Books

Amanda Lohrey
A Short History of Richard Kline

Meditation, chanting and seeking out a guru are regarded by some as “New Age mumbo jumbo” – exemplified by bumper-sticker sentiments such as Magic happens or Be the change you want to see in the world – and yet such pursuits have become increasingly mainstream. In her new novel, Amanda Lohrey considers the ordinary people who find themselves on this path, and in doing so brings a weight and consideration to ideas that are often dismissed by a culture that otherwise prides itself above all on being rational.

Richard Kline is 42 and is having a midlife crisis. “Yours can be a difficult age,” a GP tells him. “It’s all been a bit like playschool up until now.” He has a wife and son whom he loves, but he feels lost and depressed, as though life has stalled. He thinks what he’s missing is a feeling of connectedness, which he once had, to nature, to the universe. He recalls gazing into a bush as a child and becoming aware of “… perfect symmetry, and that I was a part of it. For a moment I disappeared, and in that moment I was free.” Hoping to recapture that understanding and to disappear into something bigger than himself, Richard tries out all sorts of remedies, starting with antidepressants and therapy, and moving on to meditation and chanting.

A Short History of Richard Kline is Lohrey’s first full-length novel in more than a decade. She was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award in 2012, and throughout the course of her long career has been concerned with both the political and the personal. Her novels are a chronicle of the times, set against deftly painted backdrops of particular decades: The Morality of Gentlemen is set in the ’50s and early ’60s, The Reading Group deals with political culture in the ’70s, Camille’s Bread is set in Sydney in the ’80s, and The Philosopher’s Doll is about yuppies in the ’90s. Her latest book spans the 2000s at a time when New Age philosophies and therapies have become normalised and commercialised, everyone’s doing yoga, and meditation is no longer just for hippies (now it’s called “stress management”). 

Lohrey examines big questions – about our spiritual lives, about identity and friendship – without making us feel like we’re reading a “lofty” novel. She also notices nature: the yellow eyes of the currawong, the haze of Cootamundra wattle, a gap opening up in a cloud. Her sentences are simple; they mean exactly what they say. But she has a talent for building layers of action that create overlying strata, and this is what conveys substance and depth rather than any complicated language. 

Each chapter switches back and forth between first and third person, but what might create motion sickness in another context works well here. The gentle rhythm rocking us between internal and external perspectives is a subtle narrative dynamism that protects the reader from the claustrophobia of being entirely in Richard’s mind. 

The early part of Richard’s history is related in short, dispassionate clusters of ordinary events: the deaths of family members, the ends of love affairs, overseas travels, coming home again, working. 

This is the story of a modern pilgrim’s search for meaning but it’s not a skipping-through-the-woods folkloric frolic; pulsating underneath the prose is an unsettling darkness that is carried right up until the final page, an uncertainty of where all the searching might lead. Every time Richard starts getting restless you get the feeling he might do something drastic to fill the empty hole: abandon his family, have an affair, kill himself. He meets a lot of minor characters along the way who introduce him to different ideas. His pattern is to try something new and be contented again for a short time, until he’s not.

Halfway through the book, when a concatenation of events leads him to an encounter with an Indian guru, the bud of the story opens up into Richard’s higher question: how does one fathom the unfathomable? Is it possible to articulate that which can’t be articulated?

When Richard meets his soon-to-be new friend Martin, he wonders aloud why his Indian guru has entered his life, and Martin responds by saying that you only find a teacher once you’re ready for them. It sounds precisely like the sort of sparkly thing you’d read on a bumper sticker, but having travelled this far with Richard we feel it to be true too: he is finally ready. An Eastern spirituality might just be the revealing focus this man needs.

A practical person, a traditional kind of guy, everything about Richard has been common sense, but he finds he is now able to express his restlessness: 

At a certain age you felt the encumbrance of the identity you had constructed for yourself, or had thrust upon you; all those leathery accretions of habit, those barnacles on the psyche that are both you and not you. And you felt the need to be rid of them, to have it all – this construct, ‘Richard Kline’ – dissolved in whatever merciful solvent you could find.

Ultimately, Richard’s central relationship is not with his beloved guru, nor with his wife or son. It’s with Martin, a Vedantic monk who dresses in white drawstring pants and drinks green tea. Lohrey’s expansive depiction of male friendship and masculinity is a highlight of the novel. It’s his new friendship that has, as they say, opened Richard’s mind. 

The nature of such mystical questing requires a steadiness of pace and a commanding style in order to prevent it floating up and away into the unfathomable or becoming weighed down with imprecise descriptions of an interior world. Lohrey’s skill is in keeping us suspended in the cocoon of an idea – “Is this all there is?” – a question that hums in and out of our own lives during the day, but which can suddenly ring out on dark nights with a deafening thunder. All books end with silence, but in the quiet at the end of Lohrey’s, there is a greater than usual peace.  BB

Black Inc, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Amanda Lohrey, A Short History of Richard Kline". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: BB