of the country, years apart from each other, both stories illuminate the random, chaotic nature of human suffering and the miraculous strength of the human spirit. A deeply affecting and meditative reading experience, The Empty Chair is an exquisitely rendered, thought-provoking, and humbling new work.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
10/15/2013
These two novellas are linked by spiritual questing, by the relative unorthodoxy of the characters, and by a chair, which plays a key role in both the events of the stories and the narrator's understanding. Set as a series of interviews by the author's fictional persona, "First Guru" concerns a closeted gay Buddhist living in Big Sur with his Buddhist teacher wife and the aftermath of their 12-year-old son's suicide—he hanged himself from a chair. "Second Guru" is about a wealthy New York wild child who reunites after 30 years with the lover of her youth, the shadowy spiritual gangster Kura. Returning with him to India, where they once ventured in search of the "Great Guru," the former lovers now seek his enigmatic successor, an American who abdicated the "guru's chair" and disappeared into seclusion. VERDICT Wagner (Dead Stars) presents the search for the spiritual as a messy, unpredictable journey where neither the teachers nor the students may be exactly as expected. A powerful, agonizing, and yet meditative work about how suffering and somehow resilient human beings struggle to make sense of the mystery of existence. [See Prepub Alert, 6/10/13.]—Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
…demonstrates Mr. Wagner's range as a writer, reminding us…that he possesses a fluent ability to move back and forth between the satiric and the sympathetic, the scabrous and the tender…he demonstrates his talent here for creating characters far more complicated and conflicted than they first appear. They are susceptible to pride and silliness and self-delusion, but are also trying to grapple with loss, pain, grief and the abyss of mortality with every tool they have at hand, including desperate grasps after art and religion…The strange and terrible connection between the two tales that is eventually revealed…makes us ponder, as his characters do, big existential questions about fate (versus randomness), destiny (versus free will) and the patterning (or lack of patterning) in the universe.
The New York Times Book Review - Dani Shapiro
It would be easy at first glance to mistake The Empty Chair for vintage Wagner—trading Hollywood for a spot-on sendup of the new age "diet Buddhism" movement, a devastating indictment of this "backdrop for a variety of seekers slouching toward spiritual redemption." But the deeper the reader burrows into these remarkable novellas, the clearer it becomes that Wagner is after something else. Together, the stories add up to a full-hearted seeker's lament, and would make a fine fictional companion to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton's writings on spiritual outrage and the impossibility of solace…[a] challenging and sublime work…
Publishers Weekly
10/28/2013
In this new collection of two novellas by the author of Dead Stars, a fictionalized Wagner sits down with two disparate characters who have undergone traumatic spiritual journeys, interviewing them over the course of a few days. In “First Guru,” a gay man explains his love of Jack Kerouac, and narrates the story of his life, from being molested in a Catholic church to marrying a woman and having a child with her, to finally ending up where Wagner finds him, sleeping in and operating his book-van lending library. “Second Guru” concerns a woman, Queenie, on a trip to India, as she reconnects with her old flame, Kura, after battling with depression and the aftermath of an abusive relationship, in search of his former spiritual guide. The collection is aptly named, as the metaphor of the empty chair comes to mean radically different things for each of the protagonists and their journeys toward and away from Buddhism. Throughout the interviews, Wagner interjects descriptions of his subjects, lending believability to the format, and the dialogue is spot-on—especially when Queenie ruminates on her fantasies of self-obliteration. Ultimately a quiet, brooding collection, Wagner’s book deftly illustrates how the quest for spirituality and self-realization underscore one’s understanding of the purpose of life. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Bruce Wagner:

“Wagner shamelessly writes with his heart on his sleeve . . . daring his readers to be so callous as to question fiction’s ability to imagine the impossible.”—John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“There are few writers capable of escorting us more convincingly into a character’s tender, gnarled mind...Every page contains something statically electric enough to scorch the hair from your arms.”—Tom Bissell, GQ

“[He] takes great pains to endow his . . . creations with detailed and vivid inner lives, in which even the shallowest circumstances are transformed into high-stakes questions of spiritual life and death.” —Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post Book World

 “He is a visionary posing as a farceur.”—Salman Rushdie
 
 “Wagner delineates his characters with such sympathy and verve, such a sharp eye . . . that they become palpable human beings, real in their griefs and yearnings and illusions.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Casting himself as a story collector, Wagner links two novellas, two narratives separated in time yet bound by a common motif: the empty chair, where loss, grief and death are seated. 
 
Known for his gorgeously acerbic dissections of SoCal and Tinseltown, Wagner (Dead Stars, 2012, etc.) turns his eyes toward the spiritual, examining the wreckage of two souls. A self-labeled gay Buddhist tries to tell the story of his son’s suicide, looping back through memories and tangential details to avoid the final scene. Lushly embroidered with allusions to the Beat Generation, his tale takes on the rhythms of Gary Snyder’s poetry, the patter of Jack Kerouac’s prose. While awaiting the settlement of a lawsuit (he was one of the altar boys caught in the Catholic priest sex scandal), he joyously raised his son, Ryder, and watched his wife delve deeper into her practice, bringing Buddhism to schoolchildren and death row inmates alike. Ryder’s death sends them reeling, as they try to make sense of it through spiritual beliefs or storytelling itself. In the second tale, aging hipster Queenie examines her relationship with Kura, the man who saved her life after her affair with a gangster turned deadly in a 1975 Chicago nightclub. A master criminal intent upon becoming a saint, Kura longs to experience satsana at the feet of the Great Guru. Their pilgrimage to Bombay, however, wrests Kura away from Queenie, setting him on a path toward disappointment rather than enlightenment.  Twenty-seven years later, a single call from him reunites the pair on a ruinous quest to find the guru who disappeared.
 
Wagner meditates on our fundamental cravings for connections—both human and divine—and meanings—both personal and cosmic—with wit, compassion and a sharp eye for the lies we tell ourselves.
Kirkus Reviews, starred
 
In this new collection of two novellas by the author of Dead Stars, a fictionalized Wagner sits down with two disparate characters who have undergone traumatic spiritual journeys, interviewing them over the course of a few days. In “First Guru,” a gay man explains his love of Jack Kerouac, and narrates the story of his life, from being molested in a Catholic church to marrying a woman and having a child with her, to finally ending up where Wagner finds him, sleeping in and operating his book-van lending library. “Second Guru” concerns a woman, Queenie, on a trip to India, as she reconnects with her old flame, Kura, after battling with depression and the aftermath of an abusive relationship, in search of his former spiritual guide. The collection is aptly named, as the metaphor of the empty chair comes to mean radically different things for each of the protagonists and their journeys toward and away from Buddhism. Throughout the interviews, Wagner interjects descriptions of his subjects, lending believability to the format, and the dialogue is spot-on—especially when Queenie ruminates on her fantasies of self-obliteration. Ultimately a quiet, brooding collection, Wagner’s book deftly illustrates how the quest for spirituality and self-realization underscore one’s understanding of the purpose of life.
Publisher’s Weekly

“[R]emarkable…[The Empty Chair] would make a fine fictional companion to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s writings on spiritual outrage…The soul’s cry beneath that rage is the gold Wagner has mined here, and he delivers it to us with a beneficent and magisterial touch.”
—Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

“[The Empty Chair] demonstrates Mr. Wagner’s range as a writer, reminding us…that he possesses a fluent ability to move back and forth between the satiric and the sympathetic, the scabrous and the tender….The strange and terrible connection between the two tales that is eventually revealed not only reminds us of Mr. Wagner’s love of coincidence but also makes us ponder, as his characters do, big existential questions about fate (versus randomness), destiny (versus free will) and the patterning (or lack of patterning) in the universe.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“The novellas are absorbing on their own, but what really makes The Empty Chair a gem is how two people from completely different backgrounds could tell two true stories that are extraordinarily intertwined.”
Esquire

“Few things make a story more difficult to tell than having a listener expecting to hear it….It's this contradiction, among so many others, that Bruce Wagner captures so elegantly in The Empty Chair. The book, split between two novellas, teems with gurus and neurotics, martyrs and perverts, but whatever their differences, nearly all of them are storytellers, too. What a shame for them, then, that someone is always listening—and what a joy for us to read.”
—Colin Dwyer, NPR
 
“[The Empty Chair] dare[s] to enter a sanctuary that few contemporary authors are willing to set foot in….what seems like witty digression about his beatnik idols is really self-conscious delay…Wagner’s real subject here is spiritual pride among the devout struggling toward Nothingness…His narrator has a wry sense of humor about this world of competitive enlightenment, but there’s no smirking when he finally arrives at what it costs a child to be infected with his parents’ metaphysical shtick.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

“The sentences that run through [Wagner’s] fiction—including the two novellas paired in The Empty Chair— are supercharged with exotic phrases, twisted puns, far-flung idiom, and endless name-checks from Beat literature to Wile E. Coyote to “Soul Train” to Mark Twain. He’s got a crazy-brilliant command of language and culture….his verbal agility is mind-blowing….Wagner does a masterful job of letting his novellas harmonize with each other, one gaining resonance when compared to the other….And as much as The Empty Chair is about the impossibility of true and thorough enlightenment, it is also about the power of voice and storytelling.”
—Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe

“These interwoven tales made me think, about Gurus, spirituality in the West, and the quest for enlightenment vs. nihilism, heady topics indeed, and well worth taking on. Ultimately, even the empty chair is full – full of all the life that has passed through it….I do recommend the book, particularly to anyone interested in Eastern spirituality and Buddhism.”
—Ravi Chandra M.D., Psychology Today

Kirkus Reviews
Casting himself as a story collector, Wagner links two novellas, two narratives separated in time yet bound by a common motif: the empty chair, where loss, grief and death are seated. Known for his gorgeously acerbic dissections of SoCal and Tinseltown, Wagner (Dead Stars, 2012, etc.) turns his eyes toward the spiritual, examining the wreckage of two souls. A self-labeled gay Buddhist tries to tell the story of his son's suicide, looping back through memories and tangential details to avoid the final scene. Lushly embroidered with allusions to the Beat Generation, his tale takes on the rhythms of Gary Snyder's poetry, the patter of Jack Kerouac's prose. While awaiting the settlement of a lawsuit (he was one of the altar boys caught in the Catholic priest sex scandal), he joyously raised his son, Ryder, and watched his wife delve deeper into her practice, bringing Buddhism to schoolchildren and death row inmates alike. Ryder's death sends them reeling, as they try to make sense of it through spiritual beliefs or storytelling itself. In the second tale, aging hipster Queenie examines her relationship with Kura, the man who saved her life after her affair with a gangster turned deadly in a 1975 Chicago nightclub. A master criminal intent upon becoming a saint, Kura longs to experience satsana at the feet of the Great Guru. Their pilgrimage to Bombay, however, wrests Kura away from Queenie, setting him on a path toward disappointment rather than enlightenment. Twenty-seven years later, a single call from him reunites the pair on a ruinous quest to find the guru who disappeared. Wagner meditates on our fundamental cravings for connections--both human and divine--and meanings--both personal and cosmic--with wit, compassion and a sharp eye for the lies we tell ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101630747
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/17/2013
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
File size:
889 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

preface

I’ve spent a good part of the last fifteen years traveling around the country listening to people tell stories. Each spoke voluntarily and without compensation; none were public figures. Sometimes I went looking for storytellers, other times they seemed to come looking for me. Regardless of our methods we managed to find each another. The stories that interested me most were those that described a pivotal event or time in the teller’s life. My plan was to stitch together excerpts that moved me or made me laugh, until I had the proverbial American quilt.

My plan changed.

I decided to publish a book—the one in your hands—that holds just two narratives, unabridged. Both share a leitmotif of “diet Buddhism” (again, distinctly American) that serves as a backdrop for a variety of seekers slouching toward spiritual redemption. Though told years apart by a man and woman of divergent social classes, in many ways the tales are complementary. But there’s something else, far more compelling: an extraordinary bridge from one to the other, a missing link whose apprehension came as a shock, a coup de foudre, an almost traumatic epiphany. From that moment of illumination, the idea of binding both together was non-negotiable.

Some of the material is a little dated. I had no inclination to excise or contemporize, so let once-topical references stand. While I tried to leave most repetitions, lacunae and narrative tics intact, editorial liberties were exercised under the flag of general readability. I am solely responsible for divvying up the transcripts, with the added benefit of being able to listen to the original tapes, into suitable paragraphs; for occasionally relegating parenthetical remarks to footnote status so as not to break the flow of narrative; for carving indents, spaces, and yes, parentheticals from the text (when doing so wouldn’t break the flow), the better for it to breathe; and responsible too for inadvertent—and sometimes advertent—wholesale homogenizations. I’m certain there are times when I went too far or didn’t go far enough, and if a heavy hand left too many fingerprints I offer my sincere apologies. I ask the persnickety reader to let narrative trump style. The “authors” here are vessels, not virtuosos. But you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Though if it were possible to hold all of the people’s stories all of the time in one’s head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, breathtaking detail, as are the two presented here . . . what I really wanted to write was “single, religious detail,” but stopped myself. There’s been so much sound and fury around that word these days that I hesitate to join the fray. At my age, one doesn’t have too many fighting

words left. Still, I wonder. Have I let myself be bullied?

I suppose if one needs to ask, the answer may be obvious.

Well, then. Allow me to clear my throat and revise:

If it were possible to hold all of the people’s stories all of the time in one’s head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail . . .

I wish to thank all of those who shared their stories through the years with such abundance and openness of spirit. Not incidentally, I want to give thanks to the unknowable Mystery that made us.

I don’t wish to offend anyone this early on, but I call that force God.

There—I said it.

Why not go out on a limb?

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"[Wagner] possesses a fluent ability to move aback and forth between the satiric and the sympathetic, the scabrous and the tender."
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Wagner’s book deftly illustrates how the quest for spirituality and self-realization underscore one’s understanding of the purpose of life.”
Publisher’s Weekly
 
“While Wagner’s trademark scathing satirical skills are in full force thanks to his sprightly word play and jaundiced observations, his purposeful exploration of the nature and importance of storytelling takes him in a subtly nuanced new direction.”—Booklist
 
“Lushly embroidered with allusions to the Beat Generation…Wagner meditates on our fundamental cravings for connections—both human and divine—and meanings—both personal and cosmic—with wit, compassion and a sharp eye for the lies we tell ourselves.”—Kirkus, STARRED review

Meet the Author

Bruce Wagner is the author of Dead Stars, Memorial, The Chrysanthemum Palace (a PEN/Faulkner fiction award finalist), Still Holding, I’ll Let You Go, I’m Losing You, and Force Majeure. He lives in Los Angeles.

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The Empty Chair: Two Novellas 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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