Lucky Me

“You’re so lucky,” she said. Outside, the rain beaded like quicksilver on the blooming hedge of hydrangea. Inside, a pot of steel-cut oats burped from its perch in the yellow Aga.

 

“Lucky?” I echoed. We’d met the day before. I knew about her as much as she did about me: we were writers, living on opposite ends of North America, seeking solace and inspiration on a wind-tossed island in the Atlantic. “How am I lucky?”

 

“To have had such an easy life, to have things work out so you can write and publish your first novel before you’re twenty-five? That’s lucky.”

 

Fortunately, I’d already swallowed my mouthful of toast. Otherwise I may not be writing to you now, a couple of months after this amazing assessment of my life.

 

“How old do you think I am?” I asked.

 

“You couldn’t be more than twenty-three.”

 

We were sitting closely enough at the small table for her to see the June light dancing with the silver in my hair and pleating the fine lines around my eyes, to see the tendons underneath the dry, spotted-brown backs of my hands shifting like ropes as I gripped a coffee mug. Surely, jet lag had done me no favors.

 

Flattered? No. I felt dismissed. An adulthood—all the heartbreak and blessings; hard work and sacrifice; the careers, the moves, the losses, the triumphs, twenty-three years of marriage—denied by someone who would have been a high school senior to my freshman. This woman had created an entire story about me, had appropriated my history for her fiction, and then thought to recount her version back to me as if it were fact.

 

You always think of the perfect thing to say in the hours, days, weeks, after someone blows your mind. I still haven’t. What I did say was this, “I began writing when I was forty-one. I’ll be halfway to forty-seven when my first novel launches next year.” Breakfast continued in silence.

 

Being on the engineered side of someone else’s story startled me into reflecting on my own behavior: how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? Not the stories I put on the page, where they should be, but of the flesh-and-blood characters in my life? How often have I not asked, not listened, but jumped right into assumption, motivated by envy or impatience, by detriment of unrecognized privileged or sheer mental laziness?

DSC_0499
Seeing through the mist: early morning, Sancerre ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

As writers, we assume that we are keen observers of the human condition. Perhaps we turn to the page because it’s an outlet for the overflow of all that we take in and churn over, trying to sort out and make meaning of the unknowable. It’s our job to witness the world and then to bear witness in our essays and poems, our stories, our streams of thought. We don’t always write what we know; more often we write what we observe, how it makes us feel, and through our imaginations we construct plots to hold all the seeing and feeling together.

 

I begin work my novels by learning about the characters. Sometimes I have the thread of an idea floating, untethered, but I let it drift and spend the early period of discovery—before I begin writing a single word of story—crafting the personalities, goals, and motivations of the people with whom I’ll be spending the next months. I ask dozens of questions and as I determine the answers, themes coalesce and a plot etches a distant outline, like the silhouette of a mountain range emerging from the mist.

 

“The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.” Lidia Yuknavitch

 

We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected. This applies not only to our fictional narratives, but to our real world encounters, as well. And what’s required of the writer is required of any human being: we must set our personal narratives aside—our histories, assumptions, envies, fears, rules—and invite in others’ realities.

 

The key to creating empathetic characters is to work them through the questions we raise as we write; the key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.

To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work. Mary Oliver

All good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. George Saunders

Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not certain what 44 looks like, other than what I’m presented with in the mirror each morning. The Social Security Life Expectancy calculator informs me that I’ve lived half my anticipated span. The tired maxim encourages me not to think of the years in my life, but the life in my years.

Now that I’m marooned in middle age for a spell, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the life in the years ahead of and behind me. Have I achieved something of value in my work, my relationships? Is what I do enough to sustain me intellectually and emotionally for the next forty-four years? Do I measure up to my peers? Am I happy? Am I interesting? This quest for fulfillment and self-actualization is the premise of Meg Wolitzer’s sprawling, cracking good novel The Interestings.

In the summer of ’74, Julie Jacobson, a middle class average achiever from a nondescript upstate New York town, earns a spot at an exclusive arts camp in New England. She is selected to enter the inner circle of the five coolest kids in camp, each a precocious, urbane specimen bred in the hipness of New York City. Julie becomes Jules and we follow her and those five other teenagers for the next thirty years.

Jules is obsessed with the self-dubbed The Interestings–the talented and/or privileged people to whom she devotes so much emotional energy. The cult of personalities made me squeamish at times—I wanted her to walk away from the past and create a life of her own. But her devotion to their supposed ideal reveals one of the truths of human nature—we hang onto the golden coming-of-age memories, hoping those few perfect moments of childhood will carry us through the disappointment of growing up.

It took me a long time to track on the Jules Vibe. I never quite believed in her intimate friendship with Ash Wolf, the faerie child around whose axis the group of friends spins. Nor did I fully embrace Ethan’s constancy of passion for her. She just wasn’t, ironically, that interesting. Even her physical presence remained shadowy for me. The others I could picture perfectly—lumbering, awkward Ethan; delicate, perfectly formed Ash; bombshell Cathy; finely etched, beautiful Jonah with his sweep of long, dark hair; golden God turned bloated addict Goodman. But Jules, other than her unruly hair, remained indistinct.

Yet, as she matured, growing into her role as friend, counselor, wife and mother, Jules begins to take shape. She became the character I most wanted to get stuck in the middle of a book with. Which is the genius of Wolitzer’s narrative—the novel’s most enigmatic character becomes its core strength.

Not that you’ll get stuck in this book. Despite its length and scope, The Interestings impels the reader with sparkling dialogue and description. I did tread water with some lengthy expository and flashback episodes, but it easily becomes one of those books you just can’t set down.

If you say you don’t compare your external successes and failures (e.g. material possessions, presumed income, job, weight, health, marital status, kids’ college admissions, job prospects) with your circle of peers, I say “more power to you.” Forgive me if I don’t believe you. Meg Wolitzer probably wouldn’t believe you, either. It’s what we do, we flawed, insecure, fickle humans. We’re hard-wired to want what we ain’t got.

But we can learn to accept what we’ve been given. Do The Interestings? Read and find out.

I’m five years too young to fall within the brackets of the Baby Boomer generation (cut-off birth year is 1964), and ten years younger than the main characters of The Interestings, but I can relate many of the novel’s cultural reference points and Jules Jacobson’s feeling that she just missed out on the badge of cultural honor bestowed those who came of age in the late ’60s.

I’ve walked away from traditional success a few times, always choosing the interesting over expected. Perhaps because I fear the fall from lofty heights will be harder to recover from than the soft bounce of relative obscurity. Perhaps I’m just lazy. Here’s to the second half of the journey.

View all my reviews

 

Book Review: Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood

Falling to EarthFalling to Earth by Kate Southwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I tacked the Earthquake Preparedness checklist to my bulletin board several years ago, vowing I’d devote a weekend to assembling the suggested survival kit. I finally admitted defeat when we moved this spring and tossed it into recycling. But I had a queasy feeling my careless act meant I’d set the Pacific Northwest’s geologic karma a-tilt.

Like many residents of the Pacific Ring of Fire, I sense we are living on borrowed time. The Big One – the devastating earthquake that is a matter of when, not if – hangs in the ether of the abstract. It solidifies into fear during the days after a Tōhoku or a Christchurch, when shifting tectonics wreak horror on neighbors who share our ocean and our peril.

It is during one of these cataclysmic events when I look across the shining steel and glass landscapes of Seattle and imagine them crumbling as the earth ripples and shreds. I imagine a city in shambles; I think of that checklist, with its recommended gallons of water, cans of food, and fuel to be stored in car and cellar. There should be enough to get through several days while the region’s utilities scramble to restart and grocery store shelves are emptied by those like me, who didn’t prepare, or worse – by looters. I think of all the horrific possibilities and resolve to get serious about that disaster checklist.

What I never considered, however, was what it would be like to be someone who escapes harm, whose home remains standing while others are ripped apart, to be someone whose livelihood is not only left intact but who would in fact benefit from the destruction. I never considered how a moment’s good fortune could unleash a nightmare.

But author Kate Southwood has. In her raw and elegiac novel, Falling to Earth, she presents a parable of survival that causes the reader to reconsider disaster and its victims.

In March 1925, the Tri-State tornado tore through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, flattening dozens of communities and killing nearly 700 people. One of the destroyed towns was Murphysboro, in southwest Illinois. The author’s fictional Marah, IL steps in for the real Murphysboro. The images of the tornado’s destruction are made all the more gut-wrenching by Southwood’s clean, unaffected, elegant writing. She presents the gruesome scenes of homes and bodies ripped apart through the eyes of the survivors. Those who are able set themselves immediately to digging out the dead from the rubble. They bear witness to the gruesome scene of bodies torn apart by impartial winds, yet shock protects them from internalizing the horror until it is time to begin rebuilding.

The plot centers on one family: Paul and Mae Graves, their three children and Paul’s mother, Lavinia. They alone emerge from the tragedy without injury, either to their bodies or to their home. Even Paul’s business, the local lumberyard, is unscathed.
The Graves respond with gratitude and, like every other survivor in town, they focus on helping their neighbors. The women open the Graves’s kitchen and gather clothing for the homeless; corpses are laid out on the front porch; Paul and his crew saw pine boards by hand and build dozens of coffins. No one has the time or the energy to think about anything other than the moment at hand and mustering the will to get to the next.

Yet within days, over open fires at the camp built for survivors on the edge of Marah, at the camp’s laundry area, in the town’s trash-strewn streets, in what remains of neighbors’ front yards, the whispering begins.

Is it true what they’re saying about Paul Graves?

All true.

What’s that?

Didn’t get hit.

You mean his place? His house didn’t get hit?

That’s right.

Not just his place. The lumberyard, too. Neither one got touched.

His kids weren’t even in school that day. Home sick, all of them, and down cellar.

One man whistles in spiteful amazement. That’s luck for you.

Another man looks from face to face and says Well, that can’t be. There can’t be just one. The others look back knowingly, in gentle derision of his disbelief.
…To accept this news as true is to magnify his own anguish…

What follows is haunting exposition on grief and suffering. The random nature of the tornado’s destruction represents the random nature of tragedy, no matter the mode of delivery. Southwood’s writing is pitch perfect – the poise with which she handles her themes of human nature, chance, suffering and loss left me breathless with admiration. There are a few omniscient voice passages that feel heavy-handed, but even these give the reader a chance to step back and view the destruction – first by the tornado, later by the town’s unity against the Graves – from a detached perspective before diving back into the immediacy of the Graves’s peril.

This is a tremendous début: insightful, imaginative and timeless.

I lived for a few years in the Midwest – in central Illinois – where each Tuesday from early spring to the first weeks of autumn the tornado warning siren would sound its practice run. It was something to be ignored. You plugged your ears if you were crossing campus at the wrong moment.

There were occasions when the siren wasn’t a test. We piled into the hallway of our building, a designated tornado-safe zone. The building’s emergency designate held the radio handset to his ear, waiting for instructions to crackle through.

Each time the tornado took a different path or failed to materialize into a storm that touched ground. But that time, as is all time, was borrowed. Borrowed from tragedies past and those yet to come.

View all my reviews