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Review: A wicked debut novel about a levitation cult occasionally lifts off

Emily Temple, author of novel "The Lightness."
Emily Temple has published her first novel, “The Lightness.”
(Nina Subin)

“You should not, under any circumstances, expect me to be the hero of this story,” says Olivia, the backward-looking narrator of Emily Temple’s debut novel, “The Lightness.” In fact, in the end, there is no hero of Olivia’s story at all. There is only a memory that may or may not be true.

Set at the Levitation Center, “a panspiritual contemplative community,” high up in the mountains somewhere in America, where the air is thin and the world a distant memory, “The Lightness” refers to the Latin root for levitation, “levitas,” i.e., “lightness itself.” The legend is that the land on which the center is built holds some sort of spiritual energy that enables magical upward motion for those special few with the innate potential to rise.

Olivia arrives for other reasons; she has run away from her abusive sculptress mother to retrace the path her Buddhist dentist father walked before disappearing from her life. She enrolls in a summer-long “special teen retreat” she describes as “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” And, of course, she falls in with the bad girls: brooding Janet, who excels at Zen archery; willowy, button-sucking Laurel; and the beguiling ringleader Serena, who is obsessed with learning the dangerous art of levitation.

“You’re one of us,” Serena says when Olivia demonstrates her knowledge of Buddhism. “We can smell our own,” she says later on, effectively inducting Olivia into the witchy little group she’s been warned about. The setup immediately reminded me of stories like “The Craft,” Donna Tartt‘s “The Secret History” and Emma Cline’s “The Girls,” wherein the pursuit of dark knowledge threatens to break hearts and destroy lives. And almost from the outset, the narrator floats just over the reader’s shoulder, warning us that no good will come of this, that we are only moving toward a bad thing — poking us over and over to remind us that it’s coming. Who knew that an act of narrative levitation could be, at times, so suffocating?

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The girls dabble in the rituals of teenage sleepovers — light-as-a-feather, shivery ASMR exercises, ecstatic hyperventilating, tantric yoga, whiskey drinking, fasting on nettle tea — all to get closer to the lightness. But they also play at being adults, discussing the virtues of Tibetan yogi Milarepa, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Teresa and the Chinese Empress Consort Wu Zetian. They say implausibly erudite things like, “This is a nonsense interpretation of the notion of interconnectedness” and “Neither ugliness nor beauty exists on an absolute level.” (At one point Olivia, who seems to have a bit of an oral fixation, dreams of Rasputin sticking his fingers in her mouth.)

Book cover of Emily Temple's "The Lightness."
(William Morrow)

And of course they are also consumed with a boy — a supposed prodigy with the ability to levitate. Luke, the center’s beautiful 20-something gardener, has a penchant for seducing every girl and woman on the premises, including the retreat’s director. He closes his eyes when he puts his hands in the dirt, and tells Olivia her hands are like the Buddha’s; he reminds her of her father. As they must, each of the girls has daddy issues.

Temple is an excellent writer. A senior editor at LitHub, she has written prolifically on everything from one-star Amazon reviews to the enduring allure of Mary Gaitskill’s “Bad Behavior.” Clearly an omnivorous reader and researcher, Temple has stitched together a textured patchwork of spiritual myths, enlightenment allegories, anecdotes of saints and levitation theories. She swings between Olivia’s arc and these magpie nests of ideas like an acrobat leaping from one trapeze to another. Sometimes these digressions foreshadow; other times they function as parables, pointing out religion’s absurdity and false promises. Often, I found myself more interested in these stories than the main narrative, seeing them through Temple’s lens as interpreted by a woman wounded by the futility of seeking.

For a certain kind of reader (raised perhaps on Tartt, Temple’s more plot-forward forebear), this structural experiment may prove tedious, backgrounding what purports to be a thrilling narrative in favor of a rich meditation on the nature of desire and belonging, on what is lost while chasing illusions and on the scars of growing up a girl. To paraphrase another cliché of the seeker, the journey is far more interesting than the destination.

Despite the improbability of Olivia’s circumstances — practicing ikebana (contemplative flower arranging) and oryoki (mindful eating); spending unsupervised days eating chocolates in Serena’s glamped-out tent; plucking cigarettes from a silver case and discussing the mechanics of desire and suffering — the story of four wayward girls attempting magic is a diverting one, especially when woven through with Temple’s sensually wrought landscapes and delicious impressions of adolescent hunger. At times, “The Lightness” is overwritten, concerned with the shape of itself in a way that derails the locomotion of the narrative (like the occasionally self-indulgent Tartt), but it’s also a promising quality in a debut novelist, possibly auguring great things to come.

Of course, when the bad thing in this novel does come, we already know what it is — the foreshadowing has overshadowed — but more absorbing than the inevitable tragedy is the way Olivia analyzes it, casting the event through a kaleidoscope of interpretations, attempting to reason through what it might or should mean. In the end, it isn’t the lightness she was after but the desire to find something beyond herself, beyond the self; and desire, as she reminds us over and again, is the root of all suffering.

Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans.

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The Lightness
Emily Temple
William Morrow: 288 pages, $27


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