PHOTO: COURTESY OF RIVERHEAD HARDCOVER.
Hello again, friends, readers, and people who are quickly becoming very bummed out by this story. We're back for another round of the R29 Book Club with chapters five through eight of Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise (the first two posts can be found here and here; stay tuned next Friday for chapters nine through 13).
So, this entire narrative so far has been a rabbit-hole dive into the psyche of our troubled (in a very normal, elitist way) protagonist Clement Olin. But, in this section, we start to get a true sense of just how deep his sense of isolation is — as evidenced by his odd, childlike desperation for acknowledgment from the antipathetic Earwig. When Olin tries to smile away Earwig's rudeness, he shows a telling sign of self-doubt and undermines his own superiority complex when he hopes to see that smile returned from the very person he seems to hate so much.
That internal struggle is one of the more normalizing, relatable moments in the book. It's also a reminder of why we're here: It's a spiritual retreat, and presumably, the people who seek out a spiritual retreat are aware of certain inner (and sometimes outer) demons and looking to overcome them. It was a relief, then, to finally hear some of the more abstract writing that made Mathiessen famous in many of his other works. This paragraph was, I thought, particularly striking:
"During meditation, breathing mindfully moment after moment, his awareness opens and dissolves into snow light. But out of nowhere, just as he had feared, the platform's emptiness is filled by a multitude of faceless shapes milling close around him. He feels the vibration of their footfalls."
I'm very prone to roll my eyes at "mindfulness" talk, not because I doubt its actual benefits, but because the way it's discussed can feel very phony. But, this prose is both immersive and descriptive. As the retreat, and thus the plot (though that word seems inapt for this story), gets underway, it's hard not to anticipate and almost rush — dare I say skim? — toward a moment of climax, either a violent clash, a hard-earned kumbaya, or (most likely) both. Yet, the story insists on taking its time. It's not that it drags on; rather, it seems to lilt or sway like a sailboat on a lake on a calm day. There's just enough wind to smooth out any wrinkles in the sheet and create a small wake, never any white froth. Given that, though, I have to wonder about the long sections on Olin's parentage. They remind me a bit of the party scenes in In Search of Lost Time (apologies if that's a pretentious thing to bring up here). The detailed family histories seem to come out of nowhere, and while they're not irrelevant and certainly provide a lot of color for the character, sometimes their prominence is hard to reconcile with the rest of the tale. For those reading, do you agree?