Thursday, 12 September 2013

Review: The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Edward Canfor-Dumas

In trying to broaden my reading experience as much as possible, I recently made the decision to join a book club. I know many people, dotted around the globe, who conduct most of their reading at the impetus of discussion groups. The idea of 'reading on demand' has never really appealed to me but (as you may be able to tell) I love discussing books and relish the opportunity to push outside of my comfort zone. In that spirit, I attended my first meeting at The Bookshop in Welwyn Garden City, armed with book of choice - The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Edward Canfor-Dumas.

The book relates the story of Ed, an unlucky Londoner having trouble in love and life. Finding himself stuck in a cycle of increasing despair, Ed's chance meeting with the unlikely, modern Buddhist, Geoff, sets him on an alternative path. Initially resistant to change, Ed opens himself up to Geoff's counsel and determines that he must take control of his life. He begins to challenge his negative attitudes in an effort to move forward. Although he often fails, Ed's story is one of hope in the face of modernity's complexity and difficulties.

"Nothing prepares you for the moment when you meet the person who's going to change your life. I'm not talking here about meeting someone and falling in love and deciding to start a family and all that. I'm talking about meeting a person who alters, deep down, the way you look at life, and sets you off on a totally unexpected path. Geoff was the bloke who changed my life. I wasn't looking to change. I wasn't looking for a new direction. I wasn't looking for anything. Except a drink."

The Buddha, Geoff and Me is fundamentally a story of the challenges posed to the individual by modern society. Ed is a man drained by his existence: troubled at work, failing in love, and exhausted by the demands of daily life. The arc of the book is, therefore, one of a life redeemed. Through meeting Geoff and beginning to integrate Buddhist teachings into his life, Ed is able to see that there is an alternative path - one that centralises positivity and the concept of karma. For those who find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water, The Buddha, Geoff and Me delivers an affirming message.

" 'The point is, we all create these habits, and they can end up trapping us. And the most powerful habit of all is how we think, because that controls how we act. We shoot ourselves in the foot by saying we can't do this, we can't do that; that something's impossible. Maybe we're scared of how we'll look if we fall flat on our face, or maybe we failed before and lost heart and don't want to try again - when, actually, if we made just a bit more effort or developed some kind of skill, or got the right advice or help, or just stuck at it for a bit longer, we'd definitely succeed. I mean, look at all the people in history who've been written off but won in the end just because they didn't give up: Robert the Bruce, Nelson Mandela, Churchill, God knows how many scientists and artists. That's my motto, in fact: "Perseverance Wins".'"

This is most definitely a book that I would not have picked up, had it not been for the Book Group. While it served as an extremely easy and positive read, I struggled with the agenda pursued by the author. All writers who set out to compose a work of fiction are pushing a personal agenda - they are, after all, attempting to paint reality from imagination. With The Buddha, Geoff and Me, however, the plot and characters were usurped by Edward Canfor-Dumas's determination to sell Buddhism.

I personally have a lot of time for Buddhism. It is a topic that I have spent a good deal of effort studying and contemplating. The lessons at the heart of Canfor-Dumas's work are, therefore, morals that I consider both pertinent and helpful in modern life. But The Buddha, Geoff and Me reads as an instruction manual for Buddhism, that lacks both plot and substance.

I have no inherent problem with utilising fiction as a carrier of particular messages, whether they be spiritual, political, economic, or otherwise. But I believe that fiction should prioritise the fictional world it creates. Otherwise, the author's purposes would be better served in writing a textbook. With The Buddha, Geoff and Me, the author's decision to sacrifice a complex and well-developed plot for the sake of repetitive 'life lessons' means that the beauty of the Buddhist understanding of life is lost in a sense of superficiality.

That said, I believe this is a book that could offer some assistance to readers looking for a certain Eat, Pray, Love experience. We do, after all, look to fiction as a mirror to our own experiences. For those finding themselves overwhelmed by the pace of modern life, The Buddha, Geoff and Me would no doubt offer reassurance and insight.

"I was actually feeling sorry for myself when I filled up, I reasoned. Geoff leaving just reminded me of my loneliness, the pain of disconnection. And yes, I did want to be whole. I didn't want to be stuck alone in my flat night after night, getting slowly pissed in front of vapid TV. I did want to be connected - with a woman, a family, friends, society. I looked up. Even with the stars, I thought. It was a clear night and the major constellations were quite visible. I remembered reading somewhere that the stars you see are so far away and the light's taken such a long time to reach you, that when you look at the night sky you're actually looking thousands, maybe millions of years back into the past. If that was true, and we are all stardust, all part of the Big Bang, and some minute residue of that event was in me at this very moment, was it totally ludicrous to believe that my life could somehow permeate to the distant fringes of the universe?"

The Buddha, Geoff and Me is described on the front cover as 'A Modern Story'. Ed is painted as the epitome of a modern man, dragged down by life's difficulties. That the messages laid out are messages of value is unquestionable. The book is about reconnecting with life and appreciating the consequentialism of actions. My belief is, however, that the book is an inappropriate forum through which to ask the questions it poses. Were the plot better developed and the characters given more depth, the Buddhist message would be more effectively delivered. If you are looking to learn a little about Buddhism, I would suggest turning to non-fiction as the most valuable resource. Certainly, The Buddha, Geoff and Me can offer only limited insight.


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