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The Empty Chair: Two Novellas [NOOK Book]


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 ...
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The Empty Chair: Two Novellas

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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 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.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
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
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.)
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101630747
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/17/2013
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,170,526
  • File size: 869 KB

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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Read an Excerpt


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?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2014


    Parden me. I just thought i should drop off some prey." She sets two shrews down the heads off to deliver the rest.

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