2020 was a year of heaviness. COVID-19 ravaged our country. The Black Lives Matter movement protested long-standing police brutality and systemic racism. China interred Uighurs in concentration camps. The planet continued to warm, spotted with wildfires and drought. The internet became both a void and our lives. The heaviness was at times hard to hold, a weight I found everywhere. It was difficult to know what was exhaustion and what was the sick ache of things always being wrong. Like so many others, when I went to grasp it, I held the shocking absence of legerdemain instead.
Emily Temple’s debut novel The Lightness, which was released last June, is similarly interested in the complications of weight and weightlessness. The book follows Olivia, a girl who leaves home for a summer program at the same Buddhist retreat from which her father went missing the year before. At the Levitation Center, Olivia meets Serena and a crew of rebellious girls who decide to learn how to levitate. Serena is tantalizing to Olivia in how little she reveals about herself as well as her power over the Center’s rules: “Serena herself appeared only rarely, and then usually at a distance—I would see her traipsing away across the grounds in a thin white dress… She was almost never at meals. She was almost never at activities.”
Heaviness we understand—excess, pressure, violence. For Olivia, heaviness is affixed to her life. But lightness is what the Buddhist masters spoke of, what Temple teaches: enlightenment, freedom. In short, lightness is the capacity to leave without regret. Olivia’s quest for her father’s love is a mirror that reflects the search for a belief in the self. We are light once we are no longer bound by our past.
Olivia’s summer involves the same activities people detail when they go on meditation retreats of their own: chores, long sessions of sitting, silence, bunk beds. For her required labor, or rota, Olivia weeds a garden the size of a baseball diamond while monks build a mandala: “At first glance, the mandala seemed to be glowing, but soon I saw that it was only the richness of the colors, reds and golds and ultramarines that had been coaxed into lotus flowers and knots of eternity.” Her contemplative yard work also gets us closer to Luke, an almost heroic-looking staff-member who lives at the Center year-round and who, rumor has it, can levitate. Luke and Serena serve as the text’s poles of desire.
Together, the band of young women manipulate their retreat towards magic. “Every girl wants more from the world,” Olivia explains. “[Levitation] is a symbol of freedom (all little children dream of flight). It is a symbol of control (ditto).” The girls have already decided to learn levitation before including Olivia in their posse. Serena says the Center is the perfect meditative backdrop at which to study the craft, and that they can choose themselves to be worthy of such a gift. She convinces Olivia in part by showing her The Feeling, or what one girl calls a “brain-gasm” caused by autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Once on board, Olivia and the crew attempt to float by getting drunk, fasting, playing “the fainting game,” and cajoling Luke to instruct them. He quickly becomes disturbed by the danger of their efforts and refuses to help further. Later, when he confesses, “I still believe in fate. Not like karma. Like destiny. I know I’m not supposed to. It’s not a Buddhist concept. But I think the universe has plans for me. I think I’m going to do something big,” Olivia replies: “So are we.”
It is with the fullness of Olivia’s life that the novel becomes fullest. Temple backdrops the almost fantastical set with the even more exhilarating minutiae of the human experience. We read of Olivia’s father’s quiet authority, his gardening, and his lavish parties in contrast to her mother’s lavish parties, her hand-made sculptures of corpulent women, her tempest-like nature. Their separation a year prior leaves Olivia without “feeling any kind of awe… or any amount of pride. I only felt relief.” Her penchant for etymology must come from this reconciliation of emotions, a hope to articulate and understand exactly. Words are our bridge into Olivia’s perspective. “Thrall is an almost perfect word,” she says later. “Old Norse for ‘slave.’ … The word is like the sound a sudden change makes, or like a spell resolving. Say it out loud and listen: thrall. That guttural glissando. Like all real magic words, it’s a little hard to get out.”
Temple establishes that Olivia is narrating when she’s much older, which allows us to glean the distance between who she is as the storyteller compared to who she was:
This is how I’ve tried to straighten it in my mind, you see, to square a thing that cannot be squared… I have piles and piles of pages on my desk: lists of rumors, eyewitness reports, science projects, photos, fairy tales. Things are falling apart. Things are bleeding together… If I were to tell you I made it all up, you would be forced to believe me.
An older Olivia’s inclination to write about the past teaches the reader that tension comes in part from time. This story is worthy of telling, a momentum which moves us through the novel. But the book’s engine also propels us by ricocheting from backstory to the Center to Olivia’s mind to Olivia’s narration. The seed of our intrigue is smartly sown right in the prologue: “A suicide, they said. Nothing to suggest otherwise. If not a suicide, perhaps an accident.”
Temple reciprocates this motion through compact and stylish prose that is quick and concentrated. It moves between short paragraph vignettes to fleshy scenes, the result a thrilling feeling of uneasiness. Her section breaks are so frequent that the novel at times reads as if composed of short flash fiction, and the recurrence of characters and locations then establishes a stop-motion strobe light of the summer. On one page, Olivia muses about her mother’s advice on contraception, depicts the woods around the Center, kisses Luke, mistakes him for her father, remembers a Buddhist saying, and recalls a memory of “gray ponies in a store window.” In Temple’s collage, we readers combine the images together into something that makes sense in composite, more by memory than through realization.
The Levitation Center also boasts a cast of characters whose histories and behaviors at the community make it an institution. In the kitchen, for example, the head chef “Tenzin had printed up a healthy numbers of signs since the last time we’d been there, and posted them everywhere: THIEVES WILL BE BOILED, they read, above a black-and-white photograph of a steak.” Threading together such viscous detail is curiosity, both ours and Olivia’s, a core tenet of any Bildungsroman. The girls wander the woods, toe the edges of cliffs; there is tension in their sleeping, too. “Later, when Luke had gone, I lay stiff and flat beside [Serena] on her narrow mattress, barely wide enough for two bodies… I heard somewhere that if you lie next to someone for long enough, your hearts begin to beat in unison. I wonder if the weaker heart slows to mirror the stronger.” The book’s setting is an eruv for knowledge and danger. Temple wants us to know that levitation happens at the intersection of the two.
But something can only be light by comparison, and so our touchstone is the body. The body in The Lightness is not just our physicality; instead, it is the multiplicity of our senses combined. Every theme is approached this way, the novel less interested in a singular point of view than the palimpsest that is our lives. And so lush descriptions estrange the landscape through the uniqueness of Olivia’s mind, triggering a hundred places from which to leap: “The filtered light made the wildflowers that grew along the side of the trail look somehow brighter. We take flowers for granted, though they are absurd things: little sex-crazed jewel boxes.” Even the conditional tense is mined for possibility, becoming kinetic through our reading into its application; this breeds a different type of eroticism, not one of force or vigor or even tenderness but wonder. “I would let him touch me. I would let him lift me into the air… I thought of him, but I also thought of her. Right at the end, I thought of myself, leaving him there on the bench, wanting more of me. Yes, yes, I thought, yes: this feeling would build, and then I would rise.”
My favorite feature of the book is Temple’s deft use of philosophy as a tool for helping us understand her characters. Similar novels interested in the world, history, and culture often use insight more as point of view—we understand characters’ backgrounds, or we understand a book’s perspective on certain issues. The Lightness is of course composed of key ideologies of the world: we reference Padmasambhava and quote Sappho and learn of Milarepa and read Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. But the facts Temple includes—the movements of the superhero Storm, Harvard research of tummo (a breathing technique to increase body temperature), Paula Abdul’s seminal “Forever Your Girl” single, the toxicology of nettles—provide a shape for the book by mapping Olivia’s brain. The logistics of the plot can then evade so much focus. We deepen Olivia’s fascination with Serena by turning toward
the salvaged figures from the Acropolis, the pyramids—curved half-moon faces, carved-out bodices, headless women, armless women, hairless women, disembodied hands still holding on to their precious baubles, having lost everything else… The holes into which you can imagine the missing parts, more appealing in the mind than they could ever be in marble, or in flesh. The holes into which you can imagine yourself. The sacred is always obscure.
On one page we move from Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void to a Barcelona artist using “resonant wireless power transfer” to “magnetic quantum forces.” Olivia and the book are fueled by a precocity prerequisite to learning to fly.
In the same way we understand who a character is by the decisions she makes, we understand who Olivia is by how she thinks, which allows the novel to jump forward regardless of Olivia’s trepidation and coercion. “Levitation isn’t the point,” Olivia narrates. “But it fascinates.” In some ways, the book is a springboard for the real weight that is the human imagination, while the tangent between fact and story creates another kind of lightness by adjacency. This is both real and fiction. A precipice. If you leapt, would you find the truth?
I tuned in to a conversation between Emily Temple and Chloe Benjamin at a virtual Wisconsin Book Festival event. Towards the end, when asked if magic exists or not, Temple said, “I change my mind about that every day.” She described the power of magic realism as an “interesting ambiguity that sort of lets you have both at once.” I was fascinated by her definition, that the real magic could be in the uncertainty of magic. To take it as fact might change magic into something more mundane, like puberty. But it is the potency of questioning—the disbelief—that transmutes minutiae into magic.
The climax of the novel takes place at a ledge. It has to. As readers, we are piqued by such strongly inhabited spaces of liminality throughout. Earlier, when practicing, Olivia swears she sees a globule of blood float. “A thin gyre of bright red blood that spooled upward from her temple and hung suspended and shining in the air above her face… before dissolving back down into the blackness.”
But this isn’t a novel about witchcraft or physics; rather, it’s a novel in which possibility is spellbinding. Temple establishes an uncanniness from the start to suggest the capacity for fantasy. Loaded with facts and memories and retreat and a disappeared father, The Lightness is at times otherworldly. At others, it reminds us that otherworldliness is just our living. The distance we have from the Levitation Center is the very tool through which Temple incites our conviction that a girl can rise.
At the end of the book, the reader can think like Olivia. We can visualize the spartan layout of the Center. We can return home. Will this make us float, or bring a father back? Temple is less interested in answers and more certain of the mandala: arresting, meditative art built to be destroyed. Each page is image nestled against image granting us a new lens for seeing such detailed layers and the impressive magnitude of them all together. I found in each chapter a new vantage point. Higher and higher, until—