I just now realized, as I sat down to write this post, that the image on the cover of the book In My Other Life by Joan Silber is a painting of Manhattan. The sunlit buildings are coral, the shadow are a dusty blue, the sky is huge. One thing I never think while in Manhattan is that the sky is huge. The image looks more like Santorini (not that I’ve ever been to Santorini) than any New York that I know.
Which is fitting. Many, although not all, of the stories in In My Other Life take place in Manhattan, but not in any Manhattan I know. Published in 2000 but mostly, I think, written before then, these stories are definitely not of this millennium. There’s that any of the characters–artists, restaurant-workers, Planned Parenthood counselors–can afford to live in Manhattan. There’s that any casual-cool nightlife is going on in that borough–there are two hip bars that factor prominently into a few loosely linked stories that are not of the variety one would find anymore. There are the descriptions of fashion and haircuts, the kind of drugs people are doing. There is AIDS.
Even though I have a very hard time believing that this place and the one I know are one and the same (I spend half my life teaching about New Amsterdam and sometimes find it easier to see the connections between 1600s Manhattan and today than I do to 1980/90s Manhattan and today), I have a weird nostalgia for this sort of New York City, having seen it on television and in movies when I was growing up. Knowing Joan a little bit, through grad school and through my wonderful friend Kristen who bought me her (near) complete works in return for a favor, and knowing that she does live a very romantic writer’s life in lower Manhattan until this day is comforting in a way.
There is also an element to the storytelling in this book that recalls, to me, the 1980/90s. I think this may be because the writing reminds me a lot of Ann Beattie’s books from that period. I haven’t read her in a while, so I have a hard time pinpointing for sure what makes me say that, but I think there is a sort of wry, urban deadpan-ness that both writers share. I use the word “storytelling” purposely here. Each of the twelve stories in this collection read like they are being recounted. They are in an unaffected voice, written the way someone would truly tell a story (even the ones in the 3rd person), although the language is not aggressively colloquial–there are no “y’knows,” the characters don’t directly address the reader and there is no meta-level. What makes the stories seem as if they are being told rather than being written, I think, is that the author–and even the words–are invisible, subsumed into the actual narrative. There are no literary flourishes, no sparkly sentences, no words that spike up or stand out. There is no obvious manipulation of the reader–no suspense, withholding, surprise. There is also no immediacy to the stories. They are all being shared from a bit of a distance, a remove, a sort of retrospect.
Because I never felt like I was “in it” with these characters–I was never immersed in their worlds nor in their lives–I was able to surrender to them in a way I don’t always. I wasn’t given the opportunity to form my own opinions, to put anything together, or to judge for myself because I was being told rather than shown what had gone on. It seems like maybe I’m saying this was a bad thing, but to the contrary, it was really interesting. I just went with it. I went with the character’s versions of what was happening and trusted them.
For example, the woman in the story “First Marriage” lays out that she’d always expected her current marriage would be her first. And yet, years later, she’s still in it, having missed her chance to have children with the someone else she was always assuming would come along. If this woman was one of my friends, or a character who acted in this way rather than told me she was acting in this way, I would have felt truly frustrated, agitated, upset. But in this case, I just felt as though I understood her. I wasn’t judging or getting worked up. I saw the situation for what it was, processed through someone else’s head. Because of this, even though these stories are, in many ways, very straightforward, I found them to be, in a strange way, experimental. They were able to take me right out of my own head, which is a powerful thing to be able to do.
Stay tuned for more on the works of Joan Silber–I’ve got a stack to work my way through!