A brief but emotionally weighty collection of imaginary dialogues inspired by the work of American psychotherapist Ira Progoff, who, in the 1960s, popularized therapeutic journaling as a means of self-discovery.
Many readers may have a vague notion of what a Socratic dialogue is: a prose literary form in which characters discuss moral and philosophical problems. French philosopher Denis Diderot and writers Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and Aldous Huxley all produced fine examples that predate the self-help industry’s generally dolorous take, and there have been stellar contemporary versions by Canadian poet Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, 1998) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning A.R. Gurney (Love Letters, 1989). In this intensely personal collection, Mulhern (Seventeen Steps to the Edge, 2011) stages a series of chats with various archetypes (Death, his Future Self, Time) about metaphysics and overcrowding; with possibly real people (Abe the Auschwitz survivor, two suicide hotline callers) who discuss love, regret, hope, despair and other topics; and with some tricky personifications (Addiction, Obsession/Compulsion, Silence) who ponder pretty much everything else. The author sets all of these dialogues in the void name-checked in the book’s title; “In fact,” he clarifies in the introduction, “it seems to me that the abyss is that which lies just beyond the borders of our sanity, our longings and the familiar illusions we think of as our lives.” While such Twilight Zone–inflected intellectual musings may not appeal to some readers, the author’s charming sincerity and surprisingly light touch keep it all from becoming impenetrable, whether his characters discuss the Holocaust or the intricate origins of a man’s foot fetish. The best debates offer up truths with a dash of sly, vaudeville humor, like a mashup of Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett as declaimed by Abbott and Costello; for example, witness the author’s double act with Time: “SM: Is there time after we die? / Time: There is no such thing before you die. Everything exists at once. / SM: What happens to all the atoms in the universe when it finally dies? / Time: They apply for unemployment. / SM: Seriously?”
Recommended for adventurous book clubs and lovers of reader’s theater.