Why do we knowingly make bad choices, even in the presence of good ones? Does it seem like the only choice at the time?
A Monk Jumped Over a Wall peers into the lives of not-so-eager law student J.J. Spencer and his not-so-eager professor Josiah Steele. Both knowingly make the wrong choices regarding the direction of their lives, J.J. because he sees no other options, Josiah because he knows (or thinks he does, at any rate) that it’s the only feasible possibility. In a dual narrative of J.J.’s former law school days and current disbarring trial, Nussbaum examines what we mean by “right” and “wrong” choices in a rebelliously passionate outcry against a world where right and wrong are measured by feasibility.
We meet J.J. trapped: he’s a wisecracking nobody first-year lawyer, a job he never really wanted in the first place. We soon learn that he went to law school in the desperate hope of gaining some direction in a post-college world, and after graduating (with no direction gained) he reluctantly works for the only firm that hires him. Overcome by the weight of the world, J.J. has made a bad choice: starting a life path for a field he has no interest in. Soon, he makes another wrong choice: breaking attorney-client confidentiality—and losing his job in the process—to provide advice to the Eagans, an earnestly poor family about to have their house foreclosed by an uncaring millionaire. But these two wrong choices are different, and it is the task—and success—of A Monk Jumped Over a Wall to explore what that difference may be. Nussbaum’s chief metaphor is the story of a monk who, after smelling a soup so divine outside his monastery, is incapable of feeling satisfied with his life inside, so he jumps over the wall of the temple to drink it. But they soon discover that jumping has consequences, both for their responsibilities to themselves and family, as well as for their happiness.
While the characterization rocks slightly toward the cliché, Nussbaum crafts his characters well. J.J. and Josiah’s struggles against the entrapment of their choices quickly come to life as universal. While the supporting cast fills definite roles in the development of J.J. and Josiah, they are whole people in their own right, avoiding what could have been a stilted coming-of-age story. All this is couched in an un-put-downable narrative: Nussbaum punctuates J.J.’s subdued droll voice with the charged emotion of a hurt young man fighting to find his place in the world while struggling with what that place is becoming, further peppered by some Zen-ish wisdom from J.J.’s sensei. Nussbaum’s greatest success is to balance the daunting themes of aching for happiness with an overall light novel. Neither the plot nor the storytelling need be overly ambitious, as the protagonists’ ideas and agonies speak for themselves.
This novel will resonate most heavily with an under-30 crowd, many of whose experiences may directly mirror its vivid descriptions. And while catering toward this audience occasionally veers slightly toward juvenile rebellion against a world where comfort and happiness seem irreconcilable, Nussbaum succeeds in formulating his dilemma of how to be happy when there seem to be no good options available. He ends on a somewhat disquieting note—J.J. is hopeful, but as detached readers we’re forced to ask how much he has actually overcome the problem, or merely delayed it. While at many turns open to interpretation the rest of the novel, it’s at the conclusion that we look into ourselves to see how we answer the question. Those who respond cynically may be forced to ask themselves why they do so, and in that process, this novel can achieve what few books achieve: the power to direct self-reflection.