Friday, February 22, 2013

An Unlikely Prophet by Alvin Schwartz

“Genre-defying” is not a term one should throw around willy-nilly. “Genre,” after all, functions as a category for comparison. Placing a work outside of genre relegates it to a gray area beyond the reach of much conventional literary criteria.

But every now and again there comes a book which is genre-defying in the truest sense. Comics great Alvin Schwartz was likely aware that his last work, An Unlikely Prophet, would prove difficult for his audience to categorize – and so the original 1997 edition was subtitled Revelations on the Path Without Form, setting it well outside the realm of conventional fiction and into that of esoterica. The 2006 reprint used a different subtitle, likely a new publisher’s sales-pitch: A Metaphysical Memoir by the Legendary Writer of Superman and Batman.

Mercantile logic notwithstanding, that latter subtitle is perhaps more revealing as far as genre is concerned; as a first-person narrative, An Unlikely Prophet is very much a memoir, though one that is largely fictionalized – allegorized, even – to tackle metaphysical notions. The novel is reminiscent of Richard Bach’s Illusions, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or the best documents of the New Thought movement in that it blurs the ordinary distinction between thinking and reality. Mr.Thongden, the character whom Schwartz uses as a mouthpiece for his esoteric views, is masterfully introduced and developed, being revealed early on to be a tulpa (a kind of thought-golem). Schwartz’ prose is mature and researched, seamlessly integrating references to the Fine Arts, Hawaiian and Tibetan ethnography, neurology, and new physics.

An Unlikely Prophet’s pacing might have benefited from the use of more diverse situations in which to explore the ideas being presented; be that as it may, this is a small complaint considering the novel’s short length. As the book lends itself to many levels of interpretation, readers uninterested in the author’s metaphysical persuasion may still find it an interesting exercise in the style of magical realism. 

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