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.
“Religions just tend not to take on me,” Sharon confesses to a young Orthodox Jewish missionary named Dovidl. But Dovidl has a theory: Religions don’t take on Sharon because she has a yiddishe neshama, a Jewish soul to which nothing but Judaism sticks. And this, it would seem, is true, at least in part; Sharon takes to Judaism‘s stories and songs and mysticism, but balks, as ever, at its systematic study, a dichotomy which occasions Goodman’s fiercest and most amusing writing:
[T]he classes always came back to what you gotta do to earn your place on the stairs to paradise. And what was weird was when I was reading alone, the whole universe and the fires and sparks floated free, and the spirits and the angels just flew by . . . I‘d see all humans were like monarch butterflies poised to migrate upward these incredible distances, ready to storm at least the nearest heaven with the beating of our countless wings. And then in class it would turn out we were all just brown ants creeping upward, and we had to carry all the fine print in our mandibles.
Finally, in the second half of the book, Sharon’s spiritual search conflates with some long-awaited emotional maturation, and Goodman‘s writing hits true, resonant notes. Sharon returns to the States to live at a Bais Sarah, a halfway house for wayward Jewish girls (“There I was, 38 years old. The newest girl at the orphanage”), then moves east to live with a strictly observant Jewish family in Crown Heights.
Even if Sharon “won’t accept the Hasidic way of life, if you‘ll excuse the expression, whole hog,” Judaism points her to a surer happiness. For once, she checks an impulse to kiss a man. (“I’d stood there on the steps and I had actually experienced self-restraint, and it tasted so strange. Like anise.”) When she asks the old rebbe‘s advice on marrying someone she’s just met, he tells her to ask her parents. Aha! goes the reader. Exactly! Parents — that‘s what’s been missing all along.
After 22 years, and a few more moves, Sharon lands within miles of her old Cambridge front door. We leave her reconciled with her parents (to the best of their limited abilities), happily married, even folk dancing again. She‘s in a Jewish study group, where she loves the singing and finds the discussions boring. Sharon’s destiny is not spiritual enlightenment after all, but, amusingly enough, to marry a nice Jewish boy and become a Jewish mother.
Sharon Spiegelman‘s spiritual search is not an accretion of wisdom but a long wrong turn. She asks her husband, “Do you think a soul could be like molten fire, and you have to throw it in the furnace to be forged?” He does. And in the novel’s best moments, we can believe that Sharon‘s soul is goldene nesham (“golden and impossible to rust or tarnish”), but for too many pages the forging furnace is only a spiritual theme park, a Paradise Park, where religions are fun-house reflections and the soul in question really just needs to go home. In terms of spiritual insight, then, the original “Onionskin” was sufficient.
Michelle Huneven is the author of the novel Round Rock. Her new novel, Jamesland, will be published in 2002 by Knopf.