By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Some years ago, I heard the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh speak about how so many people, estranged from their own families and religious heritage, had come to him for spiritual instruction. He compared these seekers to hungry ghosts who dwell in the Buddhist hell realm, apparitions with huge bellies and needlelike throats, who can never get the nourishment they need. The spiritually starved, Thich Nhat Hanh insisted, did not need Buddhism; they needed to reconcile with their families and their own religious traditions.
Around the same time, The New Yorker published a short story by Allegra Goodman. “Onionskin” was a letter from 30-something Sharon Spiegelman in Israel to her religion professor in Honolulu. Sharon apologized for her outburst in class (she’d yelled, “Fuck Augustine!”) and, in explanation, recounted her haphazard, hilarious and ultimately touching search for a meaningful spiritual life. I was in seminary when “Onionskin” was printed and read it with deep pleasure, for I had found scant fiction that addressed contemporary religion in such a comic, wildly intelligent, and sympathetic manner. “Onionskin”‘s unreliable, malaprop-dropping narrator may have been a “type,” a self-willed lost soul demanding a quick fix of ecstasy, but her sheer exuberance had hurled her smack into the human condition -- and herself:
I thought [Jerusalem] was going to be so much more -- I mean, not like I thought I was actually going to see the valley of the shadow of death, but I keep seeing plain hills and valleys and that’s it. Which has got to be me, right? I know it‘s what you bring. I realize that. It makes me cry because I don’t have it in me. I just don‘t understand and I want to . . . Satisfied?
Goodman’s subsequent writing -- The Family Markowitz, a collection of interrelated short stories about an American Jewish family, and Kaaterskill Falls, a novel about observant Jews summering in upstate New York -- further evinced Goodman‘s philosophical and religious erudition and fine comic talent. Now comes the aggressively marketed Paradise Park, displayed in the chain stores with a banner reading “The Irrepressible Sharon Spiegelman Meets Her Destiny.” Clearly, “Onionskin” has grown into a novel.
In Paradise Park, the facts of Sharon’s spiritual search, glossed with such manic propulsion in “Onionskin”‘s letter, have been dramatized to make up the first half of a 22-year odyssey. The book opens with Sharon waking up from a dream about God to an empty Waikiki hotel room; Gary has fled to Fiji with another woman. Estranged from her alcoholic mother and fed-up professor father (a dean, he kicked her out of college for dealing drugs), Sharon knows how to set her life to rights -- go back to school in Boston, reconcile with her father. Instead, fully aware she’s “just wrecking [her] spiritual compass,” she sells her return ticket to the mainland and embarks on a series of Hawaiian adventures.
Sharon goes to study redfooted boobies on uninhabited islands, then farms pot with a lover on Molokai. Back in Honolulu, she “sees God” on a whale-watching excursion. Shaken and changed (however briefly), she explains to her new boyfriend, “It‘s just -- when you see Him, even for one second -- you have to get back to Him again.” Sharon’s attempts to reunite include being born again at the Greater Love Salvation Church, a euphoria that lasts less than 24 hours. (“I had thought once you were saved you were saved. And if you were born again, then you would be better organized than you were the first time.”) She then recaptures Him with hallucinogens, an ecstasy fraught with dazzling insights she can‘t sustain.
Plenty of other options were still out there. If one didn’t work, I‘d switch. Visions, Bible study, hallucinatory trips . . . The only thing I can compare it to is that time in your life when you’ll sleep with anyone but you think you‘re doing it because you so believe in love.
She tries Tibetan Buddhist meditation, but the austerities don’t suit her. She studies Hebrew with a slick, junk-food-sneaking rabbi (whose license plate reads SHALOHA). She enrolls in religion courses and leaves in her anti-Augustinian huff for Jerusalem, where, she thinks, if she doesn‘t find God, she’ll at least get back together with her old boyfriend Gary who is now studying at the Torah Or Institute. Sharon enrolls at Torah Or but leaves when too much time, in her opinion, is spent discussing kosher silverware. It is on Torah Or‘s onionskin stationery that she writes to her religion professor back in Hawaii.
If we at first fear for Sharon in her various love affairs and religious larks, we soon cease to worry. She’s equally impervious to indoctrination and personal growth. Her affiliations bring only disillusionment. There‘s no accumulation of spiritual wisdom, no maturation. Each involvement is a free-floating event, which makes the book episodic and, despite Goodman’s inventiveness, a bit tiresome. The novel‘s first half provides no more character development than the short story’s truncated, rushed version of the same events. By its midpoint, our heroine‘s cycle of enthusiasm and disappointment seems a mild, undiagnosed personality disorder, a companion pathology to her compulsive lying. (This reader, wearied by Sharon’s lack of self-awareness and humility, couldn‘t help but wonder why therapy never occurred to her.) Goodman’s elongation of the “Onionskin” narrative allows for a series of good-natured and clever, if predictable, authorial pokes at the religious smorgasbord. But God knows, fools and foolishness abound in every spiritual and philosophical niche, and I began to wish -- for the sake of narrative complexity -- that each teacher and concept and institute weren‘t just another easy target for Goodman to lampoon.
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