Volume 52, Number 13 · August 11, 2005
By Lorrie Moore
Ideas of Heaven
by Joan Silber
Norton, 250 pp., $23.95; $13.95 (paper)
When the National Book Award nominations were announced this past autumn, they were greeted with a great amount of grumbling—grumbling that I began to feel was fueled in part by the national malaise presidential politics had caused to befall every conversation in the country. But grumbling nonetheless. The nominated books were criticized for having been written by relatively unknown women who all lived in New York City—though such a demographic fact might equally have been reason for celebration. (The choice of Elfriede Jelinek for this past fall's Nobel Prize for Literature was faulted too, not for her uninflected pessimism or the threads of caustic misanthropy that weave through her work, and which in fact group her with many other recent winners, but for her insufficient fame outside Vienna, which does not.)
"The revenge of the midgets," one writer said to me of the National Book Award nominations.
"They should change the name to the 'Gotham Municipal Book Awards,'" said another.
"How are we supposed to sell books," cried various publishers, "if the book awards do this to us?"—giving it away that a book's future has already been pretty much designed in advance by a company's sales force, who look to an award neither as due respect nor as cultural candy (with all of candy's meaningless and slightly sickening fun) but as further marketing assistance on an already commercially blessed book. Even boasting a book award, a novel less well funded right from the start can have a hard time shaking off its publisher's preconceptions, turning around, and having some other life. That is, if the award comes as a surprise. But, of course, if the award is not a surprise, there will be a different sort of grumbling—as no doubt we will soon witness with the initiation of the Quill Awards, a new people's choice–style prize, set up just this year by Reed Business Information and various local NBC-affiliated television stations, apparently in response to all that autumnal muttering.
Literary muttering attended to at all, sad to say, can seem an amusing and heartening thing.
The response to the National Book Awards that left the biggest impression on me was this one, by a former nominee. He said, "Well, all I know is that if Joan Silber's Ideas of Heaven is on the list, it means the judges are actually reading the books."
Ideas of Heaven, short-listed for the Story Prize as well as the National Book Award (it won neither), is a beautiful and peculiar collection of interlinked stories—"a ring of stories" the author herself describes it, since the stories form a kind of circle, the last story cycling back to give new meaning to the first, and all the stories having small, sometimes arbitrary, sometimes dramatic links among them. Its author has written four previous works of fiction, including the novel Lucky Us, an unintimidated update of La Bohème (AIDS substituted for consumption, Brooklyn lofts for Parisian garrets, Verdi's Violetta for Puccini's Mimi) and In My Other Life, more stories of scrappy metropolitan young people in "blithe downward mobility" making a go of it in restaurants, bars, video stores, and the drug trade. Even when Silber's characters survive to middle-class, middle-aged adulthood, shadows follow: "'They have a penned-in area for the kids,' Nathan said. 'And then the rest of the park is for the dope dealers. Don't think it doesn't confuse me to be in there with the swings.'"
Joan Silber may be one of those writers, such as Meg Wolitzer, who fast out of the gate—Wolitzer's first novel was written when she was an undergraduate; Silber's first book, the eerily mature and accomplished 1980 novel Household Words,[*] won the PEN Hemingway Award (those preening midgets!)—have miraculously become even better in middle age. Lucky Us, Silber's last book, a haunting bicameral portrait of two doomed lovers, is still not adequate preparation for the emotional and narrative intricacies of Ideas of Heaven. Both are written in the first person—from the point of view of different people who oddly share the same voice. It is one of Silber's limitations turned brazen, wise refusals that she has not bothered to create different voices for her characters. Everyone speaks in the same lively, funny, intelligent voice: the voice of the book. This comes to seem Silber's point: that what is alike about us trumps what is distinct. And in Ideas of Heaven, especially, even more than in Lucky Us, this is a necessary aspect of the book's conception: the book could not exist without the continuous sound and family of these like-voiced minds. The sameness of the narrative voices in completely disparate circumstances is what in part creates "the ring" and ensures both the strange comedy and the spiritual underpinning of a collection that, largely owing to the vehicle of its singular and uniform voice, has all the satisfactions of a novel.
Arguably part narrative acrostic, part musical round, Ideas of Heaven is divided, formally, into six sections. It begins with the story "My Shape," whose wise, breezy, declarative mezzo belongs here to Alice, a would-be actress and dancer whose buxom body keeps her from the ballet she loves. That she tells us straightaway that she "liked the arabesques and the leaping and even the strictness of Miss Allaben drilling us in the six positions" may at first seem an editorial oversight, as there are only five positions in ballet. But as the number six is key to the structure of the book, one is inclined to allow for the error's intentionality and can then imagine that the sixth position for Alice may be the one she finds herself in after she has busily renounced ballet and her young French husband. ("I went a little crazy.... I walked around in a heavy, dressy cape and told the children I had a gun underneath it.") In longing to be in a Broadway musical, Alice begins taking lessons from a cruel and jaded dance teacher named Duncan Fischbach—"the tools of his trade were mockery and command." In Fischbach's ultimate lesson he orders her to lick his shoe. Ah, there it is: the sixth position. "I had my own ideas about a higher purpose," says Alice, "but not enough ideas. I could have used more." She winds up back in France, with a second French husband, Giles (a Buddhist and widower), and a new life as a yoga instructor.
The next story, "The High Road," belongs to the sadistic Duncan Fischbach, who speaks in the same animated rhythms as Alice, though Alice is nothing to him; vocal echo aside, she is not in this story at all except as one of the nameless students Duncan Fischbach is eventually forced to take in when his own theatrical career collapses. What Duncan's real story is—along with all the others in this book—is a love story involving unequal affections. Abjectness, that sixth position, presents itself here in the form of the bitterly unconsummated crush. As Duncan himself says,
Infatuation, when it happened, could be visionary, a lust from another zone. From the true zone, the molten center of the earth. I was in my twenties, listening to a lot of jazz, and I thought in phrases like that. "The High Road" recounts Duncan's story as a two-time loser in love. First he falls for Andre, an African-American trumpeter, elegantly dressed courtesy of a day job in a men's clothing store in midtown. After sabotaging that relationship, Duncan falls for a grieving young tenor who has just lost his boyfriend to AIDS. "Love has made me live in ceaseless fire," sings the tenor, with a sorrowful yearning appealing to Duncan.
The tenor's favorite drink is Campari, his favorite poet Gaspara Stampa, whose sonnets are "a 1500s version of the blues." Hopeless passion, notes Duncan, "was still in high style in certain corners of the gay world." His infatuation with this tenor involves rituals of cooking, whimpering restraint, and reveries spiked with scheming. "I had underestimated the depth of the enterprise, the large and moving drama involved." He cannot win the tenor's love—he imagines that to the young tenor he must seem like "some evil old elf," untempting even for a minute. The "high road" becomes in this piece celibacy itself, a Buddhist-style renunciation of passion until it becomes not gone but at least reduced to "a hum," though a "hum that was always in my ears."
Thus begin the two angles on romantic desire worked simultaneously in Ideas of Heaven: romance as a condition of unsatisfied yearning that must be transformed to a tantric discipline versus romance as an ennobling comedy of sexual humiliation, here and there rewarding with love. Oh, the drama of small semantic differences.
The third story (they must be read in sequence), narrated in the now familiar voice of Alice-Duncan, is told by none other than the sixteenth-century poet Gaspara Stampa (author of the tenor's pining lyrics); that her very American-sounding voice will not remind you at all of a sixteenth-century Venetian deters the intrepid Joan Silber not a whit. Gaspara begins her artistic life "full of yearning for an unknown agony." She soon finds the ostensible objective correlative for this craving in a tall, handsome blond named Collaltino di Collalto. "Plenty of first sons were given this kind of repeating name," she informs us defensively.
Gaspara becomes, as Silber would need her to, "sick with attraction," hoping to slake a "sacred thirst." Like Duncan, she is not afraid to suffer openly, and although her pre-modern times won't allow her to resort to heavy breathing into a telephone during anonymous late-night calls (surely she would if she could—as does Duncan), she suffers the piercing, binding, pressing of the heart that honors her model, Petrarch, in his eternally unrealized love for Laura. What Gaspara sings in public iswhat any lover knows: you'll be sorry later, I hope you feel one thousandth of the pain I feel, why are you so cruel...."People liked best the most mournful and complaining of my songs." When her lover at long last returns from war, "I asked how everything had gone in France, and then he began to tell me at length, which was not what I wanted."
The openly American diction and vernacular rhythms restaged in sixteenth-century Venice may seem an old gag, reminiscent of loopy send-ups of Shakespeare, but in this context, which is also earnest and of a piece with the book's synoptic look at desire's mischief and heat, it forms comedic moments that are a delight against the backdrop of the premature death we know is coming in a story titled "Gaspara Stampa (1523–54)."
He got up very early the next day to hunt for boar, and he had me get up with him, to breakfast downstairs before it was fully light. Why a man would come home from war to chase a wild animal with a spear was not something I could understand.... When, of course, things end badly, "we were all smiling, as if love's wreckage were a shared joke, which I suppose it was."
Many of Silber's fictional couples have screaming fights in public places, and Peggy and Tom in "Ashes of Love," the book's fourth story, are among them. They are connected to Gaspara Stampa, too, through Rilke, whose poetry Tom continues to read on and off throughout his life, Rilke invoking Stampa herself as a figure to admire, as she exhausted herself so intriguingly in "objectless love." "I was interested," says Tom, in what is, again, the book's sole narrative voice,in what Rilke said about lovers (he was always citing them as a distinct class of people), because I was one half of a fiercely attached couple.Tom's life with Peggy initially involves a lot of travel—Yugoslavia, Turkey, and finally Thailand, where Silber's motif of Buddhism first presents itself to Tom. After he has returned to the States, has a son with Peggy, and is then abandoned by her for another man, he begins where he left off in Thailand, pursuing serenity in a Buddhist meditation group. "Ashes of Love" follows Tom straight through another marriage up to the faraway death of Peggy. He has never been able to love anyone the way he did her, and his new wife, Mattina, feels Tom's psychic distances, accusing him of using Buddhism (his own noise- and passion-management system) to learn not to feel what he isn't feeling anyway.
All this yuppie Buddhism might be easy for a reader to deride, but the sweet stubbornness with which it is continually inserted in Silber's book wins over even a recalcitrant skeptic. Perhaps religion has always been a kind of hospital. And in this story, too, as in the final one, we feel it as perhaps one of the few decent refuges for the lover whose one great love in life has already occurred, the comings and goings of love, as they are often dramatized by Silber, a complex exchange of one kind of loneliness for another.
The fifth and title story is in some ways the most anomalous and fascinating, if risky and not entirely successful. Narrated in the Alice-Duncan-Gaspara-Tom voice by a Christian missionary's wife in China during the Boxer Rebellion, the narrator is actually killed at the end—a narrative device that sets up an impossible point from which to tell the story, a point seldom seen outside Faulkner or the film Sunset Boulevard, although Susanna Moore relied on it in her novel In the Cut, and others have tried. "Ideas of Heaven" is connected to "Ashes of Love" through the presence of an heirloom Chinese comb sent home to a relative and handed down through generations to Tom's new wife, Mattina. It also has in common with the book's other stories the project of fitting an entire life into a short space and shares with them, too, despite its Victorian time period, a narrator whose loving enjoyment of sex is articulated with elegance and happiness. "He was as much a novice to the act as I was," the missionary's wife says of her new husband,and we rowed through these new waters together.... I saw why a man and wife must never leave one another, having been to these places in each other's company.
"Ideas of Heaven" is connected to the final story, "The Same Ground," through this story's narrator, a Parisian named, interestingly enough, Giles, whose great-great uncle was a Benedictine priest and survivor of the siege of Peking.
It is in this sixth and concluding story, "The Same Ground," that all the book's themes, and all of Silber's skills, come together most orchestrally and touchingly. "The Same Ground" even serves as a kind of curtain call of missing persons from earlier in the book: Andre the trumpet player makes a brief appearance as a now successful musician in Paris; Peggy makes an appearance as an angry American whom Giles once picked up hitchhiking; Alice, from the inaugural story, "My Shape," turns up in a yoga class to become Giles's second wife. Marco Polo, September 11, and race relations all have a poeticized presence here in this already thrice-told tale of grievous romantic loss—loss that haunts and frees and enlarges and scars the now newly spiritualized loser. In another link to China, Giles is married to the North African historian Sylvie, who in seeking permission for research in China is killed in a terrorist bombing on the steps of the Chinese embassy in Paris. Says Sylvie's mourning mother, "The whole world's going to blow up. That's what they want. It's going to be nothing." Says Giles after the shocking mortal consumption of his wife, I was doing my best not to think about anything beyond what to make for supper.... I didn't want to hear about someone else's bloody outrage over some murderous stupidity in the past.... This was an odd state of mind for someone who taught history for a living and went forth every day to explain to sixteen-year-olds why they should care about the Hundred Years War. Once, when the class is discussing the Baader-Meinhof Gang, one of the students says, "I admire the beauty of their convictions and to blow people up is not the worst evil" and then there is a sudden silence. Giles is "the only person in the room who was free of wretched embarrassment."
The loss of Giles's wife is sandwiched between two love affairs. The first, while Giles is still married to Sylvie, is with a goatherdess named Edmée—again, Silber knows no fear. The depictions of Giles as adulterer are gentle and searching. "I was becoming wily and hollow from pretense," he admits to himself. "And no one said anything, so perhaps I was good at it." He feels even years later that perhaps he "could not be at close quarters with a woman I loved without staining myself with lies." When he finally leaves his mistress, it was a terrible, sentimental conversation. Both of our voices broke the whole time. I praised her loveliness and her fineness, and everything I said sounded false, though it was true. We had to stop talking so that words could mean something again in our mouths. He returns to his wife, with desire and devotion, but when she dies, Paris becomes "enraging to walk in."
Giles's second love affair is as a widower, with the aforementioned Alice, who welds this ring of stories by returning at the end as an expatriate yogin, a kind of cheerful—that is, American—Brigitte Bardot, but with "something smudged and sad about her." And yet the dead Sylvie remains forever like an inner skin within Giles. That one life contains many; that these lives overlap and end without being complete; that the soul's quest often runs parallel with the heart's, not meeting; that for better or worse, in sickness and in health, the story of love-addled Romeo and his sexually purposeful Juliet remains one of humanity's truest narratives, imprinted over and over again in our actions and fates; that we are more alike than different in our desires and voices and connected in the largest and smallest and most astonishingly random of ways are a few of the points and opinions that converge by the close of this book and help release its emotion unexpectedly but profoundly.
Everything ends in tears, says this book—as does this book—to the extent that it ends at all, for like life the narrative curls back around and starts over again. Or sort of. Silber's ending is emotionally shattering, despite its tender wisdom and resignation. It is difficult to discern how it manages this powerful effect, except that emotion has been building throughout then carefully set aside for subsequent, artful triggering—an effect I've experienced at the end of only a few other novels, Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs, say, or J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.
A novel-in-stories, Silber's book proves, is not a cheat: done right it is a kind of double major, accomplishing two difficult things simultaneously—singing an aria while building a house. Human existence is not tragic—both these activities proclaim—but it is fragmented, improvisational, dangerous, accidental, maddening, and funny. Despite the tears, it is a roadrunner-and- coyote cartoon of desire and its object. It is a Buddhist comedy of the self attempting to remove the self. The core of life, as Silber demonstrates throughout her work and states explicitly in her very first book, is "tyrannically physical." The mind has a few nifty tricks for forgetting pain, as does the body, while it simultaneously attempts to learn from history, its own and others—if this is at all possible. Is it? Silber swims through and past all of these heavenly ideas, a graceful swimmer on a leisurely swim, though her brisk, radiant prose chops the water like a sprite.