WHEN I’M GONE LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST
By Quan Barry
302 pages. Books of the Pantheon. $27.
A flawed telepathic line of communication runs between twin brothers. They can talk to each other without opening their mouths. At night, they listen to each other’s dreams. Experiences pass between the two “like books in a library”. When one twin drinks, the other has a hangover.
The twins are Mun and Chuluun, 23 in 2015, when Quan Barry’s hauntingly delicate new novel, his third, unfolds. Chuluun studies in a Buddhist monastery nestled in the shadow of a volcano in Mongolia. Mun wears Western-style clothes and lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where he dabbles in technology, tattoos, swearing and cigarettes. One of the men is placid and the other mischievous. Their strange mental overlap is a source of mutual resentment. Each twin wants the other out of its head.
They are reunited when they are tasked with traveling the country to find the next Dalai Lama – the child who will become the face of Tibetan Buddhism after the incumbent’s death. There are three candidates for the brothers to visit: one in the Sub-Siberian hills, one in a mountainous province in the far west, and one in the south of the country. Two boys and a girl. All young children, each a potential reincarnation of the original spiritual leader who, according to tradition, successively incarnated as the Dalai Lama.
In this sense, the novel takes on the familiar form of a quest. Along the journey there is accident, self-sacrifice, disasters, death. There are natural wonders and metaphysical puzzles. There is yak butter.
It turns out that Mun himself is the reincarnation of a historical figure. At 8 years old, he is recognized as the fifth incarnation of the Paljor Jamgon, the “Redeemer who makes the conch ring in the darkness”. It’s a long name for a small child. Mun is “discovered” in the remote grasslands the same way a future pop star might be discovered on YouTube. He was then ordained in a monastery – somewhat against his will – and took on a multitude of responsibilities. Privileges pile up on him too: guardians, private cook, gifts, separate lodgings. A golden cushion cradles her blessed buttocks.
Chuluun, who was also taken to the monastery, easily adapts to the routines and constraints of the institution. He likes to sing and meditate. Mun doesn’t – he’d rather play games on horseback than demonstrate the endless compassion required by his position, and his recalcitrance sends whispers circulating. Some monks wonder if Mun deserves his material accolades. A colleague is asked if a mistake was made – perhaps, he suggests, the management recognized the wrong brother as a reincarnation.
Eventually – under initially murky circumstances – Mun forgoes his robes and finds his way to the city, leaving Chuluun behind to practice calligraphy and ruminate on his sense of abandonment. When the two are forced to reunite, a chasm of spite opens up between them. Conflict alternately fuels and hinders their journey in a rickety car through the steppes and dunes of Mongolia as they search for the Dalai Lama’s heir.
“When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East” is a wild departure from Barry’s earlier novel, the bubbly, manic “We Ride Upon Sticks,” which was set on the Massachusetts coast and concerned a hockey team grass, witchcraft, hormonal teenagers and Emilio Estevez. The new novel centers on faith, history, language and desire.
Barry’s abiding interest in enchantment is the connective tissue between the two books, but she’s taken a giant leap forward as a novelist – where ‘We Ride Upon Sticks’ was a lively but slightly disorganized game, this one is a dazzling achievement. Form and subject combine in the book to alter a person’s very reading metabolism: the rhythms feel more like a prayer than prose, and the puzzle-like plot gives revelations in sentences. unpretentious that a watchful eye could easily miss.
The novel is full of formal quirks seemingly designed to cultivate alertness – and they do. A table of contents does not consist of chapter titles but of nine illustrated symbols. Timeline games abound. The phrases are repeated throughout the text. Chuluun’s narration flickers between several time periods. The entire novel is written without the use of the past tense.
All that technical sorcery might make Barry feel like he’s written an exhausting book, but reading it is no more demanding than walking on soft grass. In that way, it reminded me of Susanna Clarke’s ingenious “Piranesi” – the only other recent novel that was as much a work of philosophy as it was a mystery. As in “Piranese”, the mystery here revolves entirely around identity: it is a What is that Rather than a Detective story. Is Chuluun as devout as he looks? Is his insistence on perpetual renunciation a form of self-deception? Does he know his brother well? Or himself?
At the start of the novel, Chuluun reveals that he and his brother were born with a caul – each of their faces enveloped in a thin layer of amniotic membrane. Another literature bearer, David Copperfield, immediately springs to mind. There are sweet and surprising echoes of Dickens throughout Barry’s novel. They are found in the episodic structure and the moral intensity of the book; in the self-laceration of its narrator; in Victorian-flavored section titles. (“A Mixture of Compassion and Fury,” “Disaster!”)
If you think that adds up to the world’s weirdest logline – “A sentimental Buddhist upbringing with stylistic innovation…no more twins!” – you are not wrong. The implausibility of this novel is precisely its magic.