If words were toys, author Bruce Wagner would be king of the playground. The guy’s got a thesaurus for a brain. The sentences that run through his fiction — including the two novellas paired in “The Empty Chair” — are supercharged with exotic phrases, twisted puns, far-flung idiom, and endless name-checks from Beat literature to Wile E. Coyote to “Soul Train” to Mark Twain. He’s got a crazy-brilliant command of language and culture.
In a number of long passages, his verbal agility is mind-blowing. As one of Wagner’s narrators, Queenie, describes her depression, she takes us on a figurative scuba dive through uncharted cave waters, low on oxygen, surfacing desperately in a dark air pocket, a “vertical phone booth-like coffin.” When another character, Charley, talks about finding the dead body of a loved one, he delivers a dazzlingly excruciating monologue filled with morbid detail. It’s a portrait of shock that puts you in the room with Charley and his grim discovery.
Fortunately, Wagner’s novellas, “First Guru” and “Second Guru,” aren’t merely stylistic triumphs. Like many of Wagner’s earlier books — including his cellphone trilogy “I’m Losing You,” “I’ll Let You Go,” and “Still Holding” — “The Empty Chair” has as much philosophical weight as it does flashy surface. In both novellas, Wagner chronicles the hopes and disillusionments of spiritual seekers as they try to obliterate the self with meditation, drugs, and worship. These sad characters are working hard to find inner peace, but doomed to be lost and alone.
A writer with strong satirist tendencies, known for his savaging of the Hollywood mindset, Wagner also laughs at the excesses and pretenses of the New Age milieu he sketches in “The Empty Chair.” He gleefully exposes the narcissism, false humility, and fame-grubbing in the culture of “enlightenment.” But his cynicism doesn’t undermine the book’s power, or dull the emotional impact of the tragedies that strike his characters.
The idea of “The Empty Chair” is that each of the two novellas is a story told to the author — “Bruce” — by a stranger, and that he is publishing the narratives verbatim. Charley is the hyperactive first-person voice in “First Guru,” and he begins telling his tale to Bruce in a hot tub at the Esalen retreat in Big Sur. A gay Buddhist obsessed with Beat writers, Charley is also married to a woman named Kelly, and they have a son. His story wanders through his childhood abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, Kelly’s meditation with prisoners and kids, and his meeting with grandiose Beat figure Carolyn Cassady, until, finally, it all crashes into grief.
“Second Guru” is told to Bruce by Queenie, a self-described “wild child” of the 1960s who recalls her romance with a wealthy, older gangster named Kura, traveling the world with him and partying. When Kura becomes fixated on a holy man known as the Great Guru, they travel to Bombay to study at his feet. But their visit pulls them apart, and Queenie leaves Kura in his obsessive adulation. They don’t cross paths again for 27 years, but then Kura asks Queenie to go to New Delhi on a mysterious mission related to their past, a Zen “Heart of Darkness” journey to misunderstanding.
Ultimately, Queenie’s story dovetails with Charley’s story, a haunting link that I won’t spoil here. Wagner does a masterful job of letting his novellas harmonize with each other, one gaining resonance when compared to the other. Some of Queenie’s narrative is tedious; Wagner has her taking too many conversational detours before she reaches her denouement. But still, the way she circles around the centerpiece of her monologue, straining away from painful memories, adds psychological complexity to her voice.
And as much as “The Empty Chair” is about the impossibility of true and thorough enlightenment, it is also about the power of voice and storytelling. Both Charley and Queenie are unburdening themselves, gaining strength by giving a sense of order to the major events in their lives. The stories are the thing, Wagner is saying, they are the redemptive piece when all that’s gained from the Big Search are emptiness, loss, and death.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.