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Adalbert is a forum for me, to post ephemera, photography, poetry, occasional travel notes, and various spontaneous motions. Cover photo: Parsonage where my great-grandfather spent his early years. Taken near Liegnitz, Silesia, ca. 1870.

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dual Reading: Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express and Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull



Time was recent I absorbed Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express (as in the son of the author of Breakfast of Champions) and Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The Eden Express I picked up at the unfortunately now-defunct store the Dollar Scholar on Hawthorne Avenue in Portland, for, as eponymy would have it, one dollar, because I liked the cover. My copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull I got in the "free boxes" that used to be placed outside the front entrance of Powell's City of Books; I picked up the tome around thirty years ago, and never read it until now. The book is rippled, looking as if someone dropped it whilst reading in the bathtub. Again, I associate the two books for no better reason than that I have read them around the same time. I avoided reading JLS from recalling its ubiquity in the early 1970s;  such fads rarely have value, I reasoned.

The Eden Express is prefaced: "The author maintains that all people, places, and events in this book are real and that he has depicted them accurately to the best of his ability. Before drawing conclusions, however the reader is cautioned to bear in mind the fact that the author has spent considerable time mentally unbalanced."

The memoir covers, among other subjects, Vonnegut's periods of mental illness and institutionalization, interwoven with his initiation of a commune in one of the remote parts of British Columbia. The time frame of the book is the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with plenty of references to such things as "The Revolution," "grass," the I Ching, Charlie Manson, Richard Nixon, and so on. In that era, leaving contemporary and conventional life to pursue truth in the backwoods was viewed as a suitable reaction to a culture of insanity. Vonnegut starts by interpreting mental illness with reference to the questionable theories of R.D. Laing, in which schizophrenia was seen as a valid response to a deranged world. Toward the end of the work, he embraces a more modern view of mental illness as biochemical in nature, as he begins to recover. His writing in places is short on descriptive power. There is a use of cliches, as with terms such as "passed with flying colors" (which is used not once, but twice close together).

In reviews of memoirs, one statement often appears: Something to the effect of, this memoir is good, it avoids self-pity. The Eden Express has a sort of hippie self-pity about it, but hey, what's wrong with a little self-pity once in a while? The book is effective both for chronicling a previous time and for its numinously intense and disordered accounts of mental illness.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of the best fictional works about seagulls that I have read. While Bach's style lacks literary qualities, and he is too obviously drawing on aeroplane flight maneuvers for his seagull acrobatics, the book is still a tolerable parable about spirituality and the Bodhisattva idea.

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