Faced with complexity and confusion, human beings compare their experiences and synthesise a response. It is the tale of the tribe. Every age also has its literary genre-du-jour, a style that attempts to answer the needs of its contemporaneous readers. For the third decade of the 21st century this dominant mode has become the first-person factual essay.
The feeling of being out of joint with our times and ourselves is now a common one. Danyl McLauchlan's Tranquillity and Ruin deals with the personal consequences of strange psychic states, mood disorders, anxiety, sleeplessness, chemical antidepressants, the search for solutions – and those who attempt to provide them. It is observant, honest, sometimes mordantly humorous, and always informative.
Beginning with what could loosely be called a "breakdown" – sleeplessness, repetitive thoughts, auditory hallucinations, and depression – McLauchlan entered a period of around five years of going on pills, coming off them, then having to go back on them again. He tried meditation briefly but it didn't work, until he tried it again …
McLauchlan's "comic-noir" novels, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley (2013) and Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley (2016), have been well-reviewed. He writes about science, politics, philosophy and Wellington life for The Spinoff. This disparate experience makes him a perfect fit for the confessional but engaging explorations of Tranquillity and Ruin.
The book's four essays take their reader to a range of retreats and meditative monasteries in various places in New Zealand. It is a revelation of a world unknown to most readers. McLauchlan has a sharp eye, taking in fried tofu, kitchen rosters, bunk-room decor, effective altruism, the personalities of his retreat companions, their life stories, and the consequences of looking in the phone book for Buddhism under B. He applies the same focus to the psychic changes he notes in himself as a result of the various disciplines he practises.
As befits a trained science writer, McLauchlan explains complexities lucidly. While the book is a first-person narrative, there are many side glances into yoga, AI, neuroscience, and existentialism. One of the pleasures of Tranquillity and Ruin is the weight McLauchlan gives to the controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose very brief flirtation with Nazidom in the early 1930s has tended to colour the reception of his works, ignoring those of his speculations, which might have real validity.
However, other forces in society are ignored. While writers like the late Mark Fisher, for instance, deal with depression as a consequence of economic, technological, social, and political changes, these are larger and possibly causal factors that McLauchlan neglects.
Tranquillity and Ruin is a thoughtful book in the best sense. While framed experientially – one man's route out from the dark quandary in which he found himself – McLauchlan's considerations have much import for an age of anxiety.
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Tranquillity and Ruin, by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $30)