“Can sitting make a Buddha? In the search for enlightenment, the knight of Christ wanders, but he is too weary to wander. The Buddha sits, but he is too restless to sit. The French philosophers read the German philosophers who read the Greeks who read the world directly, and is anyone enlightened?”
Zen, Mississippi concerns itself with such questions to the extent that it follows two generations of men wrestling with reality, fantasy, alcohol abuse, and existential malaise on a sliding scale from dissatisfied coping to outright terror. Patrick, the protagonist, has come to recognize that “Maybe he just can’t deal with normal life, normal ‘reality,’ whatever that turns out to be.” He suspects that “reality” is itself a kind of Zen riddle, but such logic is perhaps too heavily influenced by the fact that Patrick is taking advice from figures such as Monkeyman, a creature manifest, invisibly, from out of his own childhood imagining. Sitting on the handlebars of Patrick’s bike, Monkeyman lectures on the relation between “enlightenment” and everyday life, love and the Buddha, absurdity and the lack of distinction between internal and external worlds.
This is the tone of Zen, Mississippi, a novel that follows a father and son’s dual immersion in a fantasy world, “the parallel universe created by a childgod…where the absurd becomes rational and the rational becomes moot.” There is a more than sufficient amount of philosophical name-dropping and recurring meditations on the word “Zen,” all in the service of trying to describe and delineate the paranoia and hallucinations that befall these two men, generally after a few drinks:
The jukebox whirs and spits, zenzenzenzen, a motorcycle throttle; the bend of a whammy bar on an overdriven electric guitar breaks into a frenzied drumbeat. The deep vibrations stir him to move. He drains the last drops of bourbon from his glass and approaches the bar. Where once there was a redheaded Irish bartender, there is now a man-sized lizard with blood red skin wiping the counter surface with a stained white rag. Dobby is accustomed to this. For the last couple of years, all bartenders become this beast after a few rounds. And the old men at the bar become large apes, grizzle chimpanzees and brash orangutans grunting and screeching at each other in their various primate languages.
Just as one should beware the advice of Monkeymen, generally, when the denizens of a bar spontaneously morph into beasties, one should interpret this as a sign that it’s time to hail a cab for home.
This book, expressing “a debt of appreciation to therapy and 12-step programs” in a note at the start, certainly has a therapeutic feel, focused, as it is, on the working out of very personal (reptilian) demons. But, in the end, there’s little sense of enlightenment here save that what starts drunk ends sober, still pondering the relations between “realities” so idiosyncratically personal many readers may find it hard to empathize, or follow.