The Navigation of Birds and the Balance of Cats : On Jessica Francis Kane’s This Close

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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.