Shame and Wonder. David Searcy.

Searcy, David. Shame and Wonder. Random House New York, 2014. NF/F; 09/16

Here we have essays by an older American author who seems pleased to repeat one way or another that life’s simple events have a spiritual dimension. Taking that to be the theme, and it nearly always is, there is a repetitiveness here so that, even though some of the writing is lovely and captivating and that theme is kind of nice, eventually I had to concede okay. Enough. I get it.

The essays contain whimsical reflection on life experiences, which although it’s clear they really happened, border on fictional. Searcy reaches with great sincerity for an aesthetic in his writing that will produce in his reader the spiritual experience he implies he’s had himself. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Part of the problem when it doesn’t work is that the figures of speech can be syntactically or pictorially incoherent. Of his old home town, now changed, he says

Our lives had sort of sifted out, or had been sectioned, cut across at a certain level and exposed to the air. And everything was sensitive, reluctant to be touched.

Well if you truncate a life at some point, I guess this would expose it to I don’t know drying out or something in the air, and it might make that cut-off surface tender or sensitive. But how does “sifted out” fit in here?

There is a much more successfully painted picture in The Hudson River School, where the author and his wife go out to a ranch in Texas to meet the father of his dental hygienist. This man has finally succeeded in executing a wily old coyote who has killed numerous lambs, by putting a sound system out in a field at night and playing a recording of his baby daughter crying. He waits in hiding, the animal takes the bait, and the rancher guns him down from behind his pickup truck. We are then told about isolated women in ranch houses who hear running water outside, go out to investigate, and are abducted. That convincing creepiness got my imagination’s attention.

Consistent I imagine with his generation (which I think is about the same as mine), David Searcy is preoccupied with perception. You look at something and have an experience, and then ask yourself what that’s all about. What does it mean that in seeing something you can have an experience that goes way beyond just what you see. It’s the art gallery experience, really, but to have it repeatedly described doesn’t necessarily reproduce the experience.

Again, sometimes his figures of speech click and I feel his interest:

Then on to the Blue Mosque. No ambivalence here. Maintained in its original serenity. One’s presence does not echo. There is carpet and a single uncomplicated thought to fill the complicated, ornamental space the way time occupies the clockwork.

This may depend on where you’ve been; I’ve been inside that building and although it was a long time ago there was certainly something there for me and that something was approximately as substantial as the idea of time. I also remember reading, really many years ago, about the neolithic town of Catal Huyuk in modern Turkey, which Searcy visits and appreciates. I went back to my paper version of Thomson’s The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light where much is made of that very old human settlement and its significance. Again, Searcy’s reflection clicked for me, but only because my own experience somehow coincided with his.

Finally though, even when the writing brought sentiment to life, it was a consistent enough sentiment that I started looking for something else which wasn’t there. I didn’t finish the last few essays. 6.9/8.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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