When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
There are a number of issues addressed in This Close, Jessica Francis Kane’s smart, subtly heartbreaking second collection of stories. In her debut novel, The Report, precise and epic at once, Kane showed a remarkable talent for recreating moments and eras and shifts in collective consciousness long passed. Here she proves equally skilled in plumbing 21st-century considerations. There are the conflicts of interest and misunderstandings that inevitably arise when very different people are put in close proximity, an increasingly frequent happening in today’s America. When an upwardly mobile man befriends a young Korean boy — the son of his dry-cleaners — he wrestles with what, exactly, is expected of him by the boy’s family. Resentments permeate a neighborhood as the old guard grudgingly watches the new’s ascent — as those who had to “make do” watch their more ambitious, younger replacements make good on their unthinkably lofty dreams. Luck, too, and the lack of it, often factors. Who has it, and the way that those who don’t perceive those who do, drives these characters. Who gets what in life, Kane asks, and why?
Ultimately, though, This Close is about the way the people evolve over time; the numerous faces any individual wears over the course of his or her life, and the near-impossibility of truly knowing anyone on account of it. There are two sets of linked stories within the collection. In both, we follow a group of characters across decades, alternating between their perspectives. When we meet Mike, the protagonist of the first set, it’s through his mother Maryanne. He is 15 and, according to her, “indifferent.” She takes pride in having kept him safe for 15 years, a fact he doesn’t seem to appreciate. In the next story, Mike is five years old, and we find that Maryanne didn’t always keep him safe, at least not emotionally. He goes to great lengths to make her happy during the dissolution of her marriage to his father. Willing to sell his most beloved possessions in the stoop sale she desperately puts together, he is as much the keeper of her happiness as she is his. In the next story, Mike the loving, thoughtful boy and Mike the apathetic teenager are both gone — now we see an almost manically ambitious, nouveau riche lawyer who is determined to enjoy his new fortune as flamboyantly as he pleases.
Consistency and evenness of character are often extolled as a virtue in fiction, but not when they come at the expense of a more complicated truth. It is nearly impossible to reconcile the different versions of Mike that we’re given, and yet there’s no indication that any of them are the less true. Each is delivered with authority by the people who know him best. This stunning capacity for change leads to misunderstandings and debilitating failures of communication that constantly trip these characters up and isolate them from each other. People are moving targets to the degree that it is difficult to pinpoint what they need at any given time.
Kane uses rotating perspectives to illuminate the profound differences in the way her characters experience the moments we watch, as many writers have, but the effect of these failures to connect is blissfully less sentimental here than it often is. It often does not happen that what these characters are unable to express is their love for one another, a common brand of miscommunication in fiction. Rather it’s the details and the meaning that we ascribe to them that shift depending on the teller. Mike’s college friends take Maryanne to dinner after a tragedy binds them all together, a gesture that touches her. Later, in a section told from the perspective of Mike’s college roommate, Ben, we learn that Mike’s boyfriend, Alex, asked them to take her out — it hadn’t occurred to them — because he needed a break from Maryanne. Beth, the high-strung friend, was distraught for weeks afterward that they hadn’t been able to find a nicer place — they couldn’t get a reservation anywhere. Maryanne hadn’t minded. She had requested that they go somewhere casual, and she is grateful at what she sees as their compliance. Ben visits Maryanne a few years later, feeling guilty at not having been in better touch. Though she doesn’t tell him, Maryanne is anything but grateful. “She did not need this visit. A year ago, yes, but not now. She suspected it had helped Ben in some way — he didn’t look well.” Beth, who when the unlikely group was first thrown awkwardly together by circumstance, seemed remiss in focusing on petty considerations like how nice the restaurant was, is the only one who kept in touch; she sent a letter that Maryanne clings to. The problem with these diverging experiences comes to a head when, after Ben leaves, Maryanne angrily declares aloud, “you can’t make this your story.”
Despite how sharply we feel these hurts, and as frustrating as it is to watch every character cling to their version of events, life, as Kane reminds us again and again, goes on. The thing that makes the treatment of these wounds and confusions feel even less sentimental is that we don’t have time to linger on them. We can’t worry long about five-year-old Mike, because soon he’s grown, and then gone. We can’t harp on Maryanne’s frustration with Ben because in the next story, she’s building a life in which Mike — never mind Ben — is not a factor. Mike’s name does not appear in the final story of the series. What’s remarkable is that Kane manages to capture the fleetingness of even the most defining interactions and events without undermining them. That card Beth sent will ultimately get buried beneath the trinkets of the new life Maryanne has created when we finally leave her, but of course it mattered; at the time, nothing mattered more.
Kane sets out to do more than point out this problem of unknowability and its devastating effects. To some degree she seeks to solve it. We know what Maryanne knew that Ben didn’t, and vice versa. We get the million different conflicting truths that encompass every story and we can reconcile them into one whole the way the people who lived it can’t. Two of the stories in the final third of the collection are told in the first person, and it is here that the potential these stories have to fix the very problems they contain is most evident. The narrator of “The Essentials of Acceleration” is estranged from her neighbors not because she doesn’t like them, or wants to keep a distance, but because she does not know how to reach out to them. Constantly worrying that they’re misinterpreting her words and actions, she takes no chances with us. Any time she tells us something, she is careful to tell us exactly what she means by it. The clarifying phrase “by which I mean” appears throughout. In speaking directly and openly and honestly with readers she achieves an intimacy she is unable to find in her interactions with the larger world.
In the final story of the collection, Kane addresses time and the changes and complications it brings more directly than she has elsewhere. We’re at a restaurant for a surprise birthday dinner for John, an aging professor. He marvels at how the parenting theories that dictated the way he raised his daughter, Hannah, have evolved — a fact evident at the tables around his, and by the very fact that his daughter invited his coworkers to the party. Back in his day, work and family were kept separate. There is also, finally, an acknowledgment of the damage that not knowing the way our actions affects those we are the closest to can wreak. He thinks of the fact that when “he spoke of ‘running’ in the evenings when [Hannah] was little, she didn’t know he meant conducting an experiment. She thought he was actually running somewhere, and hoped he would come back.” This makes him “unspeakably sad” and he wonders “how could he not have known?” He delivers to the table a line he has been turning over for some time: “I no longer trust the navigation of birds or the balance of cats” — two of the surest bets in life. One of his coworkers asks him what this discovery means; what we can take from it, the fact that eventually time will have us question even what we are the most sure of.
Kane is smart enough not to answer that question, though she’s been moving toward it throughout the collection. Whatever she might offer may well be true for now, but time is on the prowl. Who knows where these people — where any of us — might end up or whom we might become; the hard truths we have yet to learn, the innumerable paths by which we might arrive at them, and how the rest of the world will see it.
Wait a second. No, seriously hold on. Just a few more minutes.Oh. Sorry. It’s you.I apologize for being late. Well, I only partially apologize. It is to be expected, really, with the Fourth of July striking and the World Cup ending.Yes. The World Cup. Sorry about my rudeness a little earlier – I’ve been busy for the past few weeks attempting to will my adopted club (England) to win (they didn’t) and commit my arch-enemies (Brazil, Argentina) to lose (they did).With all of these distractions, both footy-wise and not, it was difficult to get any books read this past month. Yet (you’ll be happy to know) I did complete a few. And while the most noteworthy book might have been Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn, I found that my favorite – my book of the month – was Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland’s The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup. By far.Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some crazed soccer fan. Once every four years, I rediscover international soccer – primarily, the World Cup. And every four years, once the tournament is over, I promptly lose the love I had displayed just months before. I always mean to stay in touch once the World Cup is over, but I never do. I don’t know enough about European clubs and can’t find coverage of United States soccer, so I just lose it all together. But for a month and a half, I’m an expert.That’s what led me to buying The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup.Wait. What exactly does this “guide” entail? That’s easy. It’s 32 essays by 32 different writers about the 32 countries that participated in the 2006 World Cup Finals. And of the heavyweights showed up: the essays range from David Eggers’ gym teachers (who call soccer a communistic cesspool) to Aleksandar Hemon’s unfortunate mix of sex and soccer. Nick Hornby struggles with the choice between club team (London’s Arsenal, which employs a vast number of the French national team) and country (England, of course). Does he root for England? Or does he root for his Arsenal players? Sukhdev Sandhu thinks Saudi Arabia’s too soft, while William Finnegan laments the loss of Portugal’s best surfing spot – thanks to modern culture and, in part, soccer.But wait – there’s more! On top of 32 great essays, Franklin Foer (Jonathan Safran’s brother – any regular reader of this column knows of my fascination with the entire family) describes the government most likely to win a World Cup ala his book How Soccer Explains the World. And it’s got all the numbers – useful demographic information on each country, past World Cup winners and the records of current World Cup participants, and the likelihood of each team to win. It’s great for everyday soccer fans, and invaluable for the every-four-years fan, like myself.Amazingly, there’s a common theme outside of the typical “Go Team Go!” narrative. At the World Cup, everyone, regardless of country, has a chance. Once the ball is kicked off, all teams are on equal footing. No monetary means will secure your team a victory. Rich soccer teams can buy all the talent they want – AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea – but only citizenship will get you a World Cup championship. Just the allegiance to your country. And every country can build a team. All you need is a soccer ball and a flat pitch.It’s called the beautiful game because it’s the joining of athletics and the pure will to win. Sure, there will be 0-0 ties. But the defensive stops, the fight to get to the goal, the sheer determination that leads to a cross pass that is beautifully set up by some guy that wasn’t even there ten seconds before and then kicked into the back of the goal – that’s sport.And that’s why this book will continue to be a valuable addition to my library years after France (hopefully) beats Italy (boo!) tomorrow. It’s not just a guide to this World Cup, but it’s a guide to the desire of winning. The passion of being a fan. The ramifications of a single goal, of a clean sheet, or of a beautiful penalty kick. (Where are you now, David Beckham?) Most of all, it’s a beautiful synopsis of the game itself, of its strange gravity and powerful importance.Because this is more than just a game.”The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.”Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June
The next time you have an hour to read, devote it to Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. It is a brisk and deeply subversive critique of 19th-century Russian society, and Tolstoy states his case with an elegant sensitivity to the theatrics of social life and a breathtaking sweep of moral judgment.Ivan is a mid-level Russian bureaucrat in a bitter marriage and, like many other great characters of Russian fiction, sliding into debt. But for a moment, things are looking up. He has just wrangled a new position with a higher salary (5,000 rubles a year), and sets out cheerfully to appoint a residence befitting a man of his income. He purchases antiques on the cheap to give the house an aristocratic air, and he busies himself with every detail of the domestic display, from the china pattern to the color of the drapes. Tolstoy is plain about the delusional nature of Ivan’s satisfaction. While Ivan considers his house to be uniquely glamorous, “In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves.”Ivan might have gone on living with these delusions, but an accident intercedes. He slips on a step-ladder and “knock[s] his side against the knob of the window frame.” He appears unhurt at first, but over time the pain grows. His is a long slow death which provides ample time to reflect on the choices he made in life and to observe the constipated way his friends and family respond to his decline. Tolstoy presents Russian society as a world of trifling appearances, ordered to deny the basic facts of living and dying. In one perfectly rendered scene, Ivan’s daughter and wife come to see him, just before heading out for a night at the opera. Their visit is a matter of pure convention. It would look bad to enjoy themselves without at least a nod to Ivan’s plight, but really they regard him as a burden and a buzzkill. They can only muster nervous conversation about the upcoming performance and then leave in haste. “When they had gone,” Tolstoy writes, “it seemed to Ivan Ilych that he felt better; the falsity had gone with them.”Tolstoy’s critique of materialism and appearance is a familiar one to us. But underneath the social satire, there is a bracing moral judgment that, oddly enough, seems more foreign to us than any of the peculiarities of Russian culture. While Cheever and Fitzgerald looked at American culture in something of the same way that Tolstoy regards feudal Russia, their stories lack the same sense of a defined alternative that might be reached if the falsity could be swept away. Ivan Ilych reads like a Christian parable, and Tolstoy, who converted to Christianity late in life, suggests that there is truth to be had for those who can shake free of appearances.