Pico Iyer's new novel, Abandon, is a modern academic romance in which a thirteenth˝century Sufi, or Islamic mystic, plays a central role. Rumi, the Persian˝language love poet, is the subject of graduate student John Macmillan's dissertation, and while the poet's not a character per se, his work permeates the book, and, as is often the case with mysticism, Rumi is never more present than when he's absent.
Macmillan's also not entirely there. He is a perpetually off˝balance Englishman who's exiled himself to Santa Barbara, California. There, while trying to finish his degree, he falls for Camilla, a somewhat mysterious, totally erratic young woman who's incapable of Abandoning herself to anything but her own demons. It's unclear whether the cloud of unknowing that hangs over Macmillan is a state of grace or merely confusion about his professional career and emotional direction. Regardless, Macmillan sees his salvation in rescuing an old Sufi manuscript and, in the process, Camilla. He travels through Spain and India in search of the lost work, and, paradoxically, as he puts more distance between himself and Camilla, he becomes closer to her and farther from the poems that he believes will save his life.
Spiritual restlessness is one of Pico Iyer's signature themes, and in previous books, like the travelogues Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, he's identified it as part of the temper of the times. With Abandon, Iyer's caught a particularly current subjectˇIslam and, more particularly, its mystical wing. Sufism, with its metaphorical readings of Islam's sacred texts (its interpretations are often derived from non˝Islamic roots like Christian neo˝Platonism and Hindu philosophy), has been a hodge˝podge of cultural and religious practices from its outset. As a result, it mixes well in the melting pot of American New Age spirituality; Rumi, thanks to the devoted efforts of translator Coleman Barks, has in the last several years become a best˝selling American author. One character, a kind of cowboy college professor evidently based on Barks, voices frustration with the direction of the "Sufi boom" he helped set off. "The world [is] getting off on these guys now, though most of them don't know the first thing about what they mean or who they are. . . . People are grabbing pieces of the true cross like [Rumi] was Dylan or something!"
Elitism, alas, has long been part of the Sufi tradition, and even Macmillan finds himself on the outside looking in. According to his adviser, an Iranian named Sefadhi who lives in California among other refugees from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Macmillan doesn't really know what the Sufis are about: "You cannot turn these poets into mere carriers of fire without taking them away from everything that's important to them. These poems are fragile things, esoteric in their way; to strip a text of a context is to leave nothing but a pretext."
However, neither the professor nor the novel articulates what exactly is important to these mystical poets. Rumi wrote his poems out of love and for love: Why is Macmillan wrong to think that these poems might have something to say about his own love life and that Camilla might have some bearing on his reading of those poems? What kind of context, besides Rumi's thirteenth century, is more than pretext?
Presumably, the key is that Macmillan doesn't really know himself yet. Still, Abandon's structure is a little shaky, as it seems to be grounded in one of Sufism's main principlesˇoccult knowledge, the belief that not everything in the world is known, nor should it be. However, the further you advance in Sufi wisdom, the more you know. It's no coincidence that Sufism's historical figures, like Rumi, often chose poetry as their medium of expression since, as intimate disclosure, the brief intensity of the lyric is well suited to conceal, condense, suggest, and expand meaning. The basic problem with Abandon is that the novel, as a form, isn't meant to hoard secretsˇneither from characters nor from readers. The novel is typically a social form, less a concealment or confidence than a revelation of a character in time; it is public declaration in a private space. Hence, Abandon's happy ending, leaving Macmillan with a manuscript and the girl, seems strangely unsatisfying, as it depends on hidden information, hidden not from the world, just Macmillan and the reader. It's a spiritually ambitious novel that feels a little like it's only gotten to the midway point of a spiritual adventure, only gained enough knowledge to see how much farther there is to go until reaching understanding.
Lee Smith is writing a book on Arabic culture, forthcoming from Scribner.