Saturday, July 12, 2008

REVIEW: Prescription for a Superior Existence

As someone who is fascinated by the subject of cults and mind-control, Prescription for a Superior Existence was a no-brainer to add to the pile of books next to my bed—only it never made it there—I read it all in one day. Over the years, I’ve grown to understand that my fascination with cults actually says more about me than the object of my fascination. With that in mind, I strongly recommend that anybody with an interest in cults read this new novel by Josh Emmons. Those who read this blog (both of you) know that I take a snarky, mocking approach to the battle against Scientology. I think humor goes a long way to diffuse the absurdity of the subject matter, but that humor is backed up with personal experience and familiarity with some fairly substantive books on the subject. I now add this work of fiction to that list. By turns moving, disturbing, fantastic and sobering, this book offers a close-up view of what makes humans tick, and what makes some of us turn to extremist groups.

The story is set in a plausible, near-future San Francisco, a time when many of our chickens have come home to roost. It’s the story of an ordinary man plunged into extraordinary circumstances when he falls for the daughter of a cult leader. Playing out against this troubled backdrop, the book has more than a whiff of of Raymond Chandler and a dash of cyberpunk—a slightly dystopian, but very believable, not-too-distant future where environmental, political and societal stresses feed our fears and doubts, leaving some of the populace ripe for the picking.

Emmons has a keen understanding of how cults can snare even the most skeptical people under the right emotional circumstances. I found myself impressed at this young writer’s maturity and familiarity with the psychology and language of mind-control. I also found myself disturbed by his ability to get inside my own head when he eloquently describes the self-doubts that gnaw at his protagonist. I could feel what it would be like to be on that slippery slope of credulity, unable to stop the slide into submission to the group.

The cult that Emmons has created is eerily like Scientology mixed with Landmark. The charismatic leader and his Prescription for a Superior Existence seems to be a bit of Hubbard, a bit of Erhard with overtones Heaven’s Gate. What I found truly scary is that if a fairly charismatic woman or man were to take the ideas in this book and flesh them out, they’d probably find themselves with scores of devotees in no time.
Having just finished the book, I’m haunted by a lingering sense of compassion and understanding for our human frailties. Our self-doubts and our desire to belong are clearly and sometimes achingly portrayed in these characters caught up in the sweep of the storyline.

As I mentioned earlier, Emmons literary style is mature, sophisticated and edgy, though there are twists and turns that are fairly predictable. In the end, even the predictable turns are very satisfyingly rendered in his capable hands. Ultimately, I found myself taking a hard look at what motivates me as a critic. For this I’m very grateful, as it certainly strengthened my resolve in standing up to abusive groups, while reminding me that compassion for those in thrall to those groups is what it's all about. For those of us who rail against the abuses of $cientology and other cults, I believe there is much insight to be gained in reading this novel—insight into what motivates both sides of the argument and how thin the emotional line between the two sides really is.