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Lying Awake

Art, Religion, and A Brain Disorder

By Izzat Jarudi

Staff Writer

Written by Mark Salzman

Published by Alfred A. Knopf


Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, Tennyson, Proust, Socrates: what did they all have in common? Beyond genius, they shared symptoms of a particular brain disorder, temporal-lobe epilepsy. In fact, genius may have been one of the symptoms. Even when they are not having seizures, those afflicted with the disease are subject to changes in behavior and thinking, including voluminous writing, protracted and acute emotional response, and intoxication with religion and philosophy. So what if Dostoevsky had known about his disease? Moreover, what if he could have cured it? Would he have? Should he have?

Such a dilemma is the focus of Mark Salzman’s fascinating new novel Lying Awake. Instead of bringing modern medicine to the 19th century or Dostoevsky to the 21st century, however, Salzman sets his story in a Carmelite monastery just outside of modern-day Los Angeles (perhaps no less incongruous).

The protagonist, Sister John of the Cross, is a nun who after 25 years of languishing in the cloister, “her prayers empty and her soul dry,” begins to find God through mystical visions. Her suddenly fruitful spiritual life makes her a spiritual master in the eyes of her fellow nuns and inspires her to write poetry and essays on the contemplative life that make her equally admired outside the monastery. But after three years of such visions, the headaches that increasingly accompany them force her to the doctor’s office. There, she discovers the headaches are caused by temporal-lobe epilepsy.

The rest of the novel is devoted to Sister John’s struggle to “tell the difference between genuine spiritual experiences and false ones.” She realizes that treatment will probably end her unique connection with God. But is it more selfish to choose her health or her visions? No visions would mean a return to a life of spiritual sterility. No treatment would ignore her obligation to the monastery. I won’t give away her agonizing decision and its consequences, but I will say that I found Salzman’s writing a pleasure to read.

His language is as spare and serene as the cloister. During his description of her visions and prayers, there is a shift in the prose, both physically and stylistically. Physically, he separates these intimate sections from the rest of the narration with distinct spacing and italics. Stylistically, he transcends the restraints of grammar and recounts her visions with a series of fragments of sentences, often only a single vivid word. And often that diction and imagery is disarming in its originality. For example, he opens his novel with Sister John waking and proceeding through what he calls an “algorithm of longing” -- her morning routine that begins with a prayer. Occasionally, Salzman’s language is overwrought, but the aesthetic merit of the vast majority of his story offsets that rare tendency.

At the same time, Salzman’s novel addresses a difficult question that modern medicine poses to the mystery of artistic and religious inspiration so effectively (and concisely; his book is less than 200 pages long) that I would recommend it to anyone interested in a lucid examination of the influence of modern science on art and religion.