Buddha’s Ādittapariyāya Sutta or Fire Sermon Discourse is the third discourse delivered after his enlightenment. In the text, Buddha preaches about achieving liberation from suffering through detachment from the five senses and mind. After reading Jamie Quatro’s debut novel Fire Sermon, the inner anguish experienced by Quatro’s main character Maggie, suddenly becomes clear.
Buddha described in the Fire Sermons that every aspect of life experiences are known as “burning,” explaining that it applies to “pleasant and unpleasant phenomena alike.” It’s evident that Quatro uses the Fire Sermon teachings to ignite Maggie’s own confusions and emotional dilemmas. Specifically when she starts feeling a powerful attraction for James, a poet with whom she has been corresponding and sharing a love of literature and musings about her devotion to God.
Ironically, the Fire Sermons preach a lesson that Maggie seems to not immediately grasp. Buddha insists that there is a choice between not adding fuel to the fire by making the burning personal, or to add fuel “in the form of wanting, aversion, and ignorance.” But it isn’t only in the growing desire she feels for the poet, but in the distance she willingly creates from her husband Thomas, that Maggie adds fuel to the burning of her unmet desires and frustrations.
However, it isn’t just Maggie’s lust for James that expands with the growing of her own marital dissatisfaction, but also a series of enigmatic conversations with perhaps God or herself. In these, Maggie tries to find answers to her increasing feelings for James, and is met with a voice that in no short terms informs her that she might be making a mountain out of a molehill:
Were I to articulate them it would sound like blasphemy. I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire. I might not believe the things I say. I would say them anyhow. To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe. Maybe even detach.
So say them.
I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.
How do you know unless you try?
Even though Maggie and James’ desire for each other is a crucial plot point in the novel, it is by no means the only one. The view into Maggie’s relationship and then marriage to Thomas is equally key in understanding her infatuation with James. Her sexual desire for Thomas diminishes after she gives birth to their first child, a problem that he attempts to solve by giving her an array of different sized and shaped vibrators, which Maggie loathes but pretends to enjoy out of guilt for not being able to summon any desire for him.
Quatro’s prose is close enough to stream of consciousness to portray Maggie’s sense of inner conflict and confusion, but not enough to be a completely loose monologue devoid of punctuation. The story is solely from Maggie’s point of view, with the exception of the last chapter told by an invisible narrator, whose identity we can only attempt to guess.
As Maggie’s feelings for James deepen, conversely so does her commitment to her husband and her children, which prompts her to end the affair. However, they resume conversations over the phone and meet once again during a conference in Chicago, one that Thomas was supposed to attend with Maggie, but decides to go on a business trip to Turks and Caicos at the last minute. This change in plans pushes Maggie in a direction she has tried to avoid, one that will have her question her loyalty and morality while attempting to untangle the love she feels for both James and Thomas.
Quatro’s protagonist is by no means a simple character to grasp. Maggie lies to herself, to James, to Thomas and to us. She tells different versions of the same question, we assume in an attempt to avoid conflict and delving too deep into her many emotional flounders:
Sometimes when the house is empty.
I practice saying the words out loud.
Different ways of saying it, depending
On the listener.
I committed adultery,
I say to my mother.
I fell in love with another man,
I say to my best friend.
We fucked, it meant nothing
I say to Thomas.
It was the best thing,
I say to you. In all my life,
The very best thing.
Even her inner “voice” has trouble believing her alleged love for James, pointing out that she’s had desires for other men and even women before. While Maggie insists that this time it is love, the voice challenging her proposes that perhaps “it is the acquisition you’re in love with, not the person.” This may very well be true, but the narrative is limited to Maggie’s perspective and if she lies to herself, the truth remains an enigma for the reader.
In the Fire Sermons, Buddha preaches against adding fuel to a fire in the way of wanting, aversion, and ignorance. Maggie willingly or unwillingly, does all three. By insisting on keeping her want and desire for James alive, she also fuels her growing sexual aversion towards her husband. Ultimately, this stokes her ignorance about her true feelings and what the relationship with James really represents. A sense of achieving the sublime, the point of ultimate physical desire by way of intellectual connection. A powerful thing, to be sure. But is it truly love?
With Fire Sermon, Jamie Quatro challenges the reader to navigate the jumble of desire, religion and love and how perhaps a gripping affair might just be the ultimate salvation of a stalled marriage. Undoubtedly, the topic of infidelity being in love with two people is hardly ground-breaking. But to add the teachings of Buddha about liberation through detachment to the story of a love affair is certainly not a typical thing.
This alone makes it a worthwhile and engrossing read.