The Illusion of Separateness

van booy

The Short Version: A series of connected vignettes, telling the story of several interconnected lives from World War II to the present – but the connections are unknown, cosmic in their perfection and their quiet beauty.

The Review: For such a slender volume, this book is heavy with beauty.  It’s basically 200 pages and is over before you know it – but the whole thing feels so rich, like a branch hanging with not only fruit but dew and sunbeams.

To be honest, it’s a little overwhelming at times.  At the beginning, I was reluctant to be caught by the spell – it all felt a little too precious.  I wouldn’t say that I was bored or disinterested, but rather that I felt I’d seen this before.  The opening chapter, featuring a janitor at an old age home named Martin, was well-written and rocked gently like the motion of a ship resting in a bay… but it didn’t strike me as anything new or different.  But when I hit the second chapter, the first told from Mr. Hugo’s perspective – the man who’d just died in Martin’s arms (not a spoiler, it happens within the first ten-ish pages) – I was somewhat more intrigued.  And as the story went on, I found myself admittedly rather engaged: I wanted to piece together the connections, figure out how these folks were all related to one another.

It’s become a bit of a trend, of late, to write stories like this.  Some are more short-story driven, like Jennifer Egan’s oft-cited (and with good reason) A Visit From The Goon Squad, and some are more directly connected, like this – but the trend of connecting stories told over generations feels like the literary trend that no one is talking about right now.  Or has it already passed into our collective consciousness, so that we don’t NEED to talk about it?  I don’t know.  Either way, it’s worth noting that the trend exists and that, when done well, it provides a distinct kind of neurological pleasure – the sensation of putting it together feels, to me, like a burst of cool rain on a spring day inside my head.  It’s immensely satisfying.

But Van Booy’s writing, as gorgeous as it is, can be difficult – perhaps because it’s so beautiful.  I was almost irritated by it, wondering how much effort had gone into making these phrases spin just so.  There is, to my eye, a difference between a beautifully crafted phrase and an organically crafted one – the two are not mutually exclusive, certainly not, but when there’s so much in the way of the former, you have to wonder how many are also the latter.  I’m not saying it’s impossible; I’m just saying that I’m predisposed to doubt.

This having been said: it shouldn’t be difficult to find that sentence or phrase that opens it up for you and lets the rest of the book’s beauty just wash over you without caring.  Took me several chapters but when I hit upon “The coat check line is long enough to fall in love with the person behind you”, I swooned.  Perhaps because that line, the clear simple truth of it, spoke directly to me: I’ve been at those parties at MoMA and I’ve fallen in love with the girl standing behind me in line.  It happens – and the beauty of seeing something you’ve experienced but never really formed beyond fleeting thought put into words is a lovely sensation.

The story itself is modest and predictable – I figured out most of the connections well before they were revealed, although I admit that the twist regarding a certain face injury was pleasantly not what I’d originally thought – and, being that it’s somewhat based in truth, I can’t say I’m entirely opposed to its predictability.  It doesn’t feel much more impactful, though, than those same cool spring showers – it is here and then gone in almost the same instant.  Does that affect the way I’m going to consider this book in the future?  Almost undoubtedly – no matter how beautiful it seemed in this present moment, I can’t exactly see myself recalling in a flash “oh, yes, the marvelous thing that Van Booy did regarding the young blind girl [my favorite character, by the way] and the connections with…” and so on.  Now having said that, I’m sure that I will do just that at some point – but I think my meaning is clear.  It is beautiful and fragile and as a result will end up sitting on my shelf like a figurine.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  It’s a lovely story and the writing, if you can get past the sometimes artificial-feeling beauty (although I do want to now read more of Van Booy’s work and see if he really is just that good – like I said, I’m predisposed to doubt… but open to being proved wrong), is exquisite.  I do not see it being anything profoundly memorable – but it was a pleasant diversion alongside a mug of tea on this rainy grey morning.

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