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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Waiting for the Abbot

How do you generate drama or elicit any kind of interest—let alone excitement —from a scene the main action of which consists of a group of people sitting in chairs? That's the challenge that the author of this memoir presents himself with. The story takes place in Tibet, where the author, his wife, and two daughters are visiting one of the monasteries in the Kangra Valley, presumably on a pilgrimage. They are not alone. With them in the abbot's waiting room is the Dalai Lama's English translator, wearing a "full length brown Tibetan chuba," as well as a younger assistant, and a German "emissary," an older man in a pinstriped suit. They form a motley crew.

This is hardly the first narrative to open with a scene of people waiting. It's been done before, and to great effect. Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, opens with a group of soldiers waiting, essentially, to face death. They're supposed to be sleeping, but
Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
To make for an engaging opening, a “waiting scene” need not hold such high stakes. In The Disenchanted, another novel written in the same period, author Bud Schulberg presents us with Shep Stearns, a young, callow writer seated in the antechamber of Hollywood mogul Victor Milgrim, who, at long last, has called him to a meeting to discuss his next project.
It’s the waiting, Shep was thinking. You wait to get inside the gate, you wait outside the great man’s office, you wait for your agent to make the deal, you wait for the assignment, you wait for instructions on how to write what they want you to write, and then, when you finish your treatment and turn it in, you wait for that unique contribution to art, the story conference.
The rest of the chapter takes us back to Shep’s arrival in Hollywood six months before, and through those events that have led him to Milgrim’s waiting room. Eleven pages of backstory later, Shep finally enters Milgrim’s office.

And yet those pages—and the long wait suggested by them—are full of dramatic tension, since they inform us of what Shep has gone through to arrive at this point, and also what’s at stake for him. The rest of Schulberg’s brilliant but forgotten novel tells of Shep’s gallant efforts to keep Manley Halliday, a once great but fallen author (based on Fitzgerald) sober through their collaboration on a screenplay for Love on Ice, a college musical. Needless to say, Shep fails, and the rest of the novel chronicles Halliday’s hilarious but ultimately tragic descent into drunkenness and death.

The structure in this well-written memoir opening is similar, with the first paragraphs describing the pilgrims awaiting their audience with the abbot. But here, rather than take us through a flashback recounting the purpose and tribulations of their journey to this greatly anticipated moment, instead we are presented with a fairly innocuous breakfast meeting with the same abbot “on the hotel terrace” the morning before, in which “over a cup of strong Indian chai” the abbot boasts of his long relationship with the Dalai Lama, while dismissing as “all the puja stuff”— “the burning of incense . . .the mantras and prayers . . . the salutations and prostrations . . . ”—in short, the trappings of Tibetan Buddhism that the narrator and his family have come to Tibet to appreciate and study.

A “waiting scene” depends on having something to wait for. Here, the flashback fairly obliterates any tensions or expectations we—and the protagonists—might have entertained with respect to the anticipated meeting with the abbot. It lets the air out of the balloon, so to speak, so there’s nothing left to wait for.

It might be better to lead with the first meeting with the abbot, with anxieties and expectations still running high and not already discharged.


  1. What you said made sense. And thanks for the (very good) examples you gave from the other two novels.

    Thanks for the post, Peter.

  2. This post from the author:

    The abbot whom everyone is waiting to see is not the person whom the family had breakfast with the previous day -- it was the "German emissary." The abbot of the monastery is the Dalai Lama, and for the family waiting to see him, it is indeed their first chance to speak with him."

  3. From my understanding (based on a little research) there is more than one monastery in the region you mention, and so it wasn’t at all clear to me that the abbot in question was the Dalai Lama, hence my confusion. But since it IS the Dalai Lama that certainly makes this a meaningful and dramatic “waiting” scene—it just needs to be clearly so.