It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Mr. Wagner sees both worlds as petri dishes for narcissism, self-aggrandizement and the ravenous appetite for fame and renown.
Beneath their Zenlike garb of humility, many of the seekers and dispensers of salvation in “The Empty Chair” are as guilty of hubris and egomania as the Hollywood honchos and wannabes we have met in Mr. Wagner’s more salacious works; self-abnegation, it turns out, can be as much a form of self-absorption as self-promotion. Though this is an uneven book — with odd, icy patches of mannered prose and needlessly sensationalistic riffs — it demonstrates Mr. Wagner’s range as a writer, reminding us, after the embarrassing and willfully lurid “Dead Stars,” that he possesses a fluent ability to move back and forth between the satiric and the sympathetic, the scabrous and the tender. As he did in “Memorial” (2006) and the virtuosic “I’ll Let You Go” (2002), he demonstrates his talent here for creating characters far more complicated and conflicted than they first appear. They are susceptible to pride and silliness and self-delusion, but are also trying to grapple with loss, pain, grief and the abyss of mortality with every tool they have at hand, including desperate grasps after art and religion.
“The Empty Chair” consists of two dovetailing novellas, both told in the guise of confessional monologues, both served up to a fictional version of the author, called Bruce. Each monologue features an array of characters who are themselves given to confessional self-assessment, and the result is a narrative that resembles a set of Russian nesting dolls — the reliability of each character’s story framed and qualified by the telling of another’s.
The first novella concerns the 50-year-old Charley, whose beloved 12-year old son, Ryder, committed suicide — or accidentally hanged himself, perhaps in some misguided effort to achieve the sort of escape from the external world he’d heard his mother, Kelly, an ardent, even fanatical Buddhist, so often discuss. Kelly, Charley tells Bruce, received a contract for a spiritual memoir that she thought of calling “Nirvanarama” or “Impermanence Rocks.” And she got into a sort of competitive rivalry with her former mentor Dharmabud over spiritual territory — like teaching Buddhism to elementary school kids. She was particularly enthusiastic — at first, that is — about doing “mindfulness workshops” at San Quentin prison.
“Part of the allure was ego,” Charley says. “It was kind of a trophy gig — frontline bodhisattva service. It was sexy.” Here was a woman with gumption enough “to suck it up and walk straight into the belly of the beast… for the enlightenment of others. I think she dug people at the Zen Center knowing too. Gave her a major uptick in the incestuous world of the sangha, where competition for humility was dog-eat-dog.”
A similar dynamic is at work in the second novella, which concerns Queenie, a former wild child, who tells Bruce about her tumultuous life and her emotionally fraught relationship with Kura, a former drug dealer and murderer turned religious pilgrim. Their story is as improbable as it is Dickensian in its twists and turns and sudden reversals of fortune. As Queenie tells it, Kura saved her life when she was 16 and her abusive boyfriend attacked her, slicing off two fingers. Kura and his posse rushed to her rescue, and Queenie and Kura soon began living the high life together, jetting around the world — Paris, Casablanca, Tunis, Istanbul, Corfu, Gstaad — on his private plane.
Everything changed, though, as Kura’s worldly love for Queenie gave way to more spiritual concerns and he became increasingly obsessed with the Great Guru, a holy man who held court in his Bombay tobacco shop and whose teachings had been spread the world over — merchandised, some might say — by an American disciple who had the guru’s remarks taped and transcribed.
By the late 1960s, Queenie says, followers of the Great Guru — “far-flung legions of the desperate, the curious and the dilettantish, not to mention the usual pastiche of pop stars, paupers and spiritual tourists” — were traveling great distances and at great expense to be in his presence. The story of what happens after Kura and Queenie make their way to Bombay to meet the Great Guru will unfold over the years — with some sudden swerves and changes of direction, including a bizarre encounter with the guru’s American protégé — and it will involve at least one more mysterious summons to India, some 30 years after Queenie had thought she’d heard the last of Kura.
Mr. Wagner’s efforts to act as a ventriloquist for Queenie aren’t always successful — she sometimes sounds like a crude parody of a counterculture hippie chick — but he does a subtle job of orchestrating the echoes between her story and Charley’s. The strange and terrible connection between the two tales that is eventually revealed not only reminds us of Mr. Wagner’s love of coincidence but also makes us ponder, as his characters do, big existential questions about fate (versus randomness), destiny (versus free will) and the patterning (or lack of patterning) in the universe.