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A Sceptic Surrenders

February 24, 2016

Halfway down the cliff, Rick has an epiphany: he is bored. [Photo: Maurits Vermeulen]

Halfway down the cliff, Rick has an epiphany: he is bored. [Photo: Maurits Vermeulen]

Amanda Lohrey, A Short History of Richard Kline, 2015

How do we create meaning in our lives?

As a child, Richard Kline thinks that life is “both unspeakably precious and at the same time utterly futile. And if that was the case, why was I born?”

For Rick, “nothing was ever quite right; something was always missing.” He observes how others make meaning for themselves. Leni, his boss’s wife, identifies with the Italian villa she is restoring: “the house is a substitute or ideal self. The self is not perfectible but the house is.” Rick’s friends bore him with their passionate descriptions of their renovations. His cousin’s husband is restoring a boat, and his “relationship” with the wood gives him immense satisfaction.

Rick is immune to such passions. He is a successful IT professional. He loves his wife Zoe, a social worker who derives meaning from her work. “She could create order, it was her gift, and if nothing else, she could make her part of the world function from one day to the next.” Rick loves his son Luke even more that he loves his wife. Yet his life is still empty. He becomes increasingly angry, and attacks a motorist in a road rage incident.

Richard KlineWhen he is 42, Rick meets, by chance, an Indian guru. This is where Amanda Lohrey shines as a writer – she is able to keep many of us reading after this revelation. Sometimes it’s touch and go: Lisa at ANZLitLovers writes:

Up to this point, I was enjoying the story, because Richard is an interesting character, but I wavered when he discovers a guru.  He, um… feels a presence… and he, um… experiences some kind of spiritual blessing when he touches foreheads with her.  Now if you believe that there is a spiritual dimension to life and that there are special people who have some kind of spiritual presence, you will keep reading with enthusiasm.  …  If like me you regard all this as some kind of mumbo-jumbo, you are going to have to look for other reasons to keep reading.

Lisa finds a reason to keep reading in the conflict between Rick’s scepticism and his need for the guru. I read on for the pleasure of Lohrey’s prose, the way she puts sentences together, her craft in constructing the story. But more than this, one of the many reasons I read novels is to enter the inner lives of people who are different to me. I have not detected any spiritual dimension to life, so I am sceptical, but I cannot claim, solely on the basis of my own experience, that such a dimension does not exist. I read on because I was interested in Rick, and wanted to find out what would come out of his link with the guru, regardless of whether the spiritual aspect of his experience was real or not.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey [Photo: Black Inc. website]

He finds a mentor, Martin, who tells Rick that he needs faith, not belief:

Belief is clinging to a set of doctrines, usually based on what someone else has said. Faith is opening the mind, without preconceptions, to whatever comes along. Faith is a plunge into the unknown. … We surrender our need for certainty.

I’ve never liked the idea of faith, but I can embrace this definition of it. I suspect that true spirituality, if it exists, is incompatible with dogma and ideology.

In her 1997 essay, The Clear Voice Suddenly Singing, Amanda Lohrey says: “There has to be a place for non-specific spirituality.” In A Short History of Richard Kline she portrays such a spirituality. The novel is a fascinating exploration of how a no-nonsense rationalist surrenders his certainties and gains a sense of fulfilment through a mysterious link with teacher who has no doctrine to teach.

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