A soul who has had many names throughout his various incarnations has reached a relatively high level of enlightenment. High enough that he’s chosen to become the Dalai Camel. He’s sent back to Earth to live another life and complete his divine mission to obtain that rank. Starting from his birth to a camel in the middle of the desert, we follow the would-be Dalai Camel through his various adventures on his path to ultimate enlightenment.
“Now, as you embark with me on my journey down the camel hole (which will make a lot more sense, once you hear about my birth), please remember that I have zero point one one interest in making up wild anecdotes merely to amuse, nor to derive any sort of warped, pleasure (sic) from some peculiar need for self-aggrandizement, and such.”
The Dalai Camel is a picaresque religious parody. There are humorous takes on the story of Buddha, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the story of Jesus, and pseudo-spiritual “self-help” books just to name a few. The story moves all over the world and throughout time, beginning in Middle Ages and ending in modern day. Nearly every major religion is referenced in one way or another.
I went into this book expecting to enjoy it a lot more than I did. The biggest problem with this novel is that its prose and form are incredibly overbearing. The story feels the need to shove a pun or a joke into nearly every paragraph. While this is a humor story, it never feels like it stops to breathe. It feels like every other sentence ends with an exclamation point, it uses font and word size changes to emphasize things way too much, and it constantly points out when something “weird” happens. The best way to describe it is that it felt like someone was elbowing me in the ribs on every page and asking if I got the jokes.
There are jokes that don’t even make sense. There’s a running gag where the word “BEAR” is always stylized in all capital letters. The explanation within the novel is that the bear on the front cover only agreed to pose in exchange for “bear” to be in all capital letters every time it appears in the book. This is the only time the bear is mentioned. No bears play any role in the story. It never even makes a cameo appearance. I really don’t get what the joke is supposed to be. Is it a reference that I’m missing?
There are many fun and humorous moments in the book, however. My favorite is towards the beginning when the titular Dalai Camel takes a row boat from Europe to Brazil and paddles with his hands and feet the whole way, having forgotten to get an oar. Along the way, the heavens rain fruit for him to eat and the divine forces at play provide him a mermaid both to have sex with and eat (it’s less dark than it sounds). Again, though, it’s dragged down by the Dalai Camel constantly pointing out how weird everything that happens to him is.
Despite all its flaws that make it drag, the story is still very enjoyable, even without a strong central plot. The book does present an unironic spiritual message towards the end. This would seem ill-advised, and the message is pretty boilerplate, but it actually works. There’s enough levity in it that it doesn’t feel forced or out of place and it brings the book to a satisfying close.
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The Dalai Camel has a fun and odd story that gets bogged down with a style that makes you feel like it's being shouted at you the whole time. If you like weird humor, this is worth a shot, but I wouldn't blame you if you abandoned it or had to take it in small bursts. CE Rachlin has potential to come out with something much better in his future books, this being his first, if he exercises some restraint.
Review copy provided
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