I've been thinking for a long time I'd like to do more talking about books around here, as well as talking about the book industry. I have the perfect place to start this week, as my buddy Steve at W. W. Norton asked if I would write about one of the best novels I've read recently. Below is what I sent to him -- perhaps less a review than a love letter for one of my very favorite contemporary authors. The Size of the World goes on sale today, and you can see Joan Silber reading at McNally Robinson on June 17.
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THE SIZE OF THE WORLD
By Joan Silber
(W. W. Norton, June 2008, $23.95 hardcover)
I honestly think Joan Silber is one of the most under-rated writers in America (even after her National Book Award finalist nod). Perhaps her voice is both too calm and too ambitious for critics accustomed to histrionic Great (Male) Novelists… but don’t quote me on that. To tell not just one life story, but over half a dozen, in first-person voices both precisely distinct and universally reflective on their own intense feelings and experiences after the fact – that’s an amazingly ambitious project. And then to call each story into question through the others, while leaving no doubt as to their essential truth, and to open up big, scary vistas onto a global landscape through these small lives – that’s almost cocky.
The Size of the World, like Silber’s previous work Ideas of Heaven, is created in the genre that seems most like life to me, and yet the most artful: a set of stories that link into each other through character and incident, as interconnected as our inescapably global world. The narrators often don’t know one another, but they are connected through a dozen chains of commerce, romance, family blood, or war, from Florida to Vietnam to Thailand to Mexico to New Jersey.
But this doesn’t get at why this book is so compelling. When Joan Silber tells a story, it proceeds with the pace and logic of life. One might notice a lizard on the wall, be introduced to a friend of a friend, sit down for dinner in the middle of a rainstorm – and then realize that in one of those moments one has fallen in love and life has totally changed. You read on breathlessly to find out which of these moments will change the flow of the story and catapult you into some entirely new life – a move across continents, a new passion – and it takes some doing to realize that our own lives are exactly this dramatic and tender, in the long view – and even more, to realize that our lives are connected so fiercely to each other, and to this broken and tangled world.
This is one of those books that stays with you like a sweet taste in the mouth, like a new idea you keep turning over to inspect its angles. The title’s allusion to our newly small, newly vast world is teased out through specifics: emails to Thai Muslims affecting an Italian in New Jersey because of the actions of Arabs in New York, and further back because of ties of family cemented in the last days of Fascist Italy, and a conscience discovered in an American engineering lab in Vietnam, and a legacy from the days of colonialist tin mining in Thailand. It’s mind-boggling, and as familiar as the shape of our own days.
Joan Silber is my hero, because she dares to see – and is able to so quietly, powerfully express – how big an ordinary life is, and to imagine therefore the vastness of all our lives touching each other. And because at the end of reading a story or a book or hers I always have to just sit, quietly, and let all of those moments wash over me, and trace the organic connections and patterns as they crystallize into beauty and truth.