One of the main compensations for being a grownup is the assurance that one will never again have to be in middle school. Those two or three years of doubt, rejection, anxiety, embarrassment, and outright cruelty, it seems to me, could justify requiring everyone to undergo a course of post-trauma counseling, paid for by the government.
So along comes the mononomial SARK (all caps), with her eleventh book, not counting the greeting cards and posters with which her career began. The cover informs us that there are “more than two million SARK books in print!” We also learn from the publisher's promotional material that there is a genuine SARK phenomenon, a growing cult of true believers, a website with chatrooms, a 24-hour inspiration hotline, and triumphal speaking tours. It's all called “Camp SARK” and is touted as “a place to be how you actually are.” I suppose – let me guess – that all her enterprises, including earlier books like Inspiration Sandwich (“Stories to Inspire Our Creative Freedom”) and Transformation Soup (“Healing for the Splendidly Imperfect”), are designed to help us achieve Better Self-Knowledge and Acceptance.
Alas, here we are back in middle school after all.
The polychrome cover of Prosperity Pie shows what looks like a large birthday cake surrounded by attractively if crudely drawn people surrounding it, some arm in arm, one doing a handstand. The lettering is raised, as in the more expensive greeting cards. The greeting card, in fact, SARK's apparent first artistic medium, seems to be the predominating influence on her work. Several pages, for no apparent reason, are printed on card stock rather than paper. All the writing is in SARK's own childish script, but, lest childish script itself be seen as some kind of conformity, one page, a personal want ad that she says she wrote “as an experiment,”appears in what looks like Arial font. (In that ad, by the way, she says she prefers a man who is a “male lesbian.”) There are whimsical drawings throughout, hearts, arrows, pies of course, a few photos of herself and her friends, and at the end of every chapter some big, empty ovals in which you are invited to write your own stuff.
Prosperity Pie is certainly the fattest, quirkiest greeting card you ever saw, a sensual feast designed to make you feel good or, if you don't, at least to point the way toward the late twentieth century's version of felicity. At sixteen dollars, though, it may also be the most expensive greeting card ever.
Unfortunately the greeting-card influence extends disastrously to content as well as to format in this book. The author herself says at one point, “I have a theory that books don't even need to be read to be helpful.” Later she worries, “Oh, dear, how do I write about something I feel profoundly unskilled at?” but consoles herself, “I can certainly share what I don't know, and perhaps some of what I am seeking.”
I am ready to reassure her that profound lack of skill is no detriment in this genre, any more than it is in the journal writing of a breathless twelve-year-old. Seeking is what early adolescence is all about, though we might expect that SARK, at thirty-something, would be past its worst manifestations. But arrested development is no crime – it gets truly bizarre only after forty – and so the banalities masquerading as insights, the confessionals, the vapid narcissism we find here constitute a deplorable, but not an indictable, offense.
SARK says right at the beginning, "I believe fiercely in sharing my ongoing story of life, because it is your story too." In the process of that sharing she tells us a great deal, maybe more than enough, about herself. She wears no underwear. Her memories of childhood include physical and sexual assault. She had drug and alcohol problems. She was homeless for a period of time. She underwent twelve years of psychotherapy. She studied zen. In one chapter she describes her friends in detail, one of whom she labels “an eccentric poet-astrologer-philosopher,” in distinction, I imagine, to a run-of the-mill poet-astrologer-philosopher. She tells us that she once ordered a chocolate cake in a restaurant and specified that it be served “with no silverware” so she and her friends could get deliciously messy eating it. She tells us, “My spirit longs for union with essence.”
Whose spirit doesn't? A longing like that brings us abruptly back to middle school. The trouble with this book is not so much its patent immaturity – we could be charmed by that – as by its persistent banality. A bright eighth grader should be able to give better advice to a troubled soul than we get here. The chapter titles, including Work, Love, Money, and Time, promise at least something of use, but all we find are recycled palliatives from the self-help books of an earlier generation. For example, "We are all gifted," "We need to discover who we truly are," "We can practice letting love in." There is also a great deal here about "superpersonalities" that need to be acknowledged, as well as "inside children" and "inner parents." On the major theme of prosperity and money, we are admonished to accept "enoughness" in our lives, to start a money journal, and to see money as a spiritual rather than a material resource. "Money," SARK tells us, "is another marvelous mirror that can reflect where we're hiding."
Her practical advice is equally unhelpful. If you have a friend who won't come to your party because he has an obsessive fear that he won't find a parking space, hire valet parkers for your guests, she says. In her own case she reports that her friend's anxieties were not diminished, because he worried about where the valets would find parking spaces.
Sadly, in short, Prosperity Pie is an extended exercise in self-indulgence, worthless for its intended purposes. The quotations scattered through its pages by Marcus Aurelius, Ram Dass, the Beatles, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, and Henry Miller fail to give it gravity or even relevance for any reader old enough to have had spontaneously all of the author's thoughts already.
There is hope for the seeker, however. If you want confessionals, you might try St. Augustine, Marcel Proust, or maybe Xaviera Hollander. For inspiration, look up John Donne's or Thomas Merton's meditations. And for rules of good living the best sources are still Montaigne and Francis Bacon. Their books are nowhere near as cute as Prosperity Pie, but there is something to be learned in them.