More moral message than story

by
24 July 2007

Naomi Starkey finds fiction, here, doesn’thelp the argument

The Extinction of Desire: A tale of enlightenment
Michael Boylan

Blackwell £14.99 (978-1-4051-4850-4)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

PUBLISHED as part of the Blackwell Public Philosophy series, which is designed to nurture “engaging and thoughtful discussion of topics of broad public importance”, this book examines the question of what is truly valuable in life. But, rather than using abstract argument, it chooses to do this by means of a story.

A high-school teacher, Michael O’Meara, inherits $1 million, trans-forming his personal circumstances, but also bringing trouble because of the ensuing choices and responsibilities. Interwoven with the narrative are the tenets of Buddhism; and the overall aim is to show the hero reaching a state of content, or enlightenment, as he wins the heart of the woman he loves, and realises that material riches did not deliver all that they had promised.

Warmly endorsed by, among others, Mark Noll (author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), the book clearly intends to stimulate debate and raise awareness of various profound issues; yet its use of fiction to deliver an important message just does not satisfy, in the end.

The title and cover (a 19th- century Japanese painting) are a mismatch with the content, which begins in lively, demotic style with the misadventures of the hapless O’Meara, surrounded by low-life and semi-low-life characters all bent on exploiting his new wealth. As the story progresses, however, the char-acters become increasingly one-dimensional, and the important message becomes more intrusive.

Stories should be good tales in their own right — as the parables of Jesus were, for example — the deeper meaning being hidden below the surface for those who want to find it. A book that explored a similar theme (“be careful what you wish for”) was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which shares with Boylan’s book a diffident, somewhat anxious narrative voice, but offers a wonderfully dramatic, horribly plausible series of events that linger in the mind and stimulate thought and discussion for a long time afterwards.

Naomi Starkey edits the BRF’s adult book list, New Daylight Bible notes, and Quiet Spaces journal.

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