Review | Monday 23 April 2012
A confession of favouritism: I love Tim Parks’ essays and book reviews. He’s an original journalist and a master of short form nonfiction. Nevertheless, I hadn’t read any of his novels before The Server. I was particularly curious, not just because of how good Parks’ prose normally is, but because The Server, in the author’s own words, is a ‘companion novel’ – something which seems to me might also be called a novel-about-something-I’ve-already-written-about.
The backstory: in 2011, Parks published a book entitled, Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences as a volunteer at a strict meditation retreat. The Server revisits those experiences, but using the vehicle of fiction, presumably, to go places that nonfiction could not. So why would a brilliant author – one who has demonstrated in essays and reviews just how well he understands the techniques of writing – publish a novel about a meditation retreat only a year after publishing a work of non-fiction about the very same thing? I was curious.
The narrator of The Server is Beth Marriot, a young woman who has turned her back on a fast life of live music, boyfriends and high times. She could have been a star, we’re told. At the Dasgupta Institute, however, sex, smoking and all the other fun stuff are forbidden. Beth wakes at 4am to clean toilets and prepare food.
Of course, as will seem obvious to every hedonistic, egoistic Western reader under the sun (myself included), this is not sustainable. The novel begins when, after eight months of austerity, Beth breaks one of the rules of the Dasgupta Institute and begins writing. She writes about her past, her frustrations, the man whose room she has begun breaking into in order to read his diary, and Mi Nu Wai, the ethereal teacher with whom she is becoming obsessed …
Tim Parks proves that there are some things that cannot be said without a story.