The Angel Is Near
By Deepak Chopra and Martin Greenberg
St. Martin's Paperbacks, 338pp.

The public's appetite for suspense novels has long since become so unappeasable that the genre has come to share a certain kinship with pornography. Readers want and expect writers to go through the familiar motions, spicing the formula only by varying the venue: here we find intrigue and murder in the Pentagon, there aboard a jetliner, on an Indian reservation, in a hospital or doctor's office. As the categories expand, pilots, physicians, retired security personnel and even active politicians have traded on their expertise to become published authors.

So it should come as no surprise to find an ex-endocrinologist, even an endocrinologist-turned-visionary, turning his hand to trash fiction. "The Angel Is Near," the latest offering from the prolific Deepak Chopra, is a paperback thriller whose contribution to the genre is to break every so often for a repetitive musing on how "God exists on three levels at once." No great shakes as either literature, let alone theology (only true Chopra devotees will actually make it through the passages on spirituality), the book does pack something of a surprise: As cheap mysteries go, it's not half bad. If you've got a long plane ride ahead of you and absolutely nothing else to read, go for Chopra over the airline's mail-order catalogue.

There is something kind of ingenious about Chopra's choice of the form of the mystery-thriller. For what mystery could be stranger and more labyrinthine than the New Age guru's eschatology? In "The Angel Is Near," Chopra reworks many of his trademark themes about the malleability of reality and the capacity of the mind to reshape it at will in the plot of a science fiction whodunnit. Dr. Michael Aulden is living an ordinary life, although he's been starting to feel increasingly dissatisfied with his medical practice, for reasons he doesn't entirely understand.

Then, one day, everything changes, when Michael is awakened at five o'clock in the morning to rescue a neighbor having a massive heart attack. When he arrives at the scene, the man is already dead, a note reading "The Angel Is Near" at his side. But in a bizarre twist of events, the dead man's wife immediately charges Michael with the murder, and he is led away in handcuffs. Or rather, his consciousness splits in two--only one Michael is led away in handcuffs--but from here on in, reality gets tricky to talk about in the straightforward way most plot summaries demand.

In an ordinary thriller, the motive would be jealousy, blackmail or revenge. But in "The Angel Is Near," a spiritual cabal--shades of the Illuminati--is seeking to recruit Michael, who has powers of the spirit of which he is only dimly aware. Soon he and Susan, his wife, are trapped in the nightmare of divine revelation. The ordinary world around them crumbles into pieces as Michael tries to prove his innocence.

At the same time, Michael is becoming aware of just how thin the veil of reality is, and how permeable his different pasts and futures are. It's soon no longer entirely clear to anyone exactly what guilt and innocence really mean.

If one were a lit-crit theory type, one might even say there's something strangely subversive about the way that Chopra plays with the structure of the mystery novel, undermining its basic categories--indeed, interrogating the very category of "fiction" itself--with his attempt to break down the barriers between those different layers of "reality."

But speaking as an ordinary reader, by far the most strangest part of this book are the long passages written in "The Angel's Voice," interrupting the fast-paced plot for long digressions on seekers, the light, alternate realities and angels. These are, of course, the very passages Chopra's fans most crave, though anyone else who picks up the book is sure to cringe at these passages' stream-of-consciousness style.

Despite the abysmal writing, there's something haunting about Chopra's incoherent philosophy, with its repetitive insistence that "your senses are fooling you into believing that even the material world is stable, for it is constantly in flux." Utterly solipsistic in its emphasis on the power of the mind to make and remake reality, Chopra's belief system is spelled out in long digressions in which each thought seems to be completely disconnected from the next. Thankfully, these passages appear to have little to do with the book as a whole: if you aren't a Chopra maniac, just thumb past them and enjoy an endocrinologist's middling good crack at the form.

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