Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons, Scribner
The title Prescription for a Superior Existence calls to mind some archetypal self-help book that one might be better off avoiding. In fact, it is the uninventive name of the cult in the novel and feels like a place-holder lying in wait for the author to select something more edgy. The novel’s cover is equally uninteresting: a nicely-made bed in a rather picture-perfect bedroom. And frankly, upon completion of reading the book the relevance of the image to the story is indiscernible. However, it is only here where Emmons seems to have any dearth of creativity. PASE is a thought-out, well-orchestrated adventure of seemingly random and out-of-control events that consistently hide the truth, which is part of what seems to make the novel so universally true. One must return to the old adage of judging books by their cover, because the contents of this seemingly obtuse jacket are vibrant.
The opening two pages of Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence contain all of the pieces of an introductory paragraph to a well-thought-out academic argumentation essay: reference to the ensuing themes, citation of a few important facts, a summation of some points, and, of course, a hook. The hook is a simple one, but its simplicity is no detriment to its size: “…at midnight on Sunday I will, after delivering a euology that is both inspirational and absolute, with a solemnity great enough for the occasion, conduct and preside over – I am choosing my words carefully and none other will do – the end of the world.” Even the first paragraph betrays themes important to the life of main character Jack Smith: “In this part of the world it is light for half the year and dark the other half. Sometimes at night I look at the halos around the window blinds and breathe in salty air redolent of afternoon trips to the beach I took as a boy, my hands enclosed in my parents’, my feet leaving collapsed imprints in the sand, my mind a whirl of whitewashed images. I remember how the shaded bodies lying under candy-cane umbrellas groped for one another, and how I pulled my mother and father toward the ice-cream vendors, and how I fell in love with the girls who slouched beside their crumbling sandcastles. The sun an unblinking eye on our actions. The waves forever trying to reach us. From the beginning there was so much longing, and from the beginning I could hardly bear it.
Immediately this paragraph touches on the issues of parentage, romance, and a crushing reality that seems at times to be inescapable. To the book’s advantage, in particular, is the staggering relevance of its placement in time; global warming and the financial recession are both present in the novel’s diegesis. It is this devilish presentation of temporal relevance that allows Emmons to illicit all of the questions he does with the introduction of the cult, “Prescription for a Superior Existence.” Is the world really coming to an end, if this cult is referencing a real scientific truth? Is religion the answer? What will happen if I don’t make the right choice? The relevance of the story’s setting forces the reader into a temporary mania that makes Jack Smith’s own mania more tangible.
PASE is, in part, a thinly-veiled criticism of contemporary culture and its excesses: the workaholic, alcoholic, substance abuser; the normal member of society with nothing to look forward to but the “next thing.” Emmons accurately diagnoses contemporary American society’s ailment. Upon Jack Smith’s admission into PASE, he goes to see Ms. Anderson, the center’s director. She tells him: “‘Like most people, you are unhappy because you aren’t fulfilled by what you have. You always want more, and that more is never enough. Throughout your life you’ve desired things, only to find after getting them that contentment lies in the next thing. And the next and the next and the next. Sadly but predictably, the result of all this deferred satisfaction for you and others has been the same: anxiety and depression. And if allowed to continue it will lead finally to the crowning tragedy, ambivalence.’”
This presentation of terrifying truths out of the mouth of someone one might fear, an administrative figure in a cult, feeds into one of the things that Emmons and Prescription do so well: to accurately and viscerally create the feeling of being trapped in the PASE center, as well as the complete process of being brainwashed or converted. Jack Smith describes his mental processes, and the reader is able to watch his thoughts and opinions transform: first insisting not to take part in the center whatsoever, then in pretending to take part while secretly mocking the whole process, deciding to just take part because it’s really not so bad and what else is he going to do, and finally being completely devoted to the entire religion.
The perception of cults in general gets addressed thoroughly and seamlessly in the novel: “‘You’re trying to kill me.’ ‘No.” She smiled beatifically. ‘We are trying to save you.’” A cult, in general, presents itself as the entity – the thing that will save mankind from himself and return him to God – that would abduct people for “their [own] sake,” and brainwash them into following their ways. What PASE does in such an exciting way is it clashes these two things, the “outside” versus the “inside,” and the way they are both flawed. The solution is not so polarized as people perpetually look for. Emmons presents, in his fanatical characters and storylines, the underlying lesson of balance: balance between excess and asceticism, balance between complete reproach of cults/religion as false and misleading, and complete acceptance and total support. At the end of the novel, PASE is not abolished, but there is no final Synergy (death of the entire cult). Likewise, Jack and his love-interest Mary Shoale return to San Francisco but he continues to be a Paser, ostensibly. Compromise. Balance. This is mirrored in his writing style: balance between tons of literary device and straight dialog. Prescription is the story of a man in flux, flailing between extremes until the answers come to him. It is neither admonition of religion nor of the normal life. The solution, perhaps, is that there is no solution. Although he seems to suggest that love is all you can truly find to make life bearable, to make it even wonderful.
Despite how outlandish some of its unpredictable revelations may be, somehow they seem to stick the moment they hit. They even seem to register beforehand, if subconsciously. Facts as inconceivable in the beginning as the fact that Montgomery Shoale, the leader and founder of PASE, turns out to be the main character’s rapist biological father seem to be presciently revealed and undeniably true despite a superficial implausibility. This seems to adhere to the Buddhist-like phrase that ends the novel: “…this is all there was, is, and ever will be.” There is comfort to be found in the novel’s devil-may-care sense of narrative flow.
Emmons writes very similarly to Chuck Palahniuk in his use of the anti-heroic main character whose vices play a heavy role in his life and whose slightly unsavory sexual habits are a point of contention. This comparison is by no means a rebuke or insult, either. Like Palahniuk, Emmons controls pace and rhythm deftly while never letting the story drag and consistently evading predictability. He manages to cherry-pick the kinds of events that lie on the fringe of believability, but never meander outside of realism.
Indeed, the structure of PASE’s narrative itself calls to mind Palahniuk’s Survivor, beginning with the End and retelling what came before, what led to this character’s final ostensible moment of demise. Emmons even calls to mind the metaphor, “I may be as confused as a pilot with spatial disorientation, in danger of mistaking a graveyard spiral for a safe landing, when up is really down, sky is earth, and life – suddenly and irreversibly – is really death,” where Palahniuk’s main character is on a plane plummeting to Earth. Further comparisons can be drawn in that Survivor, too, is about a fictional pleasure-avoidant cult, and the perceived imminence of death. Perhaps Emmons’s key distinction from Palahniuk, however, is his language style; where Palahniuk swears by a rugged, fleshy tone, Emmons employs slightly more romanticized flourishes of language.
Everything is in its right place in PASE, even when it might seem to the contrary at first. The pendulum may swing wildly, but it always returns to center. And the story serves as a firm reminder that no matter how great the diversion from the straight line from A to B, there can always be a quiet ending to a loud story. To quote Bjorn Bjornson, a villager in the Scandanavian village in which Jack Smith finds himself for the beginning-slash-end of the book:
“In religion, in the end, the new is neither better nor worse than the old; beliefs and insights swirl and constellate over time without shedding any greater light than what has pulsed weakly throughout the ages. Reason and passion enact a tortoise and hare race in our hearts, and what seems true and beautiful today may seem false and hideous tomorrow.”