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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Seeking Spiritual Enlightenment in a Time of Violence and Despair : NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM by Kate Wheeler ; Houghton Mifflin, $19.95, 241 pages

January 13, 1994|KATHRYN HARRISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The conclusion to "Ringworm," the last story of Kate Wheeler's debut collection, "Not Where I Started From," bears a warning from a Buddhist abbot to a young American nun who is about to shed her robes and return to the temptations of the Western world.

He entreats her "not to describe cessation," cessation being the transcendent state of unfeeling reached in successful meditation.

Once away from the monastery, the ex-nun reflects that "really there was nothing to describe, for there had been no experience, nothing on which to base a statement."

The search for this paradoxical "unexperience" is central to many of Wheeler's stories, and such a narrative strategy proves that the abbot was right: One shouldn't try to describe the indescribable, or if one must try, then one must succeed. Kate Wheeler's prose is deft, but her focus on that for which there are no words means that she has chosen an arena necessarily resistant to her gifts.

In another story, "Snow Leopard, Night Bird," Carol, who has a business delivering designer meals to New Age yuppies, falls under the thrall of a guru, Edward Hassan, a native of Houston who achieved enlightenment in India. Despite their doubts, Edward's followers largely submit to his abusive attempts to push their consciousness beyond the meaningless chaos of material life. In the end, however, Carol grows disillusioned; when she touches what is left of a burned photograph of the guru, the image disintegrates--with too-obvious meaning.

"Forget enlightenment. It's all a game anyway," Edward had admitted to her previously, an idea that no one suggests to Martina, the young woman in the story "Manikarnika," who tries to assimilate the terrible fact of her father's suicide as she watches Hindu cremations on the banks of the Ganges in India.

Of course Martina cannot reconcile her father's suicide as easily as the mystical fires consume the corpses; she leaves the river sick and confused, and later nearly causes a riot when she tries to take an illicit photograph of a cremation.

As one and then another story makes clear, the choice for these women--all of these tales are about women--is that between denying and admitting their fear, a fear often precipitated by the collection of First- and Third-World values, whether in the person of the spiritual seeker or in geographic fact.

Eastern religious practices allow some of Wheeler's characters to arrive at a point where feeling is denied, obliterated for as long as the transcendence of meditation lasts, but then the obvious troubles of the world beyond the cloister intrude.

More than half of these stories are set in Asia or South America, where expatriates acquire a panicked self-loathing when they try to live consciously in the Third World, their veils of safety and of privilege falling away before the intimate revelations of starvation, political violence and disease.

Of course, these travelers have been frightened before: They are not so much traveling as fleeing the collapse of relationships, whether their own failed romances or the dissolution of their parents' marriages.

The stories offer a preponderance of treacherous fathers who cheat on mothers, commit suicide or touch their daughters incestuously. In Wheeler's cosmos even those sexual awakenings that are not taboo are shocking and violent.

"Improving My Average" (the first and strongest story of the collection) shows sexuality being introduced to a very young girl by a retarded teen-ager masturbating in public.

To transcend their fear of violence and of despair, Wheeler's women seek the aid of holy men, and the knowledge of the East is pursued in these stories with a sort of diligence and application that is decidedly Western.

The young nun in "Ringworm" has come to the monastery in Burma because it reputedly offers "the world's strictest, most effective technique for spiritual enlightenment." Such language is Puritan and rational in its impatient demand for results.

"To know the reasons for everything--why red is red and black, black; why human eyes see only the colors that objects have rejected--and then, to know what lay past reasons. Emptiness? Such notions drew her heart like iron filings." These are Martina's thoughts as she arrives in the city on the holy Ganges, where she hopes to "be enlightened by lunchtime."

Wheeler's writing, too, has its magnetism; but just as the idea of transcendence tantalizes more often than it occurs during meditation, the stories in "Not Where I Started From" don't quite arrive where one had hoped.

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