Miles Allinson on writing about cults: ‘People really balk about discussions of spirituality’

Media Watch

The Melbourne author’s second novel, In Moonland, taps into the mysteries that haunt us, writes Brigid Delaney. Published in the Guardian on September 12, 2021.

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Miles Allinson
Australian author Miles Allinson, whose second novel In Moonland is out now through Scribe. Photograph: Meghan Lawson

The line between a utopia and hell can be fine. Just ask anyone who’s become enamoured by a cult, only to realise too late that they cannot escape.

This tension makes for a compelling story. Miles Allinson, 40, is not the first contemporary writer to be drawn into the story of the famous and controversial Indian mystic, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) and his followers, the Rajneeshees. The magnetism of Osho and the promise of utopia at his Indian commune are at the core of Allinson’s second novel, In Moonland.

The Melbourne author’s first book, 2015’s Fever of Animals, was awarded the Victorian Premier’s award for an unpublished manuscript. In that novel, the protagonist searches for a mythical Romanian painter, Emil Bafdescu, who walked into a forest in 1967 and never re-emerged. Part autofiction and part detective novel, the work was compared to the late, great Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. The author Emily Bitto described it as “an exquisite, painterly novel” and said “Allinson is a writer destined for a cult following”.

In Moonland book coverA book about cults ensued instead. In Moonland was six years in the making and plays with form and narrative with the confidence and skill of an old hand. Yet Allinson describes the writing process as “hellish”.

“The first four years, I had a totally different structure,” he says. But it wasn’t working. He didn’t hit on a formula that worked until he realised that the real riches of the story lay in the 1970s, when the experiences young people had with group spirituality seemed more raw and ecstatic than those on offer now.

Allinson’s idea of writing about Osho was sparked by an early childhood memory of staying with friends of his parents – who were Rajneeshees – and seeing an eerie black and white photo of the guru on the wall. But the deeper questions have lingered long past childhood.

“I am fascinated by that question of spirituality. We are so desperate for something other than what we’ve got, which is this accelerated form of capitalism. Not only has it [capitalism] destroyed the world, but it’s very unsatisfying. It’s tricky to write about those issues in a novel. The novel is a really secular form.”

Allinson also sees a general distaste for spiritual matters being discussed outside spiritual circles.

“People really balk about discussions of spirituality, much more so now than they did in the 1970s,” he said. “Such discussion requires a vulnerability and openness and it’s very difficult to maintain those things publicly. It’s a very intimate topic.”

In Moonland is also the story of a family, with sections of the novel told from the perspective of different generations.

In the first section of the book, set in the present day, we meet Joe, a new father whose relationship with his partner is falling apart. He just can’t connect, and is probably suffering from what Allinson describes as a male form of postnatal depression. Instead of enjoying family life, Joe zones out and spends his nights watching old boxing matches on YouTube and obsessing about his father. What sort of people were our parents before we were born?

Joe is haunted by a photo: the only one in which his father appears to be truly happy. “He was wearing a long set of beads around his neck, and even though his clothes were grubby, there was something radiant about him, his face, his eyes. It seemed as if he’d been washed clean,” Allinson writes.

This photo, and the story behind it, feed into the second two parts of the book, set in India in the 1970s. Joe’s father, Vincent, is a young man aimlessly travelling, lonely and waiting for something to happen. A chance meeting in the Leopold Cafe in Bombay leads him into a new, transformative friendship and eventually to Pune, where the guru Osho had his headquarters.

“Time and memory were what I was interested in: how things are passed down through generations,” says Allinson. “I think about the amount of love and time spent together, and how so little of that remains after someone dies. And I then had my own child and I thought, when I was with her, none of this is going to be remembered.”

Allinson spoke to many former devotees of Osho and went to India to visit the current-day Osho centre, which proved to be a pale facsimile of the original. In the old footage of the commune, Allinson says, “it is both creepy and beautiful. It looks like paradise. But now the place has a corporate self-consciousness about it… Now it’s just pseudo-mystical and capitalist.” The modern-day pilgrims included “some really young people, but also some older people who were really sick and they had come back to die.”

In the 1970s, the centre had a reputation for wildness and boundary-crossing – as depicted in the Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country. Allinson’s novel draws on the real-life workshops participants were required to undertake, aimed at stripping away their ego and revealing their true nature. In some cases these workshops – footage of which still exists – crescendoed into sex and violence. In Allinson’s novel, an incident in one of these workshops changes the trajectory of Vincent’s life.

The novel’s final section is set in the future, and told from the perspective of Joe’s daughter Sylvie, living in the wake of a grim environmental catastrophe, with shadows of the past still hanging over them. While the novel indulges in our fascination with cults, the relationships between the characters are the main drivers of the story. Each character is a seeker in their own right, and if they aren’t tapping into the mystical they are trying to unlock generational trauma. For all that, Allinson’s new novel has more in common with work by writers like Peter Carey rather than Tim Winton. It’s taut, unsentimental, thought-provoking, sad, and at times wild and gorgeous.

In Moonland by Miles Allinson is out now through Scribe

Brigid Delaney
Brigid Delaney

Brigid Delaney is a senior writer for Guardian Australia.

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