The Short Version: A building in Chicago, a young woman who lost part of her leg, a bickering couple, and an industrious bee are just some of the major players in a panoramic story of life – the lives most people lead, of quiet desperation.
The Review: So it took me a while to get to this book. Partially because, yes, the price tag is a bit intimidating – but it’s also worth it, in the end. I was lucky enough to score a copy as a gift and so then what it came down to is the intimidating (yes, that’s the right word) scope of the project. You open the box and there are fourteen pieces, differently sized and shaped and made of differing materials, that make up this story and there’s no real guide as to where to begin or end or how to approach the book in general.
Also, let’s just get one thing straight right off the bat: this is a book. I argued extensively for that line of reasoning over at this year’s Tournament of Books before I’d even read the bloody thing and I’m pleased to see that I wasn’t just talking out my ass. It might not look like any book you’ve ever encountered but it is most decidedly still a book.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes: it’s a somewhat intimidating work. But I opted to sit down with it today and I found myself immediately engrossed. I had considered finding a reading order online, in order to get the “best possible experience” but I tossed that idea aside. In fact, I won’t even tell you what MY reading order was because really part of the fun is creating it yourself. I mean, there are over 87 billion possible ways to read the story. Seriously – 14! (14 factorial, for those lacking in maths) ways to read the story: hypothetically, everyone who reads it could read it differently. Wouldn’t THAT be something?
The story itself is not for the faint of heart. If you are feeling even the slightest bit depressed, consider reading this at another time. If you are spectacularly happy, be prepared to come back down to earth a bit. If you are right there, smack in the middle just living your life… probably the ideal moment. See, Ware’s story – the interlocking, interweaving stories-in-stereo threads – is very much about ordinary people. Our unnamed ‘heroine’ (or at least main-ish character) is different, yes: she’s missing part of her leg due to a boat accident when she was a girl, but she’s an altogether ordinary person otherwise. She worries about herself, her parents, her family, the world, money, food, lifestyle choices, weight, real estate, impressions, etc. So do all of these characters, even our delightful friend Branford the Bee. And so the story isn’t so much a story as it is a painting, vivid and rich, of life as we know it. The building tells its own story and only furthers (what I took to be) the meaning of the book overall: that even as things change, the fundamentals of who we are do not.
There’s a curious moment, the briefest of interludes, where Ware jumps into the future and we see two characters discussing how one picked up a memory from that place while the other is concerned about trying to find someone to sleep with. It’s one of those “the more things seem to change…” moments and while it’s a bit jarring in the context of the rest of the story, I can see why it was included. People have mentioned that the Branford stuff is jarring as well but I think both of the Branford pieces (which are later connected into the rest of the story quite inventively) bring some levity to the proceedings as well as a little bit of comfort: we aren’t alone in this, we humans. Other creatures too might deal with (in their own special ways) the same problems that plague us on a daily basis. It’s a small comfort but tis one nonetheless.
As we bounce around the timeline of our unnamed woman’s life, it’s quite something to see how fragile a psyche can be – even when we know how things will turn out. I stumbled across a moment about halfway through my reading that seemed to be the furthest-out point for her story – the farthest into the future – and even as I knew that ‘ending’, I still found myself on the edge of my seat thinking about her decisions and their ramifications. Happiness, unhappiness – it’s a knife’s edge between the two and it can be impossibly difficult to keep up appearances sometimes, as many people know. Ware gets his cake and eats it too, here: he shows us the young woman in her 20s trying to figure things out and sort of making a mess of it (as are we all) – but then he also gives us that image of the middle-aged adults trying to sort out the bills, with a kid playing on the floor. That’s an image that will never lose its potency because it speaks so directly to each and every one of us. Even the super rich can relate, because to them it is a nightmare – while for the rest of us, it’s simply a reality.
I read an interview with Ware where he mentioned some of the inspirations / predecessors to this project and one thing that he mentioned – although he said he steered clear of reading it – was Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Long-time readers (and my BookClub members) will know that I really rather disliked that book and its pretentious attempts to capture everyday life. I suppose I could see how one could argue that Ware’s project here is even more pretentious – it’s not just a novel, it’s a whole collection of “easily misplaced objects”. But Ware manages so deftly to do what Perec was (for me) unable to accomplish and that is to do something as deceptively simple as show life. Yes, the package is a bit ooh-and-ahh… but really, it’s the content that matters.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I was moved to actual tears several times over the course of reading this book – and I laughed out loud several times, too. I cannot think of another book that so accurately captures the mundane daily struggles that make up the majority of most of our lives, especially the reminder that we all doubt ourselves and sometimes just have to sit on the couch and lose a day because we just can’t get up. I don’t think the term “depression” is used once throughout but that’s because that term has come to imply something more potent than what Ware is presenting. He is, simply, showing us our daily quiet desperation – that yearning that makes us all human, that feeling that we could have/do/be more but that we simply won’t. And my god, is it a beautiful construction.