I have now read three volumes of linked stories) by Joan Silber. The first one I read, Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, was nominated for the 2004 National Book Award in the year of the “no-name” women writers resident in New York (it was her fifth book (the first of which, Household Words won the PEN/Hemingway Prize in 2001). Though I admire Lily Tuck’s writing in general and her NBA-winning The News from Paraguay, I think that Silber is an even more impressive writer and that Ideas of Heaven should have won. I also think that Silber’s The Size of the World is even better than Ideas of Heaven.
I am not quite as taken by her latest collection of long stories with discernible connections (but not sufficient ones for anyone to mistake it for a novel), Fools. This collection does not jump as many centuries or as many countries as Ideas of Heaven. The stories are set in New York City, Palm Beach, Florida, Berkeley, California, Paris, and India, ranging from the late 1920s into the 2000s. Two have female narrators, two have male narrators, and two (with male protagonists) are told in the third-person.
As before, I have been impressed by Silber’s ability to create credible male subjectivities, though I think hers are somewhat more focused on love relationships than is typical of males (I could say the same of Jumpha Lariri’s fictions). On the other hand her female narrators’ are quite focused on sex, so perhaps I am overly affected by conventional gender stereotypes of differing male and female foci.
As in the previous two collections I have read, many of the characters (more often than not someone other than the narrator) take strong interests in world religions. This is more often Islam in Fools than in the others, along with Hinduism, and Catholicism. There is less Buddhism here than in Ideas, but still some interest (on the part of white Americans, including Jews in the category “white,” something that occurred over the course of the book’s timespan).
As with Ideas, I was less enamored with the first long story, the title story, in Fools. Its milieu is New York anarchists at the time there was a mass movement to prevent the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Trying to prevent injustice and promote justice make many an idealist seem foolish to practical materialists. The same is true for those on spiritual quests. In some sense, the Catholic convert socialist Dorothy Day was a case of both. She becomes the focus of the story “Fools,” told by Greenwich Village anarchist Vera, who meets her husband at a Sacco/Vanzetti protest.
This husband refuses to register for the draft during World War II and is imprisoned twice. Their daughter Louise tries to go along to get along and to maintain two opinions (pacificism and opposition to fascism conquering the world). “It’s okay to have two opinions,” Vera pointedly comments, “if all you have to do is have an opinion.” Joe had to choose one, and chose pacifism. In “Two Opinions,” Louise, however, pretty much manages to have her cake (a union organizer lover) and eat it too (remain married to a husband teaching in Okinawa and returning to the US for a month at a time, but not even every year).
“Hanging Fruit,” is told be Anthony, the son of one of the Greenwich Village bohemians who hooked up with a speakeasy owner and relocated to Palm Beach, Florida, where they built up a hotel with a fairly elite clienteles. Anthony could not resist the temptation of bedding bored female guests. After his wife finds out and divorces him, he dips into the till and runs away to Paris, where he becomes a drunkard and a street musician (clarinet). His money is ripped off by a Bohemian woman in Paris, Lilliane.
Lilliane reappears as the affluent (through marriage to a Moroccan club owner in Paris) mark for Rudy, whose life was changed from being an investment banker into being a fundraiser for helping lepers in India in “Buying and Selling.” She rationalizes her making off with Anthony’s suitcase full of (stolen) money, because he would have drunk through it, becoming a street person a little later without the Palm Beach hotel money (which Liliane does not know was stolen).
“Going Too Far” is told by Gerard (the son of the cashier of the Palm Beach hotel who was suspected of the embezzling that John did), who sometimes sold drugs, including to get a Noe Valley apartment for his Jewish-born Sufi girlfriend-turned-wife Adinah, who bears a daughter. Adinah’s obsession with spirituality (which IMHO turns into religiosity) irritates Gerard, as Dorothy Day’s increasing involvement with Catholicism annoys the father of her child back in “Fool” on Staten Island. A major irony is that as her legal husband, she cannot go on her pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) without his written permission. (He has become a photojournalist, and Adinah hating hearing his stories about what he witnessed and photographed: “I can’t stand it when people get all hip about how close they can get to evil.”)
In “Better,” told in the third person about a black gay American lawyer Marcus getting over being dumped by Nico, a NYC physician whom he met in a Gandhi museum in India, Marcus is fascinated by a memoir, Nights and Days in the Village, written by one of the character in “Fools,” who is also of help in Paris to the down-and-out Anthony in “Fruit”). “Better” seems slighter, and not just in length, than the other stories. It is one of four that was published standing on its own. “Two Opinions” was also reprinted in the 2012 O. Henry story collection. IMO it and the two not previously published stories – “Hanging Fruit” and “Going Too Far” – are the best (most interesting, most fully realized) ones. The connections back to “Fools” (some through “Hanging Fruit”) are impressive, though I am not completely convinced that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
I am even less convinced that the stories provide evidence for the epigram from William Blake that “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Another one, from Gandhi – “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony” – is a bit exemplified by some female characters, but is shown in these stories to be extremely difficult. (Joe seems to me to have that consistency, but not to be happy.) The answer to the question “Can’t American society do better?” seems obviously affirmative, but those intent on making it better mostly fail and often get distracted (by fame, by the fascinations of exercising power, etc.) Many (not least Gandhi) have visions of a better, more just world, but getting from what is to what should be is even more difficult (also see Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent The Lowland) with refractory human material.
Though the characters in Silber’s fictions have beliefs and projects, both spiritual and secular, I have no idea what Silber herself thinks is achievable. She could not have written what she has without having a keen interest in the phenomenon of religion/spiritualities, but she is an observer (in creating characters) not an advocate of any discernible program for any sort of salvation.