i think that, as short story collections go, this one is up there with the great masterpieces -- flannery o'connor, hawthorne, raymond carver, nadinei think that, as short story collections go, this one is up there with the great masterpieces -- flannery o'connor, hawthorne, raymond carver, nadine gordimer, alice munro (the writers who come to mind are the ones who straightforwardly explore the torments of the human heart). the most extraordinary feeling i have about it is that i glided from story to story without having much of a sense of interruption. the stories flow into each other, having to do with people who are different (in age, gender, lifestyle) but also similar in some deep way, so that you have a sense that you are reading about the same group of folks, people who share a profound connection. the last three stories are interconnected, yet i felt no difference. they all felt interconnected to me.
part of it is that all these characters are locked inside, deeply alone. they are remote from others and also from themselves. i feel it would be extremely hard to have a relationship with them, and i wouldn't want to. yet, they seem so incredibly human, so easy to identify with. this is lahiri's sleight of hand, to make you feel both very close and infinitely distant from these people.
these characters are also intensely self-contained, though not in an assured, relaxed way. they feel to me as if they were tightly wound up, and held themselves together with great care, aware that a sudden movement can make the tightly wound edifice of their lives spring into chaos.
there is of course the theme of immigration, of living in a place that is not yours, and you don't feel as yours. this is always true in the book for the first-generation immigrants, the parents. most of the kids were born here -- hence the tragic, portentous intergenerational strife. all of the children seem married to people with anglo names, some of them clearly identified as white. it's strange how race doesn't seem to be much of a concern for lahiri. apart from one egyptian character, everyone is either bengali or assumed to be a white american. race-based discrimination never comes up. if anything, class is more of a concern. everyone is highly educated and well-off. so, oddly for a book that is so much about cultural and ethnic displacement, this reads to me more like an investigation of a particularly isolated section of the middle/upper middle class than as an investigation of race. in this sense, it is similar to... oh, who writes about the dislocation of the upper middle class in america? i feel i should be able to rattle off authors, yet can think only of movies: the ice storm, ordinary people, six degrees of separation (i guess they need to have donald sutherland in them!).
writers love to probe the dissatisfactions and, ultimately, hidden horrors of the orderly middle/upper-middle class life (see michael haneke's funny games, which is supposed to be about voyeurism instead seems to me to be about class). this is what lahiri does here. is she suggesting that behind wealthy living lies some sort of cultural displacement, that being an immigrant is just one way to be out of place and out of touch?
some more stray comments. this is not a cheerful book. it is, in fact, deeply sad. in one way or another, everyone is unhappy, and unhappiness is offered to you matter-of-fact, the way life is. there is no search for happiness, no pursuit of the american dream. at most, these characters seek tranquility and a quiet contentment. right now, actually, i can think only of the father of the first story... another father later on...
like their parents and their arranged marriages, the second-generation children land in their lives rather than choosing them. there is a story in which a young man "chooses" his life and it is a quiet train wreck. even their jobs and their ph.ds seem to have been handed to them, rather than resulting from passion or aspiration or desire. this is not to say that they are not satisfied with their lives. rather, it's as if happiness, this all-american pursuit, were irrelevant, a foreign concept that doesn't apply.
this book relentless focus is relationships, but they are portrayed as if each member lived in profound insularity. the story's protagonists, whose point of view we adopt, see others as if from inside a fish tank. a lot of time is spent being away from others rather than being with them. love, this other american obsession, is unstated and taken for granted, even when it's not there. same with the loss of love, and, ultimately, even death.
one might be tempted to say that lahiri critiques our american obsession with the pursuit of intimacy -- gently mocks this country that, perhaps more than any other, has so much trouble with intimacy that it needs to keep circling around it, fantasizing about it, obsessing about it. but i don't think lahiri is after critiquing anything. i think she describes life as she sees it, the quiet grinding of it, with a sort of melancholy acceptance that appeals to me tremendously.
one last word about language. this book could not be written in a simpler, plainer language. yet the language is gorgeous and the structure of the stories deep and dreamy and enchanting. the language matches the themes: there is no striving, no pulling, so thrashing. instead, lives are built with simplicity and respect, as if they were handed to the author the same way as they are handed to the characters, already formed, like an arranged marriage. ...more
i really enjoyed this book. who knows, maybe i would not have loved it as much without katrina, but katrina happened, ain't a thing i can do about it,i really enjoyed this book. who knows, maybe i would not have loved it as much without katrina, but katrina happened, ain't a thing i can do about it, unfortunately.
noir, broadly defined (is intrinsically linked to a deep (if possibly controversial) attachment to the city and its neighborhoods, so i think the format, of dividing the stories by neighborhoods, works well. the city, as in many of the stories here, especially the post-katrina ones, is a city that's going to seed. at the same time, the characters love it. they love it even when it lets them down. they love it even when it's dangerous and tragic. they love it with an unbreakable heart.
i am someone who's quite in love with descriptions of seedy locales, both internal (dives, clubs, brothels) and external (rundown 'hoods, industrial wastelands, etc.), so that, too, spoke to me.
but i really, really liked the characters, which is another feature of the noir. however scuzzy, however morally shady they are, however loserish, noir characters are characters you can't help but like. they are good at heart. they would do better if they just could. they are down on their luck. often they do the right thing only because they can't help doing otherwise.
this would be, for instance, jack in angola south, by ace atkins, a black (yes?) cop who tries to hold it together, in spite of the utter breakdown of post-katrina civilization. people who looted a bottle of water (i don't remember the details -- i'm making this one up) are in the same makeshift jail cells as people who shot and maimed. in fact (doesn't another story mention this?) the only thing that seems to work in post-k. N.O. is the swift transport of apprehended criminals from the makeshift cells at the train station (again, maybe not getting the details right) to angola. the fact is that jack does not hold it together, not really, because, frankly, it's mayhem out there. but there's something tough and old-worldly to his lone, watchful, dedicated patrolling, to his sleeping in hard chairs, to his wading in the deep city swamp to catch a shooter who turns out to be a dead kid.
stories i really liked (short version, to keep this post from being too long):
two-stories brick houses by patty friedmann. not exactly noir, but chilling and powerful. i guess uptown in a nice part of town? i guess this is about the ghosts that haunt the well-off, the white people who live in nice houses and whose parents were killed in the holocaust. because this is definitely a story about class.
another story about class (and, inevitably, race), but with a nice & happy leftist/social justice twist at the end: loot by julie smith.
i loved james nolan's open mike, partly because i really dug the narrator, partly because i loved reading about the french quarter, and more than partly (imagine a large part) because of the writing. finally, i liked it for the moral debacle of the end. we all do what we can. no heroes in noir.
barbara hambly's there shall your heart be also was a winner with me, too. really really cool.
maureen tan's muddy pond stuck with me, and so did christine wiltz's night taxi, because the bad guys get it at the end, and because the tension is awesome.
i could go on. i'm picking at random. one more: the closing story, marigny triangle, by eric overmyer, because of how it's written, loose and desperate and obsessive, and because it brings home how sometimes the world really, really sucks. ...more
don't know if it was me being meditative or moody or under the sobering influence of the recession, but i found this absolutely gorgeous book SO DAMNdon't know if it was me being meditative or moody or under the sobering influence of the recession, but i found this absolutely gorgeous book SO DAMN SAD. there are, let's see, at least two suicides but it might be three, three deaths but it might be more (one the death of a very young person), intolerably sad aging folks, a myriad broken relationships, and a ton of god-awful loneliness. how can a town as sweet and stably populated as crosby, maine, foster so much loneliness? aren't small towns supposed to be all about people knowing each other and supporting each other and all that? why don't the lonely people go hang out at the diner and have themselves a cup of coffee, chat the day away? i mean, really. i understand being alone in miami or new york or los angeles, but how can you be so lonely in crosby, maine?
i guess american writers and filmmakers have worked very hard at showing us that you can be plenty lonely in small town america, but somehow this is sinking in now for the first time, thanks to Olive Kitteridge. i think i'll stay in the big city, where at least you can be lonely with some privacy, out of the probing gaze of your gossiping neighbors.
but see, gossip is this two-sided thing. one the one hand, it can cut you down and shrink you (if you let it). on the other, it keeps people talking. when someone dies, everyone shows up at the funeral. when someone goes to the hospital, everyone asks after them. maybe the person who is asked would rather be left alone, but there's something to be said in favor of being asked (this is actually the point of one of these thirteen stories). a gossiping community is a community in which everyone is mourned. there is no indifference and almost never glee at people's death, however disliked they may have been in life. groups come together for the death of their own. this is something to be said for small towns.
and after all, no one is immune to loneliness. it's the human condition. which is precisely why this book is so sad: one would rather not be reminded.
in one lovely scene (there are countless lovely scenes in this book) olive kitterdidge finds out that an elderly man, an out-of-towner she stopped to talk to, just lost his wife of a lifetime. "then you are in hell," she says, matter-of-factly. "then i am in hell," he replies.
olive kitteridge, the nominal protagonist of this "novel in stories," is a masterpiece of writerly wisdom. she is wrong and intolerable in all sorts of ways: she is rude, judgmental, selfish, a bad mother, and a bad wife. she is ungainly and has bad taste in clothing. she is one of those people who, by rights, should not be much liked, and in fact she isn't. but to us she is us. if we were her, we'd find a way to come to terms with ourselves and be proud of at least something. so we come to terms with olive kitteridge. we forgive her. we forgive ourselves. we return over and over to the things she/we did well, that one time when she/we saved a person's life without much awareness of what we were doing; that other time when this kid who didn't talk to anyone talked to her/us.
it's amazing how a novel that does not focus entirely on one character (in some of the stories she is just named once or twice) should manage to make this character, nonetheless, so real and compelling. the compulsion is to identify with her.
but maybe it was me, bummed and worried about the recession and not too pleased with myself. i identified. identification is the path to compassion. this book helped me be see others, maybe myself too, with a little more compassion....more
this is pretty fabulous short story writing. maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely splendid. it's quite impressive, for one, that wells towethis is pretty fabulous short story writing. maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely splendid. it's quite impressive, for one, that wells tower should have waited so long to put out a collection, piling up stories in this and that first-rate magazine seemingly with no hurry whatsoever, giving thus the impression of being after beauty and intensity of narration rather than a book. my friend mike compares these stories to flannery o'connor's but the only similarity i see, besides the extraordinarily precise, rich, and sensual use of language, is their intensity. tower is not interested, it seems to me, in messages. (o'connor is, though one tends to have no clue what the message is). maybe the title story, though, and that story's title come as close as anything to give us a sense of what this collection is about. by my count, there are three abused children (nothing graphic at all) and more children, some in flashback, whose childhood seems pretty blown; a number of youngish-to-middle-aged guys who have been taken by the currents of life to places they didn't really want to go, with no idea about what to do now that they are there; and a lot of non-protagonist characters with distinctly unhappy or unappealing lives.
yet the stories are not sad. they are very funny. they are veined with desolation, but not in a way that'll hit you, because they are not meant for identification but for distance.
maybe the distance comes from the humor and the preposterous language. lots of it comes from the intensity of the descriptions. language this beautiful and stark and desecratingly vernacular gives you 3 minutes of a startling film, not a feature-length story in which you can recognize yourself.
also as mike has observed, there is no psychology going on here. you can do the psychological work yourself, but tower is not after motivations and traumatic roots. the relentless superficiality – this determination to stay on the surface of things – is perhaps what makes these stories so stunning: surely these characters are coming from someplace horrid. surely we will be told what the horrid place they are coming from is. surely we will learn what afflicts them. tower doesn't satisfy.
except, there's a lot lovelessness. people not connecting. children left casually to themselves. people being mean and selfish in unexplained way, as if it were the most unremarkable thing in the world. it's as if tower had no desire whatsoever to raise our moral outrage. this is how it is. wanna laugh at it or what?
my favorites are “Executors of Important Energies,” “Down Through the Valley,” and “Everything Ravaged.” ...more
i found this book exceptional. do you remember when jhumpa lahiri debuted with Interpreter of Maladies and everyone went WHOA? Before You Suffocate Yoi found this book exceptional. do you remember when jhumpa lahiri debuted with Interpreter of Maladies and everyone went WHOA? Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is that good, though i'll be surprised if everyone goes WHOA, because, let's face it, the readership for young African American female writers is different from the readership for young Asian American female writers. and by different i don't only mean different, but i mean smaller, something i invite all readers of this teensy ickle review to remedy immediately.
beside being WHOA-worthy, these two books have this in common: they pack a punch. danielle evans is less gentle about the punch than jhumpa lahiri. i read this book in a daze because i was tired, independently, and i hope to read it again sometime soon. but i was also dazed by how much these stories contain. young men and women navigating the cusp of adulthood (a process that may and often does take many more years than the designated number), with few and inadequate tools to do so, in a world they have a dated code to understand, and so so alone.
yet, aren't we all? who are the guides of our transition from childhood into adulthood? and the guides of our transition from, say, being 20 to being 40? and who are the guides of our transition from being 40 to being 70? you'd figure that, this process being, literally, a matter of life and death, we would have built a system of chaperoning, mentoring, holding, advising -- also a system in which there is room for people to rest, take long breaks, check out for a bit, find their 20s feet or their 40s feet or their 70s feets.
instead, all we have as guides, most often, is tv shows. really. that's it. tv shows. we are not only alone but lied to, everyday.
but i'm getting sidetracked. danielle evans doesn't mention (that i remember) tv shows, but she does bring up, over and over and with stunningly insight and subtlety, how woefully unprepared we all are to face the world.
this book is significantly devoid of parents. i don't think evans means to say that most parents are bad parents, but i do think she means to tell us that, often, they just don't or can't keep up (cuz no one can).
finally, a comment on the title. unlike the vast majority of short story collections, the title here does not come from any of the short stories, but from a poem by danna kate rushin, a black feminist poet. the poem is called "The Bridge Poem" and if you read it in its entirely (and i hope you will) you will see that it's about translating -- people to people, cultures to cultures -- and being really, really tired of doing so. this is not a recent poem (i'm going to guess it was written in the 80s). following a small section of it in the epigram page there are two lines by audre lorde, another feminist black poet, that go: "I do not believe our wants/have made all our lies holy."
at first, since i didn't remember who rushin is, i read the excerpt from her poem as the tired lamentation of a woman who has to deal with clueless men. but no, this is the tired lamentation of a woman who has to deal with clueless everyone. maybe the mysterious lines from the lorde poem are also about excuses for not being willing to engage in the hard work of interpreting and understanding life.
and this is how, finally, i read both epigrams together. as if evans, this young black feminist who writes with equal compassion about men and women, were picking up the slack and giving these old (i'm not talking about age) and valiant warriors a break and a spell. i hear her saying, "hey guys, you can get a spot of rest now. let me pick up the battle. i'm young and the world has changed. hey, it has not changed much for the better, but maybe it has changed enough that y'all can rest and let me carry on your work. i feel fresh and i feel equipped. plus, quite honestly, i'm a heck of a writer."