Someone once suggested to me that reading a good book is the ideal outlet for anyone with voyeuristic tendencies.
My cheeks flushed with shame as I thought of my recent Facebook stalking—clicking through photos of high school classmates to see how much weight they’d gained, whom they had married; tracking which friends went from one relationship status to another and with whom; and predicting which friends perhaps wanted to change relationship statuses based on the comments they left on another’s wall. It is exhausting, in a very dull sort of way.
In that moment of shame I decided to channel all of this effort, instead, into reading. And if you, too, are looking to cure your Facebook stalking with some particularly varied characters, ones who open you to the details of their rock bottom experiences and don’t demand you keep them a secret, ones who allow you to carry their wisdom with you like the most intricate, ancient flower pressed into the pages of an old Bible, then Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America is what you’re looking for.
There’s Mack, a trying-to-be recovering alcoholic whose wife left him and took their five-year old son along. For a living he’s a house painter, and a crappy one at that. Olena is a first-generation Eastern European-American learning to survive as an adult after the death of her parents. She misses them, and who she was with them, terribly. And Adrienne (my personal favorite) who accepts the practical marriage proposal of her boyfriend when, at age 35, still unwed and skittish around babies, she falls off a picnic bench while holding her friend’s child, killing the young boy.
These characters have issues.
They also surprise you—with their humor, their grace, their ability to remember and wish and desire, and in the midst of all of the heartache, to choose. And in choosing to continue stumbling forward, they find themselves again. There’s a section of dialogue in one of my favorite stories, called “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” where the mother of a baby with cancer bargains with the make-believe manager of a Marshall Field’s store (this is a different kind of “bargain shopping,” the kind that comes from grief). She pleads for a different way for her child (she’ll take a sixteen-year old in a car crash, “Sixteen is a full life!”). The manager—or the voice in her head, or God, or the universe, however you read it—responds with insight that uncovers the theme of the story and, in my opinion, of this collection of stories:
What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. That is why they do the fateful and amusing things they do: who can say how anything will turn out? Therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovery, and—let’s be frank—fun, fun, fun! There will be things people will get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.
These are the kinds of stories I want to read, the kinds of characters I want to spy on. The ones who do fateful and amusing things, ones who move, however haphazardly, (in fact, the more clumsily the better) toward redemption. I don’t want an album of professional wedding photos or a status telling me only about the perfect cake, the perfect baby, the perfect new house. I want to read a story that echos with my own humanity and points me forward because that’s the only way to get home. One that shows me how to let go because that’s the only way to receive. One that teaches me to die because that’s the only way to live again.
As I said, Adrienne’s journey is my favorite. I saw in her the clumsy me, the withdrawn me, the me that’s unsure how to build intimacy with the ones I want it most with, especially with myself. And so it was from her that I felt I could learn the unsure path through death to new life. “In Terrific Mother,” after causing death, she is learning to live with herself again. Adrienne attempts to escape the scorn of her family and friends, and all of her self-inflicted shame, by traveling to Italy with her new scholar husband to accompany him on an academic retreat. Instead of finding herself in her painting (that was the plan), she loses herself in the healing hands of a masseuse. She returns several times each week, and after one particular massage, Adrienne walks through a meadow, strips down naked and lies in the grass. There, “A shadow fell across her, inside her, and she could feel herself retreat to that place in her bones where death was and you greeted it like an acquaintance in a room; you said hello and were then ready for whatever was next—which might be a guide, the guide that might be sent to you, the guide to lead you back out into your life again.”
In knowing Adrienne, and in knowing all of these characters, we understand that allowing death into our lives won’t kill us. In fact, sometimes it helps us to live. And we learn a deeper graciousness, a kind of compassion for others that invites us to look beyond the murky surface of their lives and into the complex and beautiful ecosystem of survival and balance just below.
You won’t find this stuff on Facebook.
I am a voyeur to the core. Keep your house lit at night and I will peer in to see how you spend your time alone, or what colors you’ve painted your walls. Invite me in and I will pick through your bookshelves and look at all of your family photos on the mantle while you make me a drink. Ask me to stay and I will rummage through your things for what you’ve been hiding in those closets of yours. Write me a book with characters who are so real and precisely drawn that I can feel their warmth in the seat next to me, and I will sign out of Facebook and devour it.