The Report: A Novel

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

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.

A Year in Reading: Emma Straub

This was a sad year for my bookshelves. Most of my favorite books of 2011 were full-on sob-fests, stories that had me reaching for the tissue box as often as I turned the page. Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye, written about her mother’s death, is honest and vivid, written with a poet’s precise use of language. The observations of illness and grief are both exacting and heartwrenching, and I hiccuped so loudly while reading it that I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the police. Darrin Strauss’s Half A Life, a slip of a book about accidentally hitting (and killing) a high-school classmate with his car, was a meditation on guilt and sadness, and I think I read it in one sitting. Furious Love, Sam Kashner’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s extremely tortured love affair, made me simultaneously disappointed and relieved that my husband is not an alcoholic Welshman with a penchant for poetry.

Of course, fiction can be sad, too: Justin Torres’ We The Animals made me want to go grocery shopping, clean the house, and take better care of my imaginary children. Jessica Francis Kane’s novel The Report made me afraid to walk up or down subway stairs, for fear of being crushed to death. My favorite novel of the year, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, is one of the most melancholy books of all, following a writer’s legacy for decades after his death. That, my friends, will not only make you cry, but also question your entire existence, and everything you know about your favorite writers, and if that isn’t worth reading, then I don’t know what is.

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Where We Write: The Merits of Making Do

One of the first essays I ever wrote was about my room. I was in high school, and the class assignment was to write about a place that was important to us. Five hundred words was expected; I think I turned in three times that. I described everything, from the Renoir poster over my bed to the black-and-white satin musical notes mobile over my desk. I delved into the critical importance of each item on my bookshelf and dresser. I highlighted the “I’d Rather Be Dancing” bumper sticker I’d stuck on my closet door (though I didn’t end up a dancer). A major theme was my love of the color blue, how it calmed and inspired me. I remember working hard to get my description of the way the sunlight filtered through the blue curtains just right.

The piece didn’t have much shape, but with hindsight I see what it revealed: I spent too much time setting up my room! By the end of high school, I did most of my homework at a large desk in my father’s office on the floor above. The rest of my time was spent at the piano or in the family room.

After college, I moved to New York with no furniture. A mattress was easily acquired by dialing an 800 number (I still remember: 1-800-MATTRES, leave off the last S for savings!), and my roommate had a sofa and table, so the only thing I needed was a desk. I spent a lot of time looking for one. I was working in publishing, trying to write in the mornings and evenings, and making very little money. I thought if I had the right desk, everything would be easier. I went to estate sales, church sales, the Salvation Army. I considered one of those lap desks from the Levenger catalog, but was afraid I’d feel like an invalid. One day, complaining to my father about this lack in my life, he told me a story. He’d known a man—the father of a childhood friend—who spent his retirement building the studio of his dreams. His whole life he’d wanted to write and paint, and now he would have the time to do it. As soon as the studio was finished.

This sounded fine to me. Where was it? Were they still friends of ours? Could I rent it?

He designed it beautifully, my father continued; the man was a good carpenter, worked on it for years. Apparently he showed it to my father at one point. He walked him through this perfect backyard work space, but what struck my father was how the man talked on and on about all the things that weren’t quite right yet.

The story appeared to be over.

What happened? I asked.

He died before it was finished, my father said. Never wrote a thing.

I kept looking for a desk, but I can’t say I wasn’t rattled. I eventually found something I liked and could afford at a very depressing estate sale on the Upper West Side: an antique, Mission-style writing desk that probably should have been found by someone able to afford to have it restored. I brought it home as it was, rough and rickety, for $150 and used it for a year. When I left that apartment, I sold the desk to the next tenant because it wouldn’t have survived another move. She worked in publishing, too, and wanted to write, so it felt like the right thing to do.

But I also think my father’s story had taken root. I began to suspect I was too susceptible to the idea of the “writer’s desk” and decided it might be better to do without one. Somewhere along the way, I began to work in libraries. More important, I began to get work done in libraries. I acquired a laptop, a padded case for it, and a backpack. I carried pens, a notebook or two, a legal pad, and a few books. Very soon I felt like the academic equivalent of the college student backpacking abroad—I was entirely self-sufficient! I didn’t need a private desk and the talismanic power of special objects surrounding me. All I needed was a warm cardigan (summer temperatures can be freezing) and the ability to ignore certain trivial rules (no drinking in the reading room; I’m very discreet with my coffee), and I had everything I needed to work effectively.

Libraries I have loved: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; in England, the British Library and the London Library; the Charlottesville Public Library; the Miller Center at the University of Virginia; the Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania; Bobst Library at New York University; and in Connecticut, the Essex Library and the Old Lyme Library. These are the places where I worked on the stories of my first collection, Bending Heaven, and the book that became my first novel, The Report.

As work spaces, they were not always ideal. The small public libraries, for example, were rarely quiet. I asked a librarian about it once and she said, “Silence is not a priority.” Personal observation suggests that middle school math tutoring is.

The university research libraries have established quiet study rooms, but offenders are hard to police. I once asked a couple of undergraduates to take their bubbly conversation outside, and spent the rest of the day feeling like an old grump, which turned out to be not particularly conducive to writing. Oddballs can populate membership libraries like the British Library and the London Library. One man used to exclaim every half hour or so, “1734! Shit!” The date changed (though it was usually in the 15th or 17th centuries), as did the expletive, then he’d rub his forehead and abandon his books for a while.

People like the date mutterer are colorful when you’re writing well; distractors and the reason you can’t get anything done when you’re not. But the alternative worries me more. I’ve watched friends put a great deal of time into the renovation of houses and the decoration of studies or offices, and in this realm they have triumphed. They have beautiful places to work. But a lot of time has gone into those spaces and when I look at the creative output versus the time spent on preparing them, I remember my father’s story and think, No. Better to make do, sit down, get to work.

There is a passage from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety that I remembered recently. A daughter, standing in her father’s impeccably arranged shop, ruefully describes the man who never quite became the poet and scholar he meant to be. A friend of the family says, “Is it compulsory to be one of the immortals? We’re all decent godless people, Hallie. Let’s not be too hard on each other if we don’t set the world afire. There’s already been enough of that.”

Hallie replies, “I know. I sound like Mom. But it does bother me that he never gets past preparing. Preparing has been his life work. He prepares, and then he cleans up.” (emphasis mine)

Wise words, and ones I read over ten years ago. Yet when I went looking for the passage for this essay, I opened the book to the exact page. And it was not dog-eared! It was not my copy, but a library book. I checked the edition to make sure the spine had not been cracked to this place by some other nut worried about spending her life only preparing, but it appeared to be undamaged. How did I turn right to it after all these years? The idea must have haunted me more than I knew.

But there is one more reason I work in libraries. I have a section of a poem about solitude by Jennifer Michael Hecht copied in one of my notebooks:
bestial from not being seeing;
staring out the window with wide, immortal eyes
I’m fairly certain that would be me at home, alone. The date mutterer and the throat clearer and the woman who wears black cardigans (she must have twenty!) and the young man with a spectacularly loud space bar, they are doing me a service. I am grateful to them. God knows what they’re working on, but I see them, and I know they see me. Being seen keeps me sane.

And maybe others feel the same. I’ve just watched a woman come in and sit down in the seat next to the older gentleman who so often works in my current library, the man with the portable word processor, an unusually upright bearing, and wide eyes. He is away from his seat and she has taken one of his books and is browsing through it. Could she know him? I’m hungry and would like to leave for lunch, but I feel I must wait to see this played out. If he doesn’t know her, what will he say? Will he ask for his book back?

He returns and they smile at each other. He says, “Why, where have you been?”

To me, that is worth not having a special pencil cup on my own desk at home.

Surprise Me!

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