“Sex is forbidden,” the title of and first words in Tim Park’s latest novel, is one of the many tenets at the Buddhist meditation center where Beth Marriot has taken refuge. She is young, provocative, rebellious, evading tragedy and making decisions—about life, two men, one woman, college and her career as a singer. Though the story takes place over a 10-day retreat, Beth arrived at the center 10 months earlier and never left. She is now a server, a resident who works in the kitchen, catering to those either less accustomed to meditation and self-deprivation or back for a refresher course.
Beth is practiced in abstemiousness and insolence, which creates an alluring conflict, which wars (mostly) internally, manifesting in profound maxims; stubborn, far less profound, human truths; and her sneaking in and out of the men’s dormitory. She keeps going back to read a diary she found in one of the rooms, despite no reading allowed, and to find the man who wrote it. (No talking permitted. No fraternizing with the opposite sex.) The relationship is strangely intimate before they even meet. And as the book progresses, Beth’s transgressions become increasingly strange.
There is a cadence to the chaos, which is quietly peripatetic on a gated property, and is at its loudest when Beth is in the lotus position. “I think what was interesting to me is that the action is, theoretically, extremely static, of people who are closed in this small space basically doing nothing,” says Parks. “But, actually, the mental activity is extremely rapid and ferocious, as mental activity tends to be. So there was a strong contrast there, which I enjoyed. I’ve done this in different ways in different books.”
A college course in Parks’ writing would require at least two semesters, since he’s written more than 20 books. His June 2013 book is a memoir, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo. The travelogue is a detailed portrait of life in Italy, the British author’s longtime adopted home. It takes place over an extended amount of time, covers expansive landscapes and captures the din of daily life.
Sex Is Forbidden, however, is about physical, geographic and sexual stasis. This story’s Amtrak-like momentum is due to Beth’s inclination toward mentally sprinting in place, while seeking inner peace through meditation. Parks’ book immediately before this one, Teach Us to Sit Still, is a memoir about his struggle to do the same.
Each book informs another for both the reader and the writer, explains Parks. “What interested me most of all about writing this was in Teach Us to Sit Still I’d kind of begun to float the idea that there was something actually a little bit perverse about the way novels reinforced self-narratives and reinforced the idea that I’m a character, as it were,” says Parks. “So what I was trying to do in Sex Is Forbidden was look at that whole issue again but more skeptically, almost attacking the position I’d taken in the memoir.” He achieves this through an unpredictable outcome (an elaboration would require a spoiler), and a pointed, not-so-subtle look at writing in a place that doesn’t allow it, through Geoff, the diarist.
Geoff owns a failing publishing company. “Geoff has spent all his time publishing strong self-narratives and dealing with people, writers, with huge egos,” says Parks. “He ultimately supports the idea that narrative is something that has to be put aside.” The reason for Geoff’s newfound conviction (and Parks’ continued interest in the subject) is this discovery of a particularly Eastern approach to anguish, literary and otherwise.
“Perhaps the most important part of my contact with that distant ethos” of Buddhism is its “complete disinterest in suffering as a way of creating identity,” Parks says. “It’s extraordinary when you first come in contact with Buddhism to find a culture that is really distant” from the Western identification with despair.
“Books are about suffering, and people want to read about suffering because they’re prospecting for misery,” says Geoff. In most respects, Sex Is Forbidden reads as comical, literary and lightly didactic. However, the characters’ mostly mundane tribulations are clearly a vehicle for Parks’ ideas.
“The whole approach to the way novels play with suffering is certainly not an ideal to me in any sense,” says Parks. “You read a book like Angela’s Ashes and it’s almost laughable how evident the attempt to move us with this process of pain is.”
For Parks, the topic is more heady than grave, though; throughout Sex Is Forbidden are phrases that make it clear that Parks doesn’t mind provoking fellow writers. For example: “Writers write because they don’t have the courage to live.” Parks is happy to expound: “I’ve been reading a lot of Faulkner recently and it’s quite evident that Faulkner always misrepresents courageous behavior as dangerous and self-defeating, because he himself personally was unable to make the courageous decisions that he wanted to make,” Parks says.
“I don’t always have a very high opinion of books,” Parks adds. “I am totally fascinated by them, and am very excited by them, but I don't see them as necessarily good or noble, just another manifestation of the human psyche. Maybe the only thing that’s good for us is that we’re willing to come to them, and be interested in them, and as it were try to figure out where they’re coming from and where they're going. But let’s not imagine that certain books—even some of the most famous—are actually positive influences on people’s lives. That will depend very much on how you read them. There’s just so much that’s infantile and dangerous in Faulkner’s writing. I wouldn't recommend it.”
This is not to say he doesn’t consider certain books noble—they’re just few and far between and do not include anything by Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy (for similar reasons he doesn’t like Faulkner). “I have very deep suspicions about the way these people write, very deep suspicions,” he says. “On the other hand I get totally hooked on texts that are more obsessed with things like good and evil, texts like Dostoevsky.”
Though Parks does not profess a stylistic comparison with the Russian novelist, he notes that Beth and Geoff share a preoccupation with good and evil. Both want to consider themselves good; both worry that their actions and urges, sexually and otherwise, have irreparably damaged others and will continue to do so. It is why they came to the meditation center.
“I guess the truth is that in the West we start going to these things when we're in trouble, and we have all kinds of drama to work out,” says Parks. The one thing that has taken Parks’ concentration, he says, is “managing to eliminate all the sense of drama, just to make it the most completely ordinary thing in the world. And the more you manage to do that, the more you realize how stupidly dramatic you were in the beginning.”
Parks’ musings call even more attention to his characters’ personal dramas, which crescendo through much of Sex Is Forbidden. “The fact is that it’s very difficult to imagine a novel that actually works in any other way [than with drama],” says Parks. “It draws the reader’s attention to the prose, and I go back to it. At the moment, I don’t really know where else to go.”
Tobin Levy is a writer living in Austin.