The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth by Natalie Goldberg
Hey, look, it’s day 1, and I’ve already finished my first book of the year!
I spotted this on one of the remainder shelves at Chapters last week. Last book purchased; first book read. All the books on my “to be read” pile are jealous. But I figured (a) it would be a quick read, and (b) what more appropriate way to start off than with a remaindered book?
So, it was a quick read obviously. This is a brief memoir of Natalie’s relationships with her father and her Zen teacher and her coming to grips with them being human, i.e. flawed. Essentially, it is about her figuring out whether she is able to admire/love people even when she feels that they have disappointed/betrayed her by their actions (or inaction, in the case of her mother).
I’ve read most of her books. I like her writing books best. This one… well, it was interesting, because I’d read the others. But on its own, I could take it or leave it. Writing Down the Bones was truly a book that changed my life. Wild Mind and Long Quiet Highway were also lovely books. I found her novel disappointing because I like what she writes about—her ideas—more than how she writes. Her writing style is very simple and straightforward to the point that I find it almost clunky. It’s a style that works for a book on writing practice, but, I think, works against her in a narrative. After reading her writing practice books, I had high expectations for her novel, Banana Rose; I suppose I expected that all that writing practice would have led to a tangibly more polished narrative writing style. But it wasn’t. I realized that’s just how she writes.
The Great Failure didn’t resonate with me in the same way as her earlier work did. It’s not that I couldn’t understand where she was coming from; I could. That part was fine. But I think if you’re going to write about how people have disappointed and betrayed you, you also have to turn that around and dig into how you may have disappointed and betrayed others. She touches on this, but she doesn’t dig into it. I also didn’t feel that she was breaking any new ground here; the realization that people—even people you respect and trust—are human/flawed isn’t particularly insightful on its own. I think probably everyone has had to accept (in order to move on) the fallibility of a parent or parental figure at some point in their lives. And I’m not saying that that’s not a difficult thing, but… she wasn’t sharing with a friend; she wrote a book. There has to be something more than that, I think. A deeper insight.
Also, she seemed unable to accept that not everyone has an inner life (well, an inner life of substance), that people are, in general, not really that interested in your interests no matter how close they are to you, and that no one else will ever see the same events from the same perspective as you. In my un-expert opinion, her constant fight against these things didn’t seem very Zen. Once you accept these things, it is much easier to be content.
I wanted to read this because it was a Natalie Goldberg book, but maybe it was a book I just didn’t need to read. Perhaps for someone else, it could be the right book at the right time, the way WDTB was for me.