I’ve been reading a lot of just-barely-fiction lately that I’ve really enjoyed. By that, I mean a book that rings so true to real-life experience (and often to what I know of the author’s personal bio) that I feel like I’m living it. For me, the transportive/relatable element is not enough, though. There needs to be some layering of lovely sentences and unexpected observations. There needs to be an underlying wisdom or a veneer of sharp accuracy.
Two books that I’ve read in 2017 have had all of the above and then some. They moved me and awakened me and left me reeling, but they also gave me a sense of ease. Sometimes, when bad things happen in books or in real life, it’s jarring and unforgiving. But in each of these poignant stories, there is so much of the protagonist’s barely separated observation intermingled with her wholehearted investment that experiencing life through her eyes is more like bobbing in a choppy lake than being overtaken by a barreling ocean wave.
In Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, the narrator is a woman who is almost exactly the same age as my mom. She wanders back and forth between her coming-of-age years in the early 1970’s in upstate New York and her current life with her husband on an extended vacation in Paris. Setting and even timeline are not of great importance in the story, though. Lorrie Moore makes observations that are astute and unexpected, layered in between metaphors that may not even make sense at first, but sound so beautiful you don’t really notice.
Passing cafés and restaurants, I walk through the bright glance of men in love, who, looking briefly away from the lover across from them in order to more perfectly form a sentence, unwittingly cast their gaze across my path like a light. And so, momentarily, to have accidentally caught their desire, swimming across the current of it like that, passing through, I feel loved, in a warm and random way, wandering through it, as if it were a rainbow, that old trick of light, or a place in a pool where someone has peed. There is a sweet, silent rot to it.
This is a short book, but it’s one that doesn’t need any excess words to fill it up. I felt instantly and powerfully connected to the story. It’s a story like a sparkler, it burns bright until the very end, when, even as it fizzles out, you are left with an afterimage of its shining brilliance.
Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows practically contains the weight of its beauty in the title. That alone is an impressive accomplishment, but it’s only the beginning of a work of storytelling that is equal parts lovely and honest. It’s been a few months since I read this book, but it has implanted itself in my mind like a perpetual impression. I’m often brought back viscerally to particular scenes, as if they were genuine memories from my life.
When I listened to her play I felt I should not be there in the same room with her. There were hundreds of people but nobody left. It was a private pain. By private I mean to say unknowable. Only the music knew and it held secrets so that her playing was a puzzle, a whisper, and people afterward stood in the bar and drank and said nothing because they were complicit. There were no words.
Toews is a master of transition and she makes run-on sentences bend to her will. Her style is simple, effortless, and richly descriptive.
Living with my mother is like living with Winnie the Pooh. She has many adventures, getting herself into and out of trouble guilelessly, and all of these adventures are accompanied by a few lines of gentle philosophy. There’s always a little bit more to learn every time you get your head stuck in a honey pot if you’re my mother.
When I read this book, I went into it without any idea of what to expect, and I think that is the very best way to experience this one. It hit very close to home for me, but it didn’t make me sad. I think reading it built something up inside of me that I didn’t know needed to be assembled. As simply as I can describe it, it is a beautiful, remarkable, painful book and I recommend it unequivocally.
An honorable mention for this first person female protagonist story, written with unique and striking prose category is: Chemistry by Weike Wang. This book made an impression on me personally, but I know that it was a subjective one given how much I related to the main character’s voice and experiences. Still, I really enjoyed it and it’s another brief book, so I want to recommend it for its fresh perspective and Wang’s largely unprecedented spare, scientific, emotionally charged, paradoxical writing style.