I was glad to read on Tim Parks’ website that he considers this novel a companion work to his Teach Us to Sit Still (my review). In Teach Us to Sit Still Parks recounted his troublesome prostate and how, after rejecting the cut and hope option offered by physicians, happened upon a suggested remedy that involved, of all things, sitting. This sitting led him into the foreign world of vipassana meditation (the Buddhist meditation practice from Southeast Asia associated with the Theravadan tradition). In The Server, Parks explores the stark contract between the austerity of a Buddhist meditation retreat center and our egoistic, narratives selves prominent in the in many contemporary lives.
The first-person narrative is a running monologue in the mind of Beth Marriot. Beth is a vivacious but troubled young woman who comes to the center and stays to serve new participants by working in the kitchen. Her mind, when unleashed, recounts and rehashes issues with parents, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, an older lover, and a brush with death, among other things. After months at the meditation center, having apparently calmed her mind to some extent, it’s turned back on by discovering a diary of a participant who recounts his own narrative of woe, despite the ban on writing while participating in the retreat. After this discovery, Beth careens through thoughts and actions quite contrary to the austere and ascetic practice of the retreat. This clash of Buddhist austerity with the contemporary, narrative self drives the story.
The story provides an excellent vehicle for pondering how this Buddhist world-view, what one may call a non-narrative approach to life, comports with our contemporary notions of self in the land of novels, Freud, and self-expression. (I suspect that these issues exist in the “East”, too; they wouldn’t have the antidote if they didn’t suffer the disease, would they?). Parks doesn’t attempt to answer how these two attitudes might be reconciled or whether one must ultimately prevail. One suspects that the two views, which have probably competed for the length of human history, will continue to lead an uneasy, but perhaps fruitful co-existence.
The story makes for a roller-coaster ride—this young woman has lots of karma and vivacity (are they linked?) —and sometimes you want to tell her “whoa, slow down”, but she can’t, and that makes a trip through a meditation retreat a bit of a roller-coaster ride.