Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Short History of Richard Kline, by Amanda Lohrey

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Amanda Lohrey’s new novel A Short History of Richard Kline stares modern society’s existential crisis in the eye by examining a middle aged man’s quest for spiritual and personal enlightenment.

There’s a moment in Amada Lohrey’s brilliant new novel A Short History of Richard Kline where an Indian restaurant owner argues with a practitioner of Eastern mysticism. “But you come from an advanced country and then you decide to go backwards. What is the point of that?” he chides him. In many ways this exemplifies the book’s central tension. In our affluent, consumer society, do we even know what we really want? We are all materially wealthy, but spiritually poor. Science and progress has led to high living standards, yet there is an emptiness that niggles.

A Short History of Richard Kline is presented for the most part as a fictional autobiography, taking the reader up to Richard Kline’s early forties. Lohrey chooses an interesting narrative device. The first chapter is written in the first person, the next chapter in the third person. The rest of the story’s chapters then alternate between first and third persons. So absorbed do you become in Rick Kline’s story that you barely notice this flip-flopping.

Rick is a computer programmer who is doing quite well for himself. He’s your fairly typical, affluent middle-class Australian. He gets to travel for his job, has relationships with interesting women and doesn’t seem to have to struggle for much in life. And yet he suffers from a sense of ennui and dissatisfaction with life. He knows there is something missing. He gets angry and frustrated, but knows there’s no real reason why he should. At first he starts to see a therapist, but gets annoyed when the talk in later sessions drifts into astrology. However, he has to admit on reflection that he did enjoy sharing his problems with someone. When his employer offers him free meditation classes to deal with his stressful job, he takes up the offer, despite his mild cynicism. Discovering that the meditation helps him, he explores further, and through a series of events he finds himself compelled to seek out a spiritual teacher and guru. All of this drives his wife, Zoe, slightly mad, but at the risk of everyone thinking Rick has lost his mind and become a monk, he continues on with his spiritual quest. 

It’s a brave writer indeed that dares to explore such territory. It’s still fairly common to think of meditation and Eastern mysticism as, at best, a fey hippie indulgence and at worst, one step away from joining a cult. Lohrey skillfully draws you into one man’s spiritual crisis in a way that is authentic and real. She walks this tightrope with great aplomb, balancing middle class Australian life with profound and emotionally difficult spiritual investigations. The tone is controlled and the main character believable. No doubt the reason for this success is that Amanda Lohrey really believes in her subject matter and has been willing to put herself on the line to express it.

A Short History of Richard Kline stares modern society’s existential crisis in the eye, trying to find answers. While the novel doesn’t solve that problem, it gives much food for thought. It’s a novel that will follow you around for days after you have read it.

A Short History of Richard Kline, by Amanda Lohrey. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863957182 RRP: $29.99

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