In My Other Life: Stories
Sarabande Books, $21.95 (cloth), $13.95 (paper)
Bad news, in Joan Silber’s stories, doesn’t burst into people’s lives. There are no cancer diagnoses, no knives in dark alleys, no fatal car wrecks. The one gun that makes an appearance is never aimed in anger, much less fired. Silber’s bad news is life itself: that it goes on unpunctuated, for the most part, by drama, and that most of us outlive our youthful dreams.
Running out of second chances—or the luck and energy to grasp them—has been a reliable theme in American literature ever since Gatsby lost Daisy. But later writers—especially members of the mid-century, Ann Beattie generation—have scaled it down, and substituted passive acceptance for what in another age would have played out as tragedy. Call it depressive fiction.
Silber belongs to this generation, and her characters, mostly female and in their forties, have slunk away from the party of the 1960s and ’70s. They’ve gone from marginally illicit—bohemian affairs and petty drug deals—to nominally respectable; they’ve wound up clean, sober, divorced, and disappointed. They’ve put wilder days and ways behind them, but they glance over their shoulders with regret, even as they resign themselves to the here and now. They might be quiet castaways from Robert Stone’s fiction.
In "Lake Natasink," Patty works as an office manager at a New York drug treatment center; she’s preparing to move upstate with her partner, Charlotte, and their adopted baby, an uneasily happy family. She’ll be leaving behind her old friend Jack, a recovering addict, a souvenir of the past. When they were younger:
he liked to dare her to do things; he would goad or mock or coax or lure her if she tried to turn back. It was exciting—you never knew what you would end up doing if you were with Jack. Some things she would rather forget, some things she remembers with amazement and probably pride. They were the most she would do, the furthest she would go. At the time she was grateful to Jack.
Now Patty’s not sure she even has the guts to risk country life. She will, though. She "wants, among other things, to be able to see farther than she has. She is sorry sometimes (when she’s in the mood to be sorry) that she used up so many years in smallness, in narrow satisfactions and narrow complaints."
But the narrow satisfactions and complaints wait for her upstate, too, as she discovers in another story, "Ordinary," which follows her little family’s removal to the country. Most of these stories don’t overtly link to one another. But they do share remarkable similarities of tone and outlook—subdued, shot through with a resignation that indicates emotional exhaustion—as Silber tries out different versions of the same basic narrative. Her characters cling to first person, present tense, gesturing toward their acceptance that they’re stuck in the lives they happen to be living.
Rickie in "Comforts" wonders how she managed as a teenage single mother; now she manufactures small dramas, befriending and then pointlessly alienating a young clerk at the video store she manages. In "The Dollar in Italy," Jill, an American living in Rome, puts up her ex-husband for a few days; he’s come to visit their daughter, Lisa. An outing almost results in tragedy, bringing back memories of how as young parents they inadvertently set their New York loft on fire:
They remember how much they wanted to get away from each other, how different they believed their trouble was to each of them, and how they couldn’t wait to have it to themselves. Now they stand at the side of the road and nod at one another; they speak to Lisa until she calms down; they know each other so much better now.
Not that it does them much good; they’re not about to reconcile.
Jill and her ex are as happy a couple as you’ll find here—and they’re divorced. The words of the narrator in "Covered" could apply to almost any of these couples: "I knew nothing good was waiting for me at home." In "First Marriage," a 48-year-old painter tells how she married Terry, an artist twenty years her senior, because he needed a green card and she wanted a lark: "I was saving up phrases for the story of it, to tell people like my second husband." A second husband she’ll never have—who knew that a casual act could turn into a lifetime sentence?
It was the evenings, after dinner, when Terry told the same unbearable stories over again, that made me feel sorry for myself. The time he climbed Mount Snowdon in the rain, what the actress said to him at his first opening. I never hated Terry, for all that we held against each other, but we were never whole-hearted as a couple, and it weighed on me now that I had missed that.
She works up the nerve to clear out: "After all these years, my erroneous, inadvertent life was about to turn into a clean slate, a blank page: start here." Then Terry has a bad fall; the trap’s sprung:
I should have paid attention, I shouldn’t have been so easy about everything; I might have had a more honest life. I have to know that, at the same time that I don’t now imagine ever leaving this husband or this house. Not anymore: a fact is a fact. At the art school where I teach, everyone tells me how calm I am these days.
Don’t be deceived; this is a barren clarity masquerading as hard-won wisdom. "This isn’t the easiest or the softest or the best part of my life, but the simplest things are clearer to me now." Meaning what, exactly? She doesn’t feel pulled to the easel, or into a deeper love for her husband; she’s not more alive than she was before, just sadder. "I felt like someone talking … across a great divide," says one narrator. To hear Joan Silber tell it, only distance—from one’s younger self, from illusions, from other people, from what might have been—marks our growth.