By Anupama Bhattacharya
There’s a new genre on the bestsellers’ list. A genre that goes by the name of New Age fiction and claims to explore unknown realms and possibilities. But what is this latest avatar of the word all about?
Perhaps it’s time for evolution. T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘Only through words can the Word be known.’ Today, words, in their New Age avatar, might be closer to the primal sound than ever before.
You go down the rabbit hole, into the world of the Cheshire Cat, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Reluctant Messiah, The Alchemist. You feel the angst of The Trial, the pathos of Metamorphosis, the surreal phantasms of Everville. It is, after all, the avant garde world of mind games—where imagination transcends the mundane.
Most likely, you’d call it New Age fiction. Though the genre itself is rather vague at the moment—you can stretch it to include other realms, different states of being, space/time continuums, spirit entities, supraconsciousness and such phenomena—what is obvious is a desire to explore the higher reaches of human potential. It’s almost there, the gift of wings, words that rend asunder the mask of reality and touch the core of that unknown, unsought ecstasy. You reach out, the elastic universe stretches to its brink. Then it snaps. So close, yet so far away. Is that what New Age fiction is all about?
Besides, since the term ‘New Age‘ (with its present connotation) was first articulated in 1971, does it exclude all that was written prior to it?
‘New Age fiction is a meeting point of science fiction and mythical reality,’ says Indian novelist Namita Gokhale, ‘which expresses a belief that a collaborated spiritual evolution outside of religion is not only possible, but likely.’
Which suits the likes of Richard Bach and James Redfield, acknowledged New Age authors, just fine. After all, Bach‘s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the potential Everyman. And Redfield‘s The Celestine Prophecy is definitely about collective evolution. But how do you categorize authors as diverse as Herman Hesse, Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams or Kahlil Gibran?
For Adams, the universe is like a conjurer’s hat. It can spring surprises any moment. And the only way to preserve your sanity is to consult his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not to mention the fact that God’s ultimate message to mankind is: ‘Sorry for the inconvenience.’ Pick up any of Adam’s books—So Long and Thanks For All the Fish, Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything—and you are bound to perceive a totally iconoclastic, rib-tickling, yet fantastic picture of a world that has method in its madness. Equally captivating is Indian author Vikram Chandra‘s Red Earth and Pouring Rain where Sanjay, the all-seeing narrator from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, incarnates as a pesky monkey and weaves his tales of fantasy. Metaphysical in their own way, right?
Or take Tom Robbins. If a sock, a can of beans and a spoon can discuss the meaning of existence, or a belly-dancer reveal the mysteries of the universe—as in his Skinny Legs and All—then wouldn’t you call it a statement on the inherent divinity of all? The comic-cosmic author himself has this to say: ‘A longing for the Divine is intrinsic in Homo Sapiens,’ adding: ‘For all we know, it is innate in squirrels, dandelions and diamond rings as well.’ Blasphemous? Cheeky? Or simply the obvious?
‘Too many people mistake misery for art,’ explains Robbins. ‘You don’t have to be somber to be serious. I don’t think I am pollyannaish; my characters suffer, they die. They experience pain, alienation, frustration. But, my heroes and heroines, the characters with whom I identify, insist on joy in spite of everything.
‘The most striking feature of New Age fiction is its unbridled optimism,’ agrees Anu Majumdar, Indian author of Parallel Journeys. In fact, the spirit of this age is the intrinsic joy and abundance that is already there.
FEEL GOOD READS
As in Richard Bach. When you first discover Bach, it hits you like a revelation. Ahm Brahmasmi (I am All, the basic philosophy of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita) was never so simple.
‘You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now,’ Bach writes in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the story of a bird who dares to break conventions of his ilk and rises up to unlimited perfection. ‘Each of us is in truth an… unlimited idea of freedom… Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself… Break the chain of your thought, and you break the chains of your body, too…’
Incidentally, Jonathan… was written in 1970, a little before the word ‘New Age‘ officially came into being. So were Kahlil Gibran‘s The Prophet and Antoine de Saint-Exupery‘s The Little Prince—which only goes to prove that a literary genre cannot be time-specific.
But do all New Age fiction provide a glimpse into a higher reality or existence?
Bach himself refuses to draw a line between reality and mysticism. ‘Which parts of the books are real and which are artistic license?’ writes Bach in his official website. ‘Is the feeling real, the one you have when you lie back in summer grass and watch the night sky? Is a dream real, that touches and changes your daytime?’ Poetic, and equally elusive.
Excess of anything, however, can be cloying. By the time I reached Bridge Across Forever and One, Bach‘s next two books, the magic had petered out—or perhaps an overdose of the same philosophy had lost its novelty.
That, actually, has been the trouble with many New Age novels, especially some recent ones. Instead of posing questions about the nature of existence, most of them seem to dole out answers by the dozen. Take James Redfield‘s The Celestine Prophecy. It is the archetypal New Age fiction where the focus is totally on a feel-good world-view. Here, an ancient Peruvian manuscript, containing the meaning of life, that even the government is desperately looking for, keeps popping out of the blue—in numerical order.
Suspension of belief has never been the drawback of fiction. What does irk is the not-so-subtle politically correct ideologies that you have already read in New Age nonfiction.
‘In New Age fiction, the focus is on conveying the message. The story line is secondary,’ justifies Vikas Malkani, an emerging New Age guru based in New Delhi, India. ‘New Age fiction is like water, spiritual fiction like wine. Everybody needs water. Only connoisseurs go for wine.’
Which, actually, has become an excuse for poor writing. Take The Sai Prophecy by Barbara Gardner where, during the late 19th century, a Jew comes across a ring inscribed with ‘Shirdi, Sathya, Prema’. Immediately, he figures out that Shirdi is a place near Bombay, in India. You are not supposed to ask how a Jew in Tasmania in the 19th century is aware of a little-known village in India.
But why so much of bad fiction? Explains Makarand Paranjape, professor of English literature based in New Delhi, India: ‘New Age is about simplifying wisdom so that it is accessible to every one. Trouble is, there is no democracy about wisdom. It dawns in its own capricious fashion as and when it pleases. In the bargain, New Age runs the risk of trivializing serious issues.’
Anu Majumdar feels that many New Age books are too fast paced. ‘The protagonist tries to change the world, often by running around time/space/psychology, getting hurtled into instant experiences and changes,’ she says. ‘You sometimes miss the sense of a sustained impact of time upon the spirit, the real endurance needed, the quiet heroism of bearing with the tiniest detail of everyday existence.’
But Malkani is hopeful. ‘Like any movement, there would be innumerable people claiming to be New Age authors. So, there is bound to be a lot of bad writing around. But that wouldn’t stop the masterpieces.’
PARABLES IN PERSPECTIVE
There has also been a spate of management or personal growth books guised as fiction. Take Mark Fisher‘s The Millionaire’s Secret. Here, a series of tales illustrate how you can achieve your goals. Or D. Trinidad Hunt‘s The Operator’s Manual For Planet Earth where common New Age philosophies are explained through a fantastic tale of human bodies as space suits. The story element here is minimal. In fact, most of these books read more like parables.
Then there are New Age books where fact masquerades as fiction and vice-versa. While Marlo Morgan wrote Mutant Message Down Under as a real life story, its publisher labeled it fiction to escape the wrath of Aborigine leaders who questioned the authenticity of the white author’s account.
At this point, you may dare say that Castaneda‘s fascinating series of books about his apprenticeship and mastery of sorcery are too well crafted to be anything but fiction. That shouldn’t, however, detract you from the soundness of the world he describes.
Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of bestsellers such as The Alchemist and The Valkyries, presents the other face of New Age fiction—rediscovery of the old where there is no simple demarcation between black and white. Here, the focus shifts from a feel-good world-view to an exploration of the human psyche.
Hailing from a powerful tradition of magic, Coelho‘s books are a treat to read-not only for their intensity, but also for the elemental magic he weaves through the lines. The deserts come alive in their ruthless power and stark, moonlit beauty. Storms evoke the primordial rage of creation.
The message is typically New Age. ‘When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,’ King Melchizedek tells Santiago, a shepherd boy, in The Alchemist. But Coelho’s universe is not the rose-tinted vision of most New Age beliefs. Here, the good and the bad exist side by side. And even a powerful magus carries the burden of his human weaknesses and caprices.
In US-based Indian New Age guru Deepak Chopra ‘s Lords of Light, evil is not the absence of good but the excess of it. Ishmail, the villain of the story, is described as ‘a saint so enraged with the evil of the world that he’s about to explode with it’. So he creates a utopia, the archetypal Eden. But here, black merges into white without quite turning gray. Result? An upside down morality where things don’t fall into the preconceived patterns anymore.
‘New Age fiction should present a new notion of spirituality,’ argues Paranjape. And no one has mastered this art with as much élan as Chopra. Unlike Bach, Redfield or most other leading lights of the genre, Chopra doesn’t take the accepted mores at face value. Be it the Arthurian legend explored in his The Return of Merlin or the self-proclaimed messiah of his Lords of Light, he not only questions the essential nature of man, but also the nature of existence per se.
One other novelist who banks on the strength of a tradition and ridicules the quick fixes of many New Age techniques is Priscilla Cogan, known for her best-selling Winona’s Web. The Gaia theme—of earth as a living entity—appears here as part of the Native American tradition. Winona, a Native American woman, tells Meggie, a psychotherapist: ‘There are whites who build sweat-lodges and use them as saunas, go into them without modesty, smoke dope in them, call themselves instant shamans, and go around giving instant workshops on finding medicine power. The white people don’t want to take the time to learn what can only be learned over a long, slow time.’ For her, spirituality can only be nurtured with patience and perseverance.
Spirituality is not new to New Age fiction. But there’s a catch. ‘Any novel with a spiritual content is not necessarily New Age,’ explains Paranjape. ‘Take Raja Rao, France-based Indian author. Every book of his is metaphysical. But his On the Ganga Ghat or The Cat and Shakespeare are more New Age than say, The Serpent and the Rope, which is much more traditional.’ Even books such as Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, Leo Tolstoy‘s Resurrection and Rabindranath Tagore‘s Dakghar fits more in the spiritual category than with New Age.
What then distinguishes New Age fiction from spiritual fiction? The contrast, more often, is between taking spirituality for granted and exploring spirituality.
Take Herman Hesse. The German Nobel laureate’s concept of the world as a gigantic egg out of which a new world is waiting to hatch, as in his Demian, is definitely New Age in perspective. The emphasis, once again, is on putting forward an unconventional theory. Even Aldous Huxley‘s Island, which portrays a utopia, is in that sense, New Age. Paranjape, however, has his reservations. ‘Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game or Steppenwolf are too esoteric for New Age,’ he says.
This time, however, we might be treading on thin ice. By no means can Deepak Chopra’s books be termed simplistic. Nor would Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a classic New Age novel that attempts a grand synthesis between Zen (the romantic tradition and humanism) and motorcycle maintenance (the classical tradition and rationality). Even Jostein Gaarder‘s Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, once again accepted New Age classics, look at complex metaphysical issues from a different perspective. In fact, Sophie’s World is often called ‘philosophy’s answer to Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time‘.
Most literary genres—be they sci-fi, horror, spiritual fiction or detective fiction—produce a mix of both simplistic and serious writings. New Age cannot be an exception. Consider this:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.’
—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll
Nonsense? Think again! In his timeless classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll creates a tapestry of apparently nonsensical words that seem to express a metaphysics of their own. Here, facts turn upside down, dance a little jig and make you wonder if anything actually makes sense. It is all relative: the queen who screams in the anticipation of a pin-prick, the mirror world where you can only go forward by going backward, the rabbit hole that takes you deeper into a convoluted universe.
‘These books are almost mathematical in nature,’ says Paranjape. In fact, Mimsy Were the Borogroves…, a sci-fi short story, explores this mathematical foundation of Caroll‘s works through two children who, not yet conditioned by conventional space-time perceptions, figure out the meaning of the verse and stroll into a different dimension. Talking of science fiction, much of this genre, growing popular among a clique, can easily be bracketed with New Age. Take Arthur C. Clarke‘s Childhood’s End. It is about the beauty and terror of breaking free.
The story begins, like the movie Independence Day, with a fleet of UFOs appearing over earth. But here, they carry aliens who take humanity into a new era of peace and prosperity. In return, they demand custody of mankind’s children, who can then be nurtured to take the next step in human evolution.
‘And at the end of the other path? There lay the Overmind… bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba. Potentially infinite, beyond mortality, how long had it been absorbing race after race as it spread across the stars? Did it too have desires, did it have goals it sensed dimly yet might never attain? Now it had drawn into its being all that the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment.’
—Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Another example is Frank ‘Dune‘ Herbert and Bill Ransom‘s The Jesus Incident, where a spaceship claiming to be God demands an answer to the question: what is the best way to worship God? The reply comes from Kerro Panille, a Christ-like figure. If we are the creators of our reality, then, before we worship any external God, shouldn’t we worship that which is within us? Examples of marriage between New Age and sci-fi abound: Isaac Asimov‘s The Last Question, John Varley‘s Millennium, John Wyndham‘s Choky.
And why ignore horror stories? In Clive Barker‘s Everville, strange creatures come out of Quiddity—the dream sea—into the metacosm, our world. It’s all about magic, power and faith—and has as much to do with horror as Deepak Chopra‘s Lords of Light. Or consider William Peter Blatty, known for Exorcist, whose Legion, the story of a creation born out of love, transcends horror in its simplicity. Here, evil is but a manifestation of love. If this is not New Age fiction, what is?
From spirituality to sci-fi to horror, the New Age fiction genre seems to embrace all. In fact, it is best to define it as a genre that explores new possibilities and concepts. Then, it can be as vast and varied as the human mind itself, and difficult to pigeonhole.
Even the effects vary. If Bach takes you on a flight of ecstasy, Hesse forces you to look at the world from a fresh perspective. If Adams‘s books are a giggle at creation then Coelho brings out the intensity and the turmoil of a seeker’s journey.
The scope is stunning. Metaphysics rubs shoulder with nuclear science and Vedic wisdom is expressed in psychedelic visions. And rarely does it jar. Clarke spices up his science with metaphysical insight, Chopra adds color to his philosophy with the pace of a thriller. The amalgamation is enriching. In that sense, New Age fiction is not so much a genre as an irrepressible urge to go beyond human limitation. Even if it means peeping through the looking glass, into a time-warped dimension, where the impossible is the only way of life.
Fiction, did you say?
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