Illusions, by Richard Bach, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977, 104 pp., $10.95 (cloth), New York: Dell, 1979, 192 pp., $2.50 (paper).
In the preface to Illusions, Richard Bach claims that he does "not enjoy writing at all." The rest of the book stands as proof that you should not act against your feelings, for it is the most inane, pretentious, cute, and poorly written book I have ever read all of the way through.
Illusions is a "what if" book: "What if somebody came along who…could teach me how my world works and how to control it?…what if Siddharta or a Jesus came into our time?" In concrete terms, this ideal is Donald Shimoda, a "messiah who quit." He is not a symbolic messiah; he is the real thing complete with standard equipment. He can: heal the body of a crippled man and the spirit of a terrified young girl, make cryptic and profound remarks, create illusions, and perform miracles. He has: a body and possessions that never get dirty, a slight halo, grand entrances, and a smug attitude.
Shimoda "quits the messiah business" because people come only to see his miracles, not to learn. They cannot accept that their power would equal his own if only they would believe in it. They stubbornly remain closet-messiahs who wish to suffer for God rather than to follow Shimoda. And so he quits.
Shimoda's story is told in the first 16 pages of the book, which are purported—with all apparent seriousness—to be genuine copies of the genuine grease-stained, fingerprinted notebook that Bach carries with him to jot down ideas. (As my overwhelming hostility toward cuteness in art is not necessarily an aesthetic issue, I will refrain from commenting on this "simply darling" touch.)
Richard Bach and Shimoda meet in a meadow just north of Ferris, Illinois. They are in the same line of work: "flying with the wind from town to town, selling rides in an old biplane, three dollars for 10 minutes in the air." At this first meeting, Shimoda states, "I've been waiting for you." Bach replies, "Sorry, I'm late." Illusions is the story of their relationship.
According to Shimoda, their meeting is "cosmic law," while Bach is (unfortunately) more specific: "You and I have some sort of mystical agreement.…I'm going to say that we met three or four thousand years ago, give or take a day." Shimoda proceeds to give Bach a crash course on messiahship, complete with a notebook, "Reminders for the Advanced Soul," that conveniently falls open to the insight you most need at the time; for example: "Live never to be ashamed if anything you do or say is published around the world, even if what is published is not true"; "You're always free to change your mind and choose a different future or a different past"; and finally, "Everything in this book may be wrong."
Bach and Shimoda team up to eat cheeseburgers, see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, make panbread, and have heavy conversations. At long last, Shimoda is shot and dies…only to return in the epilogue. He returns in what the common man calls a dream and what Shimoda calls a different space-time. During this visit, he suggests that Bach express his messiahship through writing and then soars away, whereupon Bach pulls out his genuine grease-stained notebook and writes the first words to appear in Illusions: "There was a master come unto earth, born in the holy land of Indiana."
In aesthetically evaluating a piece of art, the particular worldview it expresses is irrelevant. But whatever the worldview, it must be coherent and internally consistent. By coherent I do not mean "easily understood"; I mean "capable of being understood." Illusions is neither. A crucial point of the book is that men are latent or unwilling messiahs. Yet one of his maxims states: "Laughing on the way to your execution is not generally understood by less-advanced life-forms." Less-advanced life-forms refers to mankind, which leaves the question: What is man? An errant equal or an inferior species? As the book's presentation of man as able but unwilling to assume messiahship is central to the theme and to the characterization of Shimoda, it is inexcusable for this confusion to arise.
Equally unintelligible is Illusions' philosophy. It is a total rejection of anything real. "This world? And everything in it? Illusions Richard! Every bit of it illusions!" Everything is an illusion. But an illusion of what? Without reality, what is there to have an illusion of? This is an old debate. The idea was ridiculous when it arose many centuries ago. The only difference now is that it is old and ridiculous. The philosophy leads you into such statements as: "Everything in this book may be wrong," which, if applied to itself, reduces to absurdity. This becomes an aesthetic issue to the extent that Illusions' general confusion and vagueness hinder the identification of theme and any possibility of the author portraying it clearly.
Along with these many faults, Illusions is pretentious, by which I mean "all show and no substance." This is exemplified in Bach's use of the phrase "The Infinite Radiant IS" for the word god. This puffy capitalization adds nothing to the concept "god." It is simply part of Illusions' gross style, which is entirely without grace or subtlety. The first 16 pages are particularly gross; they are almost a burlesque of the Bible, replete with thees and thous and thines. "Not my will but thine be done. For what is thy will is mine for thee."
Superficiality in the mask of wisdom is nothing new. Bach simply provides his version: "There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts." I presume this means that you seek medical problems because you need bed rest; you seek natural disasters because your home needs remodeling; and you have that nervous breakdown because institutionalization promotes growth.
To compress my reaction to Illusions into one word, it is silly. It would be sillier still to review such a book were it not for the fact that it has been on the bestseller list for nearly two years. And that is not silly; it is depressing.
Wendy Grosscup is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Illusions".