Echolia,  watercolor by Henry Miller, 1943
Echolia, watercolor by Henry Miller, 1943

As an online-exclusive companion to our symposium on “the point of art,” which can found in the December/January issue, now available in print, we present this review of Martin Nakell’s Monk.

“Art,” Henry Miller once wrote, “is only a means to life.” Personally, I’ve always thought of art as the excrement of the soul, that which the soul leaves behind as it does its soul thing. What is that soul thing? I don’t know. If I did, I couldn’t tell you in words, because words—the ultimate artifact of human culture—are only the chemtrail of the soul’s flight to soul-thingness.

I don’t usually think about this stuff, because (1) thoughts are words waiting to be fully digested and often give me gas, and (2) I don’t know shit about shit.

But I read. And when I read Monk, by Martin Nakell, shit got real.

Is it fiction or non-fiction? Is it about him, a guy writing stuff down in his bedroom or in a coffee shop in a major American city, or is it the rambling notes of an itinerant monk somewhere in Asia at some time between Buddha and Armageddon? Or is the better question, as he asks in the book, “Where does the soul live in the house of a man who has no house?” 

Our Monk is filled with questions, and the answers are only more questions, so we walk a mandala through the particulars of each chapter as he goes from monastery to monastery trying to find—what, exactly? Nirvana? A girlfriend? A subject for a book about a Monk who searches for what, exactly?

As one of the Master Monks tells him early on, “Words are a great sea. Be careful you don’t drown in the sea you swim in.” But drown our Monk does. He drowns in snow, in music, in poetry, in Buddha, in Nirvana, in dreams, in breath, in sex, in his own juiced emotions. He’s a monk with a cock. He’s a monk with sense of humor and a sense of irony. He’s a monk who gets angry. “I’m angry at the ugliness of this world. At the suffering I see all around me… At lives wasted in wanting and never having. I’m angry with ignorance, with failure. I’m angry at the hatred the jealousy the ambition all around me even here in this monastery. I’m angry.” He’s a monk who gets frightened by his ego and confused by his teachers and frustrated at his inability to understand anything at all. He continually peels back the pages of words in his mind, only to reveal more onion. Language both delights and fails him. “Who is this language that I swim in?” he asks while drowning in words. 

But he’s always so close to transcendent beauty. Maybe at the next monastery. Maybe with the next teacher. Maybe while scratching his head trying to answer the next unanswerable question. Maybe. Our Monk is so invested in making this impossible discovery that words have to be cobbled together to approximate his feelings. “Beautifulhorrible. Wonderfulbeautiful. Unbearablelighthearted. Lightheartedpainful. Dullextraordinary. Darkilluminating.”

It’s an exhaustingexhilarating journey through soul-adjacent neighborhoods. Like Calvino’s Marco Polo wonderingwandering through the invisible cities of the imaginary Mongol empire, our Monk discovers that every amazing place he goes is only and always a gateway to the next amazing place.

In the chapter called “Scrolls,” our Monk meets not another Master Monk, but Aoca Vö: an old man, a Borgesian blind librarian, a keeper of scrolls. He can’t see to read them, but he doesn’t have to. He can touch the Scroll of Jungles and feel the heat of a tropical forest, smell the moist earth, hear the caw of birds and the hum of insects. When he gives our Monk the Scroll of Isotopes, he says he wouldn’t understand the words if he read them because he’d have to “wait years for the invention of more advanced tools of investigation, all of them extending our five senses into invisible realms.” But our Monk could simply touch the scroll. When he does, a quantum world opens up that is simply too much for his humble monk mind. It freaks him out. “I don’t like all these mysteries,” he cries. So, naturally, Aoca Vö presents him with the Scroll of the End of the Discovery of Mystery. Luckily, our Monk refuses to touch it. The journey continues.

He doesn’t refuse Aoca Vö’s daughter, however. In fact, he falls in love with her. They go through a simulacrum of a marriage, even taking each other for granted before he goes off to work in the morning. As a wandering monk, though, his work leads him away from her forever.

He meets his soulmate—perhaps—on the banks of a raging river. She is that rare thing, a female monk, peripatetic like himself. For a while, they can “forget Bodhisattvas” and find bliss in each other’s smiles and other body parts, firmly grounded in the material world. Love, though, is the greatest tempter on the roadside of the Spiritual Journey. It starts with mutual navel-gazing, but all those not-so-lovely traits—miscommunication, doubt, jealousy, shame, gossip, ego—eventually come crashing through their arboreal grotto. The lovers soon come to the bittersweet realization that monks can’t forget Bodhisattvas for very long.

After countless monasteries and trials at the feet of dozens of perplexing masters with increasingly funky and unpronounceable names, our Monk meets Imbalance Monk, a klutz who, much to his consternation, is always falling down. Is the universe balanced or not? he demands to know. Is it fair or not? Is it just or not? This question itself is imbalanced, a false equivalency between something and nothing. Imbalance Monk wonders if the opposite of hope isn’t despair, but just more hope.

The secret of contradictions is that there are no contradictions. The opposite of silence isn’t sound, or words. There is no opposite of silence. But there is an essence of silence that is sometimes silent and sometimes not. Our Monk fears he has failed to write the book he should have written, but Nakell has succeeded in getting closer to, as Henry Miller put it, “the heart of the truth, which I suppose is the ultimate aim of the writer, in the measure that he ceases to struggle.” Nakell’s Monk knows the struggle may never end, but if he can “step through the poem” he has written, burn the goddamn books the way Larry Darrell does in The Razor’s Edge, or at least step over the aromatic bullshit of life, he will be closer to finding whatever it is he’s been looking for. Or he won’t.

Monk is available from Spuyten Duyvil Books.

Stuart Matranga has written for Rolling StoneStuff, and Slow, among other publications. His film about the Holocaust, A Man of the World, stars Ed Asner. His books American Hero and The Human Comedy are used in many Humanities courses.

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