Rama: Lama? Ding-dong?

by Hart Williams © 1995

Perhaps the difficulty in telling you the author's name will explain to you why this reviewer has had such trouble with this book. You be the judge.

In 1982, a group of writers were sitting around Dangerous Visions bookstore, on Ventura Boulevard, in the "Valley," in Southern California. DV was (and still is) one of the premiere SF bookstores in existence -- at least in this dimension. Someone came in and handed the owners posters, perhaps 3'x3', dead ringers for Roger Daltrey's old posters (and his first solo album cover, used extensively in the movie version of "Tommy"): the angelic face, shot in soft light and soft focus, framed by a preciously coiffured mass of ringlets and curls. The poster said: "Rama." Beneath, in explanatory type, a bit smaller, it said, "Dr. Frederick Lenz, Ph.D."

Someone noted that the form, "Dr. ----- ------, Ph. D." is considered pointlessly redundant, according to the AP stylebook, and we returned to wondering who this fellow was that we were supposed to iconize in the store window, or wherever. Fade Forward. 'Rama' a/k/a 'Dr. Frederick Lenz, Ph. D.' has purchased property near Santa Fe, New Mexico, circa 1992. There is a community uproar. Dr. Lenz/Rama/Ph.D./Frederick/Fred moves in, and the uproar dies down. (I am told, by reliable sources, that Lenz ascribes or spins or explains or asserts or maintains that it was the Religious Right that is/was responsible for the bad things that happened to him, whatever they were.)

It therefore seemed strange to me that, upon reading the "about the author" that Lenz should be:

a) writing this 'spiritual' book under a name NOT 'Rama,' although I checked and he hasn't given the appellation up. Perhaps his REAL name is 'Rama,' and this 'Frederick Lenz' fellow is his new spiritual name. Well, no.

and b) Frederick Lenz/Rama/Doc claims to be a "world-class" snowboarder. Since this is (at least nominally) a book about snow-boarding, I thought I'd check to see how he got this designation.

It seems that Frederick Lenz has no proof, other than his word for it, and therefore "world class" was added, either by the doctor, or his publisher or someone in-between. Lenz has a few credentials. Indeed, he has a Ph.D. in English Literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook (usually known as SUNY-Stony Brook), and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. Still he has a "black belt in karate" and several other, self-bestowed (while not ENTIRELY misleading) titles. I could receive no confirmation of the "black belt," though I asked.

All right, fair enough. Here is a man trumpeting -- among other things -- that he has a degree in English literature who writes with only vague competence and in an English 'literature' which breaks all of the usual rules of the novel--in the sense of novel-as-story and not as tract-- about snowboarding in the Himalayas. He makes a point of letting you know that this is about HIM (under whatever guise he might be appearing at the time): "The following account of my Himalayan adventures is based on a series of experiences that occurred to me some time ago in Nepal. I have taken the liberty of transforming these accounts into a work of fiction, which I hope will entertain and enlighten you."

Now, having tried so hard, having arduously and in every wise attempted to impress the reader about (Dr.) Frederick Lenz, a terrifically dull and stupefying 'novel' follows: Boy-goes-to-Himalayas-to-snowboard, meets-"Master Fwap"-and-they-sit-and-talk. There are not more than fifteen pages of snowboarding in the book, which ought to tell the reader that this is an awful lotof Master-talking-to-boy.

A Carlos Casteneda or a Lynn V. Andrews (both of whom, I note, have a lot more "action" in their books) might be able to weave a wonderment of words, or magics and dream-drenched catacombs; half-glimpsed paintings and worlds unseen: but Lenz cannot. His language is wooden. His dialogue consists mainly of the "kid" interrupting every so often to break up the tedium of the monologue.

And yet, boredom of language, shallowness of characterization, lack of action, endless and tedious monologizing, and "funny" names--that hallmark of the amateur--need NOT be an impediment to success in a New Age novel. It is the ideas, after all, that matter. But, sadly, a walk through the sea of ideas presented herein would scarcely wet one's feet.

Lenz, sitting at the feet of "Master Fwap," learns the secrets of the "Rae-Chorze-Fwaz" mystery school, while pretending to be a young, hot-dog snowboarder: "That day I had spent three hours climbing up a particularly gnarly pass in search of perfect snow." The gratuitous inclusion of the idiomatic 'gnarly' in no wise detracts from the sentence's rather stuffily professorial construction. At page 47, we have progressed (after the obligatory series of dumb questions by the abashed youth, patiently explained by the omniscient guru) to an explanation of karma. By page 216, we can say dharma, samadhi(the word is used 24 times in 3 pages),nirvana, kundalini, chakrah, and tantra. While I might be missing a Sanskrit word or two, this pretty much covers the philosophic content of the lectures.

There is the required "levitation" scene. There is the obligatory Master-snowboards-the-impossible-hillside scene. There is even the Master-fills-the-room-with-his-golden-aura scene. But it is mostly talk about the most abstract--which means that there are no practical applications nor tedious exercises--aspects of Tantric Buddhism. A slight leavening is added by Lenz, in tossing in Atlantean-Priests-founded-our-school stories. Let me tell ya 'bout Atlantis, kid.

But this is a cheat. The tantra is first-grade-primer stuff, there is precious little snowboarding, no characters, and, aside from faillng on nearly EVERY level, there is nothing remarkable about this novel, except that it was published. While one may mourn the trees that gave their lives for this tome, it is neither particularly great nor terrible. The best that might be said of it is that it is criminally boring.

And yet, this critic is happy to report, even this need not be an impediment to literary glory. The last report I have indicates that the book is selling very well. Very well indeed.


Hart Williams may be reached at hartw@efn.org

The preceding article appeared in the December/January issue of the Santa Fe Sun. It appears here with permission of the author.

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