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 Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Mon Feb 03, 2014 1:47 pm

Romance Rehab: Retreat is not the escape a young meditator expects - review by Dan Zigmond
Sex Is Forbidden: A Novel

By Tim Parks
Arcade Publishing, 2013 - 304 pp.; $24.95 cloth

While sitting a traditional Vipassana retreat at an ancient hillside monastery in Italy, the British author Tim Parks found himself unable to silence the internal monologue of his mind. Inevitably, his self-mocking thoughts turned from sitting to writing:

Quote :
Of course I then imagined writing about this meaningless chatter and how brilliantly I could deconstruct myself, or someone like me (very like me), in a novel perhaps. I could very cleverly show how useless I was. Should I write a novel or should I make it nonfiction? Which would seem more necessary?

Happily for us, he eventually decided to do both. In 2010, he published the memoir Teach Us to Sit Still, an enthralling account of his experience with chronic pain and his path from there to meditating at the Italian monastery. Then, in 2012, he mined these experiences once again, this time creating a more lighthearted work, the novel Sex Is Forbidden. Widely acclaimed last year in Britain, this funny and often poignant tale of aching ankles and moments of bliss has now come to the United States.

Sex Is Forbidden follows the spiritual exploits of Beth Marriot, a young English woman who arrived at the fictional Dasgupta Institute nine months ago and never left. She now works as a volunteer server in an endless series of 10-day retreats for an ever-shifting community of a hundred or so guests. The men and women are strictly segregated, but at first Beth doesn’t much mind because “it’s mostly gloomy, gangly boys or older blokes shambling about with their heads bowed over their paunches.”

Slowly, we learn what brought Beth to Dasgupta. She was a musician with a struggling rock band and may have been on her way to some success. She was also juggling at least two boyfriends, one who desperately wanted to get married and one who very much did not. (Naturally, she preferred the noncommittal paramour.) And then something happened in France, along the shore, but even her wandering mind appears reluctant to return there. After all that, a rigidly enforced break from men may be just what she needs.

There are many beautiful moments in the novel that will ring true for anyone who has sat retreats in the myriad centers that now dot rural America and Europe. Parks notes the way everyone comes into the meditation hall “snuffling and fidgeting and coughing,” and how those same sounds that drive you crazy can later become soothing and welcome. After a while, Parks writes, even someone “constantly blowing her nose” can make you “feel protected and humbled.”

Parks manages to fully inhabit the character of Beth, and the authenticity of her voice throughout is one of the novel’s great joys. Through her, Parks perfectly captures the tensions that often arise between residents and visitors at places like these, the staff unable to avoid alternately “liking and hating people you’re only going to see for 10 days.” “Sometimes the meditators get on my nerves,” Beth admits, “so proud of their big Dasgupta experience, their vows and visions.” And yet at other times she loves being around them. “The more you don’t talk to the stranger beside you,” she concludes, “the closer you feel to her.”

But before long, the restless and reckless Beth begins breaking the rules and sneaking over to the men’s quarters, where she discovers that one of the male meditators is surreptitiously keeping a diary. (Writing at the retreats is also forbidden.) This middle-aged skeptic appears to be something of a stand-in for Parks, and excerpts from the diary often echo sentiments from Parks’s own memoir. Both, for example, rebel against Buddhist numerology, quoting the “three refuges, four noble truths, five precepts, seven stages of purification, eightfold path to enlightenment, ten perfections” in nearly identical terms. (Parks calls this “drivel” in his memoir, while the diarist calls it “[banned term].”)

Readers steeped in modern Vipassana lore will enjoy trying to tease out fact from fiction in the novel. The eponymous teacher Dasgupta appears to be modeled on Satya Narayan Goenka, the Burmese-Indian Vipassana teacher who passed away in late September 2013. The fictional Dasgupta sits “on his armchair in his white suit” in the taped lectures played for students, looking like a member of the “Bombay Rotary in the sixties”—a plausible (if impertinent) portrait of the renowned real-life meditation master. The retreats in Sex Is Forbidden also follow Goenka’s 10-day program and incorporate similar methods and terminology. Parks doesn’t seem to have studied with Goenka himself, but his memoir describes his retreat with the late John Coleman, a Goenka disciple, who may be the model for Harper, resident director of the Dasgupta Institute in the novel. Although Harper appears at first to be “too ordinary and boring” to run a meditation center, looking “like a council employee who’s lost his swivel chair . . . and found they’d put a zafu there instead,” Beth eventually sees another side to him, acknowledging that “there’s a deep calm behind the nerdishness.” It’s the same way Parks sees Coleman: as “a strange mix of blandness, serenity, and shrewdness.”

Toward the middle of Sex Is Forbidden, Beth steals one of the diarist’s notebooks. Here the book begins to drag slightly as Parks quotes long excerpts of the purloined prose. “Yeah, wow, yawn,” Beth comments after one passage. “This is another bit I could have written myself.” Many readers may be inclined to agree. But the story soon returns to Beth and again picks up steam. She stops volunteering in the kitchen in order to meditate full-time, and we sense that her stay at Dasgupta is quickly reaching a turning point. Exactly how she ends the retreat, and what she chooses to do next, form the book’s wholly satisfying conclusion.

“We soon stop thinking about most of the things that happen to us,” a teacher explains to Beth late in the novel. “And this can be true of the memories that torment you too.”

Can Beth find a way to leave behind the tragedies big and small that led her to this quirky institute? Parks, like his fictional character Beth and so many fellow practitioners in the real world, came to meditation searching for an escape. We may never quite find that escape, but like Beth we often manage to find something. Parks’s entertaining and enlightening novel helps us to remember what that something is.

Tricycle contributing editor Dan Zigmond is a writer, manager, and Zen priest living in California.
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Mon Feb 03, 2014 1:55 pm

also a non-fiction work by Tim Parks:


TEACH US TO SIT STILL by Tim Parks

“Riveting . . . Parks’ discoveries will fascinate not only writers but all citizens of an information age steeped in and propelled by language.”
—The New Yorker


“[Tim Parks’] prose is mordantly funny, self-conscious but never self-pitying, worldly but introspective, attuned to the needs of a soul that he considers thoroughly material and mortal. The result is an absorbing, at times inspiring, narrative of spiritual growth.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent story on writing, pain and the power of presence, May 6, 2013
By 
tormodg - See all my reviews
This book is a marvelous read. Not only has Tim Parks managed to write well about his struggles with chronic pelvis pain - he also manages to put the story into an exciting context based on his own work as a teacher and writer, as well as his roles as parent and husband.

The story has numerous references to classic and modern books by famous writers. Parks weaves their stories into his own quest for answers and understanding. For anyone with an interest in literature and reading, these reflections are both well written and highly relevant. This really is NOT a book on meditation, however Parks shows how meditation helped him get rid of many of the symptoms through a rather heroic undertaking where he left no stone unturned.

Being a fellow sufferer of CPPS (chronic pelvic pain syndrome), Tim Parks' book has given me many interesting ideas on how to continue the search for knowledge and insight. It is a difficult condition which has been largely ignored by doctors and researchers. Yet is is a crippling problem which cause a lot of agony for many people. Tim Parks argues, through exposure, that one reason why scientists struggle with identifying the underlying causes for CPPS is that it is mostly a symptomatic affliction which may be better understood if we look to our own way of handling life's many problems.

If you do not suffer from CPPS the book may not be immediately relevant. Still, it is an excellent story told by a master storyteller.


Last edited by Jcbaran on Mon Feb 03, 2014 2:12 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Lise
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PostSubject: Re: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Mon Feb 03, 2014 2:07 pm

Cool - sounds like an interesting read.
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PostSubject: Re: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Fri Feb 21, 2014 2:48 pm

I enjoyed Teach Us To Sit Still.
Parks describes a meditator's progress in clear unflinching detail.He isn't afraid of his own psychological anatomy,or the geography of his pain.In the process of mapping that pain,and his efforts to manage it,he uncovers some recognisable truths ,universal truths.I found it nourishing to have the experience of meditation,and of seeking for answers and solutions,exposed with truthful accuracy .
The strength of the book is that it does not privilege the answers,the routes taken,one over the other.
The visit Parks makes to a Vedic practitioner,who offers a radical approach to pain,to the pain of life,is included with as much gravity as the vipassana retreats which are at the centre of the search for cure.The writer is intelligent enough to let the stories speak for themselves.He isn't proselytising.

Sex is Forbidden didn't suit me so well.
I thought Parks was writing out his fantasy about a female retreatant,who becomes preoccupied with her fellow meditators.
I have experienced too much harrassment on retreat to have patience with his projection into the mind of a woman.
He seems to me to have been on firmer ground writing his own experience than in pursuing a fiction.I found his central character thin and unbelievable.



I have enjoyed catching up with folk here,and the usual high quality banter!

Maisie
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PostSubject: Re: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Fri Feb 21, 2014 9:09 pm

hi Maisie -  if this question is too personal, please disregard it, but I am struck by your comment about harassment on retreat - is this something you can say more about?

I have heard from people, female and male, re: their experiences with being propositioned or otherwise targeted for unwelcome attention on retreats. I guess humans act like what they are programmed to be, no matter where we are or what rules are in place -
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PostSubject: Re: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Sat Feb 22, 2014 1:46 pm

Hi Lise,
I will pm you about this when I feel strong enough.

all the best maisie
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PostSubject: Re: Sex is Forbidden: A Review of a Novel by Tim Parks   Sat Feb 22, 2014 7:45 pm

Maisie, I am sorry this happened to you, and please don't let my questioning make you feel pushed to write about it.

Humans. Meh.
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