March 17, 2014 by Reader's Connection
An acquaintance of my father’s was consulted during the exorcism which inspired William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist. If my father hadn’t told me about that, and explained that the book’s horrific happenings were based on fact, I might not have read it, and it wouldn’t have scared me. I thought it was badly written.
I mention this in connection with Bruce Wagner’s new book The Empty Chair: Two Novellas not because I think Wagner’s book is for crap–the two voices here are very engaging– but because the reader is consistently given the impression that these “novellas” are in fact “true stories,” even if Queenie, one of the narrators, “freely admitted she had no qualms extemporizing, if it helped her cause, i.e., advancing the story or to more accurately convey a mood or a message.” And the degree to which I think the stories are factual has a big effect on how I react to them.
In a preface, Wagner says that he has “spent a good part of the last fifteen years traveling around the country listening to people tell stories,” and a page later, he says that “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.”
The detail that links these two stories–told by a man and woman who are from different parts of the country and who’ve never met–is an atrocious concoction if it’s fiction. I assume that it’s for real and I still don’t know what to make of it.
The narratives are concerned with individuals engaged on spiritual quests, and at the end of his brief preface, Wagner writes, “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.”
You should be warned that you might not approve of the mores, sexual and otherwise, of our two “guru” narrators (one of them tells the story of a spiritual seeker who’s a criminal and multiple murderer) and, if you reach the book’s end, you might be scratching your head about the God that Wagner mentions.
That’s an okay thing to be doing, though, and having given you that warning, I’ll say again that I was caught up with the stories, sat there reading as though I were listening by a campfire to a wanderer’s tale.
The Empty Chair is also available as a downloadable e-book, and since National Poetry Month is almost upon us, I’ll also share a link to Jane Hirshfield’s poem A Chair in Snow. It has nothing to do with Wagner’s novellas, and perhaps the emotional pull of it runs counter to something Wagner is trying to instill; but I think he would like it.