Entertain Me, Move Me, or Die.
By Jon Michaud
For this month's Book Drop, Jon Michaud talks to author Peter Orner about books as projectiles, the use of memory in fiction, and his new collection of essays, Am I Alone Here? from Catapult.
Peter Orner once got so irritated by a novel that he threw it out the window of his car. “I often keep a book under the seat for a long light,” he explains in his newly published collection of essays, Am I Alone Here? (Catapult.) The book in question was Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending. More specifically, it was his mother’s book-club copy. To make matters worse, it was raining at the time. “I’d begun to sense that there was something too cooked-up… about the mystery at the center of the book,” he writes. “I couldn’t take it any more…. I unloaded it.” As he drove away, Orner saw, in his rearview mirror, that a pedestrian plucked the book off the street and stuffed it into the pocket of her raincoat.
I asked Orner if he often turned the books he reads into projectiles. “My god, all the time,” he responded. “As a great Chicagoan once said about politics, reading ain’t beanbag. Entertain me, move me, or die.” This may seem a harsh edict by which to read, but in Orner’s case, it is balanced by a fierce devotion to the “alchemy” of great fiction and the eternal hope that the next book he reads will be “the one book that will save me from myself.”
Am I Alone Here? is a chronicle of that search and, consequently, an examination of the intersection between Orner’s daily life and his reading life. There are meditations on his strained relations with his father, his two marriages, his travels in Africa and Eastern Europe, and his experiences as a new parent. All are filtered through the fine mesh of stories—fictional and autobiographical. It’s the sort of book that, in less capable hands, could be a bore to read. In Orner’s hands, it is a delight. Take, for instance, this passage from an essay titled “Upper Moose Lake, 1990”:
Plot is what goes on in the rest of the world while I’m trying to remember how the light looked under the door from the hall when I was a kid and couldn’t sleep. Plot is the low noise of my parents’ voices as they argue deep into the night. My mother tries in vain to keep my father quiet. The bar of light, my mother’s too loud whispering. My father erupting into a hiss. Let them hear us, let every nosy piece of shit in the entire town hear us. In the dark, I count the sea horses prancing up and down the wallpaper.
That essay is, in part, about re-reading Virginia Woolf’s famously plotless novel, To the Lighthouse. Like Woolf’s novel, the essay is also about the irretrievability of the past. Re-reading, Orner argues, is an opportunity to improve on your initial trip through—to notice things you didn’t notice the first time—but it is also a way of measuring how you, the reader, have changed in the interim. It’s a form of grieving for what’s been lost. “I read the first time around in anticipation of a re-read,” he told me.
Orner, who has twice read at the Center, is the author of four works of fiction: two novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006; a finalist for the Center’s First Novel Prize) and Love and Shame and Love (2010); and two collections of short stories, Esther Stories (2001) and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (2013). One of the hallmarks of his style—in both short and long forms—is compression. The basic unit of his storytelling is often a brief, distilled scene in which a secret is divulged or a submerged emotion released, frequently with ambiguous results for the reader.
A fine example of this is “The Raft,” from Esther Stories, which was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Stories of 2001. In it a boy is summoned to his grandfather’s study to hear “the story he’s never told anybody, again.” The grandfather, who “lost his short-tem memory during the first Eisenhower administration” recounts an event from his service in the Second World War in which he ordered the destruction of a raft carrying a group of naked Japanese sailors. “Men like me made the world safe for men like your father to be cowards,” the grandfather tells the boy. At the end, it becomes clear that the boy has heard this story many, many times and that each time it produces a different feeling in him. I’ve read “The Raft” four or five times now. Every time I read the story, I too, come away with a different reaction. Sometimes I marvel at the young boy’s forbearance in listening to the confession again and again. Other times it is sympathy for the grandfather still haunted by these memories. And after other readings, I despise the older man for what he did. Each time, however, I come away with renewed admiration for the story’s power.
The essays in Am I Alone Here? work in a similar way, often pairing an episode from Orner’s life—some as brief as finding a seat in a fast-food restaurant, or eavesdropping in an Albanian cafe—with a book or story that is somehow connected to it. As the grandfather is the figure that connects many of the Esther Stories, so Orner’s father is the recurring presence in the essays. Perhaps the most moving piece in the collection is “My Father’s Gloves,” in which Orner recalls stealing a pair of Hermès gloves his father had brought back from Paris. The essay is in part about Orner’s inability to turn the memory into a piece of fiction. “Our imaginations sometimes fail us for a reason,” Orner writes. “Not because it is cathartic to tell the truth, but because coming clean may be a better, if smaller, story.”
That may be so, but Orner’s achievement in this book of essays is no smaller than his accomplishments in his fiction. I promise, you will not want to throw this book out the window of your car.
The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud.
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.
You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud