May 11, 2006

(+) WHY, OH WHY?

The Why Café: A Story. By John P. Strelecky. Da Capo. $12.95.

     One of the most aggressively shallow self-help books in years – and that’s really saying something – The Why Café is a simultaneously sanctimonious and supercilious tale of a mysterious diner-like establishment where people who have lost their way find enlightenment by asking themselves three questions and being guided by two gurus: a waitress and a cook.

     The three questions are: “Why are you here?”…“Do you fear death?”…and “Are you fulfilled?”  Answering these queries – especially the first one – is supposed to help you define your Purpose for Existing, or PFE.  The narrator is John – hey, that’s the author’s first name! – and the waitress is Casey, and the cook is Mike, and there’s a fellow patron named Anne who has a few words to say as well.

     Think of a late-night high-school or college bull session, perhaps fueled by alcohol or other ingested substances, in which you solve all the mysteries of life, the universe and everything, and you will have some idea of the flavor of this book.  (The fuel here is diner food, but the puerility is much the same.)  The idea is that John gets stuck in traffic on his way to a vacation from his stressful everyday life, takes an alternative route, gets lost, and finds The Why Café “in the middle of the middle of nowhere.”  Exhausted and nearly out of gas (Ooh! He and the car are nearly out of gas!), John stops, reads the three questions on the menu, and is soon embroiled in discussions about the lessons taught by a green sea turtle (swim with the waves rather than exhausting yourself by swimming hard against the current) and a stereotypical “happy native” fisherman (if you are already satisfied with what you have, there is no need to strive for more).

     Now, because this is a fairy tale, it would be unkind to pick apart all the absurdities of plot in its 130 pages.  But because this is supposed to be a book with valuable life lessons to teach (it even includes a “Reader’s Guide,” for those needing extra instruction), it is fair to examine what some of the lessons are.  The first and most important of them is utter selfishness: the aim is to find your PFE, and everyone else be damned (unless helping others is part of your PFE, of course).  All the happy, self-fulfilled people at the magical mystery café are apparently loners, unencumbered by wives or husbands or lovers, and definitely not tied down by children, aging parents, or anyone with health-care needs or any sort of disability.  The second lesson is that God (or some god, maybe the god of luck) will provide for you if you only figure out your PFE and take the necessary actions to fulfill yourself in accordance with it.  Your enthusiasm will communicate itself to people so effectively that they will want to help you and will do what is necessary to further your journey to fulfillment (this juxtaposes oddly with the inherently selfish nature of a PFE, but never mind).

     The Why Café is a piece of pernicious pseudo-profundity cleverly designed to contain just enough truth to attract a wide audience.  Who hasn’t felt caught up in the “rat race”?  Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed by the glut of available-for-purchase stuff out there, smothered by a consumerist society that offers a constant bombardment of ads suggesting that fulfillment comes through buying this or that doohickey?  Strelecky makes his living giving seminars and speeches about finding your ideal life.  Apparently the attendees – and any readers who mistakenly believe this book is useful for anything other than fattening Strelecky’s wallet – are so desperate that they listen to or read about some troubles that sound vaguely like their own and become pliably willing to believe that Strelecky has some sort of insight.  Actually, he does: insight into exploiting ennui and malaise to make himself money.  That’s apparently his PFE.

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