Review: The Empty Chair: two novellas, by Bruce Wagner

I'm warning you right now - there are some recent Game of Thrones spoilers ahead.

I know - that's not what you came here for. I'm sorry for that. The fact is, when I sat down to write this review, I had no plans of bringing up Game of Thrones. I was simply trying to work out how best to explain Bruce Wagner's compellingly difficult work. Suddenly it came to me - this week's episode "The Door" is the perfect companion piece to this book's backbone. So if Game of Thrones is not your thing, or it is but you still haven't watched this week's episode - sorry - you can skip this review if that's going to spoil something for you. Come on back later. For everyone else, let's dive in (after the break)

The Empty Chair: two novellas,
by Bruce Wagner
Paperback, Plume 2014  |  285pp
The paperback edition of The Empty Chair was published right around the time I was recuperating from my second of three  operations on my leg in late 2014. I'd asked the folks at Plume to forward the book to my address in Florida thinking it would give me something new to read while I recovered. Unfortunately the painkillers (and the pain itself) made reading difficult. I wasn't able to dive into a book without distraction for some time after that and, as a result, this book sat on my shelves for another year and a half. Given the subject matter, I'd say that's probably for the best.

Wagner's novellas are both told as stream of conscience narratives - stories from one man and one woman to a third character "Bruce Wagner" who has absorbed, redacted, found their connecting thread, and married them beneath this binding.

Charley's story is put forward first and titled "The First Guru." Charley (a gay man) and his wife (it's...complicated) experience a tragedy, seemingly due to their casual but direct approach to religion. Queenie's story follows, titled "The Second Guru." Queenie recounts for Bruce this history of her late lover, and his quest to find a renowned teacher in India. These stories are completely disparate - "told" several years apart, and "occurring" at even further a distance from one another - but their "leitmotif of 'diet Buddhism,'" as Wagner calls it in his preface, remains a baseline throughout the book.

There is one piece of both stories which, in the end, brings everything into focus so beautifully and violently, that I actually had to take a step back and go back a few pages to make sure I completely understood what was happening. This is not to say that Wagner is unclear in his narrative, but that he has tied the laces at last so subversively that I was caught off guard by it.

Without spoiling too much of the book (and we're getting to Game of Thrones, I promise), Wagner maintains a focus on the concept of two gurus - two teachers. The abridged principle is this: when one finds one's first teacher, one is then truly lost in a sea of information until the second teacher arrives to make sense of the first. (That's a bit of a hack job on one of the basic principles of Eastern religion, but I'm no expert - sorry again.)

Here's the Game of Thrones portion of our programming, wherein I use the recent episode as a parallel for Wagner's musings, and hopefully this will help you understand the concept as I did:

Hodor is an adult man of a single word - "Hodor." We are introduced to him and given no real explanation as to why this is, or whether he ever had another name, or what could have caused this. Hodor's character, as we know him, is the first guru.

Wyllis' character is the second guru. His story was first, before he became Hodor, but it fills in the gap in Hodor's story for the viewer, finally making this aspect of the tale clearer. It reveals the origin and destiny of that word - "Hodor." It also probably made you cry. It made me cry.

Queenie's story, although it takes place earlier (as Wyllis' does), shines a startling and unexpected light on Charley's story from several years earlier and thousands of miles away (and made me cry). And that final puzzle piece is slipped in right at the last, like you expected to never get any clarification and then, just there at the end, you suddenly have it.

There's a lot pretense in this book, almost like William Goldman in The Princess Bride (but a LOT less whimsical). Wagner has expertly separated out these two narrators who hold some similar beliefs, and has made their voices wonderfully individual. Charley's tale is short, sad, and haunting. Queenie's is somewhat longer, more indulgent, and dynamic. As separate stories, they border on tedious. But together they are intricate and bold. Don't let the title fool you - separate novellas they may be, but they are together for a reason; together they are powerfully potent.


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