In his third novel, Lying Awake
, Mark Salzman breaks the primary rule of fiction by creating a protagonist who has virtually no external life. Sister John of the Cross, a middle-aged nun cloistered in a Carmelite monastery in contemporary Los Angeles, languished for years in a spiritual drought--"her prayers empty and her soul dry"--until she suddenly received God's grace in the form of intense mystical visions. So vivid have her visions become that they burn a kind of afterglow into her mind that she transcribes into crystalline (and highly popular) verse. The only downside is that they are accompanied by excruciating headaches that cause her to black out.
The story hinges on Sister John's discovery that her visions are in fact the result of mild epileptic seizures. As she learns from her neurologist, temporal-lobe epilepsy commonly brings about "hypergraphia (voluminous writing), an intensification but also a narrowing of emotional response, and an obsessive interest in religion and philosophy." Dostoyevsky, the classic victim of this condition, wrote of his raptures: "There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of eternal harmony.... If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear." An exact description of Sister John's visions. The question she now faces is whether to go ahead with surgery--and risk obliterating both her spiritual life and her art--or cling to a state of grace that may actually be a delusion ignited by an electrochemical imbalance.
Using a very limited palette, Mark Salzman creates an austere masterpiece. The real miracle of Lying Awake is that it works perfectly on every level: on the realistic surface, it captures the petty squabbles and tiny bursts of radiance of life in a Los Angeles monastery; deeper down it probes the nature of spiritual illumination and the meaning and purpose of prayer in everyday life; and, at bottom, there lurks a profound meditation on the mystery of artistic inspiration. Salzman made a highly auspicious debut in 1986 with Iron and Silk, a memoir of his years in China, and since then he has dramatically changed key in every book--most recently from the absurdist American suburban chronicle of Lost in Place to the artistic-crisis-cum-courtroom-drama novel The Soloist. Lying Awake is quieter and more sober than Salzman's previous narratives, but it is also more accomplished, more thought-provoking, and more highly crafted. --David Laskin
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"A lean, seemingly effortless tour de force...a perfect little novel."
--The New Yorker
"Spare, luminous...Salzman makes this cloistered society not only believable, but also compelling."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"A singularly rich and abundant work.... [Salzman has an] ability to convey spiritual states with a lambent clarity."
--The New York Times Book Review
"A satisfying and evocative questioning of faith and art."
"Mark Salzman is...a poet, capturing in the pages of Lying Awake
, his shining novel about devotion and doubt, a mysticism that reaches back in time to an older tradition, yet dwells easily in the present."
--Los Angeles Times
"A gentle story.... Graceful, lucid and enjoyable."
"Elegant.... Salzman's depiction of Sister John's conflict, convent life and this society of devoted women is a marvelous accomplishment."
--The Seattle Times
showcases an almost ethereal talent, one that can handle complex ideas with a touch lighter than air."
--New York Post