Thursday, January 10, 2019

What did the In-store Lit Group think about Joan SIlber's Improvement?

Please note that there are some spoilers here. I try to tread as carefully as I can, but I think giving a little away of Improvement will lead more people to read it .

One of the things I was thinking about this past year was my love for interwoven stories from different perspectives and how there can be a scale of how interconnected they can actually be. I thought about three well-regarded (and at least a Boswell, very popular) novels from 2018. To be completely up front, there's no way I have time to reread or even review all three books - I read them once and now it's up to my brain to remember the details.

1. There There, by Tommy Orange. To me, it felt like every strand of this novel connected together, not just thematically, but physically. While not ever character interacted with every character, they were all linked by Oakland urban pow wow, and it felt like every protagonist was linked to at least one other protagonist in the story.

2. The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith. In this case, while the stories were thematically linked, the characters were not connected at all physically, as all the stories took place in times separated by decades, if not centuries. In this case, the connections were all memory-driven, and often thematic, as opposed to driven. One character from an early time period might show up in the name of a neighborhood or the author of a book later. Out in paperback 1/22.

3. The Overstory, by Richard Powers. This story is in the middle. Some of the characters are linked together, but at least one protagonist never interacts with the others, a second is connected by a newspaper article, and a third by being heard by one of the more-connected protagonists at a conference. No, in this case, the connecting tissue are the trees, and if you read the book, you'll completely understand why this makes sense.

So now we come to Improvement, the latest work from Joan Silber. I think that her book is most reminiscent of There There in the connections, but the story jumps in time like The Maze at Windermere, and uses a metaphor, a rug instead of trees, like The Overstory.

The story centers on Reyna, a young single New York mom whose boyfriend Boyd has just gotten out of prison. Her Aunt Kiki lives downtown and has been influential in her life. In her youth she went off to Turkey, fell in love with a man, and disappeared for years. She came back, said it was time to leave, and said no more of it.

Reyna's boyfriend has a scheme - he and his buddies are going to smuggle cigarettes up from Virginia and resell them on the black market without the New York taxes. But as the date approaches for one of the expeditions, their driver disappears and Reyna is asked to fill in.

Part I is from Reyna's perspective, a relatively traditional narrative. But in Part II, the perspective jumps from character to character, slowly moving away from Reyna and finally winds up with Kiki in Turkey, after which it slowly boomerangs back to Reyna. By Part III, when Reyna is back in the protagonist's seat, we know an awful lot more of the story and can look at Reyna in a completely different way. In my head, the structure of the novel was like an elongated omega - a long horizontal, a swoop up and back as the story moves away, and then back to long horizontal.

Folks who've read Joan Silber before know about her fascination with structure and connected narrative. I've read two of her other books and her connected stores or nov-stors, or whatever you want to call them, can connect in lots of different ways. One character might be reading a history book and the next story might be about the historical character. Of course you know I love these sorts of books - two of my favorite books to sell at Boswell have been Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separateness and Frederick Reiken's Day for Night. And then there's Alice Mattison, who has also wrote several books of this type - notably Men Giving Money, Women Yelling and In Case We're Separated. Mattison's biggest fan, my friend Bob, would highly recommend Mattison's latest book, Conscience.

One thing to also note is Silber's interest in writing about different kinds of people. There's a respectful diversity about the characters, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but in terms of socioeconomic status. Changing the perspectives allows you to really emphasize with the different characters. And while Improvement was positioned as a novel by its publisher (not on the outside jacket but on the title page), it's clear that a number of these chapters stand alone, and the opening section appeared in Tin House (the print magazine is folding, alas so no more of these types of things) and appeared in Best American Short Stories 2015.

Like Mattison, Joan Silber left her longtime publisher, in this case W.W. Norton, for Counterpoint. I am well aware that these types of books don't sell themselves and calling someone a writer's writer may be a compliment, but it doesn't get you a big advance. That said, Improvement received not just the PEN/Faulkner Award (which I think is mostly judged by writers), but also the National Book Critics Circle Award, which someone in our group called the Golden Globes of book awards - sort of accurate, sort of not, because the critics are American, not foreign, and many critics also write fiction. The days of full-time critics are mostly a pleasant memory. But that means you can also call Silber a critic's writer. Or is it critics' writer.

I recently read Time and Again, the novel by Jack Finney about time traveling to New York in the 1880s.* In a way, it's a double time-travel novel as the contemporary story is set in in New York in the late 1960s. And I saw Improvement as a bit of a New York time travel book too, also putting it in the class of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, in the way the the novel embraces change.

We had 11 folks meeting for our In-Store Book Club and all but one either liked or loved the story. Our one naysayer definitely held back, which was very unlike last month when the folks who didn't like Hotel Silence were much more forthcoming. Isn't that an interesting thing about crowd dynamics? - had the HS enthusiasts started the conversation, I think it would have gone in a very different direction. And then I remembered back to how many readers have loved Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir's novel, and then thought that another group of people might not have liked Improvement. It happens!

But our group did, and it was an interesting discussion as well. We discussed whether Improvement was an apt title for the book, whether the rug was an apt metaphor, and of course, who are favorite character was. Kiki won. I also noted how strange it was to have discussed novels in a row that had a subplot about smuggling antiquities (those who have read Hotel Silence know this is an important part of the story) and whether these themes would have played out in fiction 30--40 years ago. And of course we discussed the structure of the book and how else the story could have been told and how it would have changed the narrative.

Needless to say, we had a number of side discussions that didn't focus on Improvement's insides. One centered on its outsides. One member noticed that some of us had step-back covers with a yellow glossy page with reviews (first printing). Others had no step-back and no second glossy page (second printing). The first printing's jacket also had a treated finish that felt fancier than the second's. But one of us didn't like the texture. It takes all kinds!

Upcoming In-Store Lit Group discussions:
Monday, February 4, 7 pm - Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Monday, March 4, 7 pm - Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday
Monday, April 1, 7 pm - The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez (in paperback February 5)

You can get all the information about Boswell-run book clubs on our Boswell-Run Book Clubs page. Our SciFi Book Club generally meets the second Monday at Boswell, Books and Beer (genre-mashing) meets the third Monday at Downer's Cafe Hollander, while the Mystery Book Club meets the fourth Monday. all mostly at 7 pm.

*I made a vow to read one book that I hadn't read previously from 1000 Books to Read Before You Die by the end of 2018.

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