In this post I talk about two debuts: Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, and Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, and one new-to-me novelist: Joan Silber’s Improvement, which is the 3rd of the 5 finalists in the fiction category for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Awards (click HERE), the winner of which will be announced March 15, 2018 — which will maybe give me time to read the two remaining fiction nominees.
The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce, Hardcover, 384pp, January 2018, Riverhead Books
Jim Byrd, 33, died — technically — having collapsed in a parking garage from a heart attack. Once revived, he is disappointed to have seen nothing while deceased; no tunnel with its bright light calling him, or deceased relatives to guide him, or any hint of any afterlife at all.
Which leaves him with just life. Real life. And a device called HeartNet embedded in his chest which sends to his phone warnings and notice when his heartbeat is off, and when his rhythms have been corrected by the HeartNet.
He returns to the daily-ness of life in which he is a bank officer who okays a loan for a restaurant which might just have inside it a haunted staircase. This possible supernatural rift in reality, like his lack of after-death experiences, possesses Jim with a need to see and know more, to be able to parse the cosmic mystery of ways of being. And not. To turn might and might not into is or is not. It is telling — and perhaps a little too twee — that Jim becomes involved with The Church of Search.
Jim and his wife, Annie, eventually hunt down a researcher, Sally Zinker, who they first encounter giving a homily at The Church of Search as a hologram — by which the world in this novel is increasingly and often undetectably populated — and who claims to have invented something called The Reunion Machine, a near-magical contraption allowing communion with the dead and direct experience with the plasticity of time.
As we experience Jim’s story, we are doing our own time-traveling-communion with the dead, being given bits and pieces of the lives of those who died decades ago who may or may not be the specters haunting the staircase.
Jim sometimes doubts whether he survived the cardiac event, wondering if he is hallucinating his life experiences, how real are they? How real is he? What, in fact, is real? And more, what does it matter what is or is not real outside of one’s own mind?
This is a novel which explores existential doubt and the perplexing, confounding mystery of being alive without becoming heavy-handed or dime-store philosophical. It moves quickly, the writing is lovely, competent and often funny, and even more often insightful without pounding home points; it’s subtle and wise in the ways it asks questions without then pronouncing facile answers.
I liked it but I didn’t love it, by which I am confused, because it seems I should have. Here’s the thing, I did not love the characters, any of them, and Jim, in particular, in his confusion and self-interest, is a little off-putting — which is on me, because I think I over-identified with his confusion and self-interest and it made me uncomfortable to have to think, “Oh, is my navel gazing this annoying?” Too, I finished this book on February 6, and by the time I started writing this, five days later, I had to pick up the book and re-read parts to remember what it was about. So, bottom line, I liked it, but it didn’t etch itself into me in the way four-star books do. Which is fine. And about me, not it.
Everything Here Is Beautiful, Mira T. Lee, Hardcover, 368pp, January 2018, Pamela Dorman Books
The second debut novel in a row I have read and this one moved and shook and gutted me with its subject matter, rendered in Mira T. Lee’s skillful and devastatingly incisive artistry.
I hesitated to read this novel because it was about a close bond between siblings, one of whom suffers mental illness, and its blurbs contained words like elegiac and disturbing and unflinching, which, to me, means that if the writing is decent I am going to be made distressed and weepy by the story.
Well, the writing was considerably more than decent, it was, in fact, near stunning in both its ability to convey emotional heft and its technical prowess. Switching points of view and from first to close third, the narrative and changes in perspective could easily have been bothersome, distracting, or confusing, but, in this case, each new voice was clear, unique, and felt completely necessary to the telling of that part of the tale at that particular moment. I kept thinking of the story about how Michelangelo’s David was carved from one block of marble that had been twice rejected by other sculptors as too difficult, not rich enough to use; the complex plotting and large-small canvass of well-developed, interconnected characters in Everything Here Is Beautiful feel as if they were waiting for the perfect author to sculpt them from the huge block of possibility they are, into something beautiful and timeless and so very moving.
Trigger (and SPOILER) warning, if you’ve loved someone with mental illness, suffered it yourself, or survived a suicide attempt or the suicide of a loved one, you might want to carefully consider whether you want to read this novel. And be sure to be in a good and strong place before you do. There is a relentless underpinning of sadness, that feeling of hopeless fear one suffers when you have a loved one with mental illness, that never-ending uncertainty, fear of the telephone buzzing, is this the time?
Miranda, older sister, has repeatedly and thanklessly come to the rescue of her brilliant but troubled younger sister, Lucia whose first husband, the one-armed Israeli, Yonah, is left for an Ecuadorian undocumented immigrant, Manuel, with whom Lucia and the child they share, Esperanza, return to Ecuador while Miranda makes a life of her own in Switzerland. Along the way we hear from Miranda, Manuel, the medical staff where Lucia is committed, Lucia herself, Yonah, and the town of Meyer, Minnesota where Lucia goes to care for an ailing Yonah.
Throughout the novel Lucia is tormented by serpents who goad her to behave badly, self-destructively, and toward the end of the book, Miranda in reference to something Lucia has done says:
But the shock, the grief, the stress of it all.
The serpents did it — yes, this is easy to say. But I like to think she simply went out looking for something beautiful.
Three sentences, thirty-three words, managing to capture the coincident horror and hope experienced by someone who loves another with a mental illness; in particular the reductive effect of the simply — with which Miranda doesn’t necessarily erase the shock, grief, and stress, but, rather, as one does when coping with a loved one with mental illness, frames and shapes it in a way as to make it manageable, to ameliorate the guilt and pain, to re-write the mindset and life of that other person for whom one felt responsible into something less painful, to imagine them into something like joy, or, at least, imagine them driven by something other than the pain of their mental illness.
That’s a masterful use of language in a deceptively simple 33 words. And this novel is a masterful construct of fiction in a beautifully complicated 368 pages.
Improvement, Joan Silber, Hardcover, 256pp, November 2017, Counterpoint
I picked this novel up because it is one of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In doing background reading, I’ve come to understand Joan Silber has quite the cult following among lit-fic types, and I wonder how it is I’m only now discovering her work. Just goes to show, there are great writers out there undiscovered by many readers, even devoted readers who love and live in the world of fiction, as do I.
This is a novel constructed from interconnected short stories in which characters from earlier stories become the focus of the next part of the tale, all of which coalesces into a whole universe in which the people are affected and changed by the decisions and actions of those earlier characters who they may not even know.
The story begins with Reyna, a single mother whose lover, Boyd, is spending a few months at Rikers Island for drug possession that ought not even be a crime. Once released he involves Reyna in an illegal money-making scheme, and her last-minute, split-second decision about what she will and won’t do sets off a chain of events that reverberate and echo through the rest of the stories in the novel. But it isn’t just the future explored, also Joan Silber artfully weaves a tale of Reyna’s aunt, Kiki, and her past in Turkey, to which she fled in her youth, returning years later to America having left behind a husband but bringing along valuable rugs she later sells some of, and one of which has been in Reyna’s apartment, and which, eventually, she too decides to sell in order to perhaps right the wrongs she feels she caused with her decision about Boyd’s scam.
Throughout the short 256 pages of this deceptively easy read, Joan Silber writes with a precision of language and imagery, the effortlessness of which camouflages the layer after layer after layer of connections and motifs about love, motherhood, making amends, family, and the tapestry of life. Reyna wonders when readying to sell the rug given her by Kiki about its provenance, and how little she knows about threads per inch and its age, that rug with which she’d been living was a mystery to her, she was unaware of its worth, not unlike the life she has lived unaware of all the secrets of the warp and weft of the life she has woven.
Improvement by Joan Silber is no less intricate a creation, beautifully made by means of an artistry practiced at this level by very few authors. I recommend it highly.
In conclusion, this digression; of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards I have read Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour [click HERE for what I thought], and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing [click HERE for what I thought], and now Improvement. This leaves Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I went to my library account on-line to reserve the latter two and there were multiple copies of both available. I thought I’d check the other three nominees; EVERY SINGLE ONE except Sing,Unburied, Sing, had multiple copies available. WHY? They ought all be signed out and have lines of people waiting for them. There are lots of things about this country now that make me sad, angry, bereft, depressed, weepy, enraged, but few things are more disturbing than what I consider to be the root of all the evil and ignorance going on — a lack of intellectual curiosity and development in the population, and a continuing disregard and contempt for educators and education.
We are, in general, determinedly dumb and lazy of thought. There are few things that could not be solved by the simple act of everyone reading a book a week. Or, even, every two weeks. Or, one a month? No wonder people know so little — where would they get their information or learn how to process and interpret life? So irritating.
But, it is what it is, and my goal in these, my declining years, is to spread more Love and Light, and quit with the whining about the darkness, but rather, to eradicate it as much as I can with an open and giving heart, and sharing that with whoever is interested, adding to the illumination.
So dear ones, thank you for brightening my days and life, and for now, here I am, going.