Tim Parks has never been a man to take any received wisdoms for granted, however blameless they might appear. Perhaps his best-known novel, the Booker-shortlisted Europa (1997), had the regular refrain “every man is an island,” as the academic narrator Jerry Marlow gave everything from the environmental movement to the concept of universal human rights a thorough and often withering examination. Along the way, he also served up some surprisingly heartfelt paragraphs on the inadvisability of seizing the day and the wisdom of crying over spilled milk.
As for books, Jerry reserved especial scorn for writers “who do nothing more than analyse the world in a way in which it has grown used to being analysed”—a view certainly shared by his creator. Parks’s own critical writings, many of them for this magazine, display a similarly high-minded rigor that has enabled him, for example, to dismiss Salman Rushdie as something of a lightweight crowd-pleaser. More heretically still, last year he wrote a disturbingly persuasive blog post arguing that the Kindle offers a more austere and therefore grown-up literary experience than those gaudy, self-congratulatory objects known as books.
Despite this track record, though, the last gaudy object he published must have come as a shock to even the most seasoned Parks reader. In the nonfictional Teach Us to Sit Still, this apparently sternest of rationalists provided a sincere, touching, and only occasionally sheepish celebration of the transforming power of Vipassana Buddhist meditation. Parks may have turned to the practice only after all the more orthodox attempts to cure—or indeed diagnose—his chronic pelvic pain had failed. Nonetheless, by the end of the book he was writing unblushingly about “life’s journey” and how “if you stay focused” during meditation, “the entire body links up and ignites…. Whirling orbits of bright electrons, pure energy, without substance.” You can, in short, learn to “open your heart”—words, he acknowledges, that “normally make me cringe.”
To understand the scale of this conversion, you could pick up almost any of Parks’s earlier works, fiction or nonfiction, where it wouldn’t take long to spot one of his long-standing themes: in a world full of illusions, the idea that you can change your life is one of the most persistent and least intellectually defensible. In book after book, we’re plunged deep into the heads of erudite middle-aged men in crisis—marital, parental, professional, or more usually all three. These heads then buzz with contradictions as their owners try to overcome both their crises and “the burden” of the self, before being forced to realize that they’re stuck with them. This, in fact, is nothing short of our “destiny,” a word that Parks has used as the title of a 1998 essay, a 1999 novel, and throughout his career to mean, among other things, “the mistakes [we were] made to make,” the person we unaccountably find ourselves married to, or simply “the ultimate and unavoidable imposition…of being oneself.” As the narrator of his novel Goodness put it more than twenty years ago, “people are who they are and forever remain so…. Just as it is destiny to be black, destiny to be white. This is what self means, surely. Otherwise who are we?”
The bad news in these books, then, is that the only way your life could be different is if you were someone else. The best the average Parks hero could hope for was to achieve “catharsis through exhaustion,” where battling against the unshakable realities of the world and the self becomes just too tiring to carry on with, leading to a kind of acceptance that’s not always easy to distinguish from, say, completely giving up.
Teach Us to Sit Still suggested that to the list of Tim Parks protagonists who’ve experienced such a catharsis could now be added the name of Tim Parks. In his belief that a novelist should invariably prize truth over comfort, Parks once wrote with a mixture of pride, defiance, and mild regret that “the writer has thus attached his identity to a process which cannot bring serenity.” Now, he seemed to feel that a bit of serenity might not be so bad, even if it meant abandoning writing altogether: “With the writing behind me, the tussle in the mind would be over…. All over. My health could only improve.”
Needless to say, Parks was aware of the irony of using writing to talk about giving up writing. Even so, his change of heart did sound alarmingly convincing. “In the end,” he wrote, echoing the many Parks characters who’d reached the same exhausted conclusion, “I no longer believe that it is given to us to understand why we behave as we do. I should stop trying.”